A Sequence by Timothy Ogene

Born and raised in Nigeria, Timothy Ogene has since lived in Liberia, the US, Germany, and the UK. He holds degrees from St Edward’s and Oxford Universities. His first collection, Descent & Other Poems, appeared this year from Deerbrook Editions.

This poetry sequence first appeared in Issue Sixteen of Tincture Journal. Please support our quest to pay the writers by buying a copy.

Every work of this kind is necessarily a cry of anguish—of the root extending its branch of coral, or corals extending their roots into each living hour; the swell of the silent sea, the great heaving dream at its highest, the thunder of splitting pods—the tears scatter, take root, the cotyledons broken, burgeons into laughter of leaf; or else rot into vital hidden roles in the nitrogen cycle. The present dream clamoured to be born a cadenced cry: silence to appease the fever of flight beyond the iron gate.

—Christopher Okigbo, from the introduction to Labyrinths and Path of Thunder

On chance occasions—

and others have observed this—you can see the wind,

as it moves, barely a separate thing,

the inner wall, the cell, of an hourglass, humming

vortices, bright particles in dissolution,

a roiling plug of sand picked up

as a small dancing funnel. It is how

the purest apprehension might appear

to take a corporeal shape.

—Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love, No. IX

1

Sometimes, not sure what to say,

I sag my lungs, my vocal chords,

I count the bubbles on my tongue.

There’re words that thrust, roll themselves,

like tines of quick snakes;

those words I’ve heard, hauled,

held dear as joeys

in a pouch.

But this day, frail, I let them drop,

hit the ground. I hear them raising dust

as they race the streets

of this cold void.

2

I prefer silences and sighs,

have been made to prefer both;

for this caprice, what to say, where to start,

ensures a crash of the lungs,

of my vocal chords.

The flesh is avuncular, cut from the same sheet.

The fate of speech, spiced

or lacklustre, ends

with a putrid dash on granite floors.

If this then is hell, the worst of your youth,

this lash, unease,

why ask for rum

when you can run through woes

with your tongue?

3

What then are these?

The first chants of death,

of tumbleweed from sea, in haste

to replace sweet lawns

in suburbia? You would know,

bystander. You know more

than they know. So speak, it’s your birthday.

But by all means do as you please,

sail south, if you wish,

for at your age

you’ve seen songbirds die,

the sea lose itself, its sense of size.

Should it then be me, the perennial child,

that tells you what to do?

I’ve read your twittered pain,

a finger raised and wagged

at our mutual foe,

but our roads fork at night,

you repose on years of calm,

I await a sign,

and wish a tree would stretch its boughs,

hold me out

as libation to a cold night.

We’ve not picked our place.

Our beds came made. We lie,

and in sleep are once again the same, recliners

on a wall of blood, relying

on the grace, the generosity

of the world outside.

4

If these are the grave calls

of your youth, these signs, this song

of life in recess, it strikes me as odd

that you’ve picked to break bread

at midnight, when the bugle’s third call

marks the hunter’s march.

Sometimes, not sure what to say,

I collapse my lungs, my vocal chords,

I count the bubbles on my tongue.

5

I’d like to think I’m strong, full of life,

but it’s nature’s law

that fingers made of flesh, gentle bones,

are not for squeezing steel.

But the host thinks otherwise.

A steel, as I speak, is served for lunch,

and I’ve washed my hands

as the times demand, shoulders squared,

as the times demand,

before me a rod disguised

as grilled asparagus.

And you, co-primate,

what’s for lunch, a healthy meal?

You are free to stay still,

for speech made could crash down on you

when history does its endless loop,

and returns to where we are,

and I, the perennial child,

assume your place,

a bystander.

6

“There are silences,”

but I know a different kind

of silence, not the non-speak

of cluelessness, but as seen

in the ether, much learning,

the consumption of fire.

Erase silence.

Fill this void with a sigh;

and there, a sigh, my intended word,

confused as its obtuse kin, silence,

unrequited grain of despair,

or that which crosses out

the bromide of speech, that sees

the filial stance of speech

as too scant for the core of pain,

hence a private sigh.

How the leaves rustled,

the hypos of our time tamed

by that strophe, that sigh, unrevised despair,

bare as the outer shells of a cave,

the breath of Hill, whose sigh,

absence of speech, has just begun

its fertile fight against

the colossus of decay.

7

Of silences as sighs, or speech itself,

we omit the ambrosials of thrush

and lark, art for art’s sake,

as the fainthearted has appeared again,

cloaked in embers of luxuriant verse,

the curtain-length of rare roses,

chorusing but of strange choirs

away from where the dead,

mourned, enjoy the dirge of silence,

the gut-high sigh of the grey-haired kin,

the preacher’s measured speech,

the final strike of the gravedigger’s tool.

8

“Sequences of pain.”

It’s Turkey today,

after a madman overdrove his truck

in Nice.

“I speak in contained silence”,

since my tea cup, half full,

has tipped again, poor thing,

its heat on my lap.

These “sequences of pain”,

some as remote/private sighs,

others as raucous summer geese

out for a tan, the woes of winter gone.

If these are the pastimes of my youth,

lord, please, take my Twitter away,

depot me to the subzeros

of the heydays of drumlins; now, drum roll,

and I speak in confidence;

I wish it was a massive dream,

this grime that “makes a color darker”,

this drought upon the earth,

this swarm of locusts

clearing the last leaf of green;

I wish it was a dream. This plague,

the horror, God’s tongue

against my kind.

But I maintain my place, a good Christian lad,

as you’ve done in your time?

Recall the mass death of elms,

the horrid scar it left on earth’s bare scalp,

the plague, the great Black Death,

“sequences of pain”.

But knowledge is in vain

if hauled out the door,

and I compete not with your kind of pain,

contextualised, ranked

above a chokehold

in New York.

9

With the dead I gain perspective,

in Forest Hills, where a green pond

silences the spheres of breath,

the gun-cock clank

of the huntsman.

I gain perspective here, this fit of private sigh,

fading surnames etched on white slabs,

the silent black mulch

that props a blooming plant.

I gain perspective, in this reluctance to prance

outside, to play by the refereed rules

of foreign speech, the alien lust to engage

when a sigh will suffice.

10

A reluctance to prance outside,

this time in New York,

a summer show of warmth, a handshake

beyond the normal grip;

we loaned the West our tropical sun,

I guess a new phrase for climate change.

But now, roomed at last,

I indulge a sigh, a whitewashed wall,

a white couch, the sheet is white,

no space for two affairs,

I am not alone, I indulge a sigh;

now start with the bedside stand;

I do as I’m told, and see his face,

on a library pass,

next to a lone pill ceiled, an open note:

“Ralph Ellison is buried outside

where his pores ooze a daily sigh

into the Hudson River,

and those who know,

who’ve raised their ears

to hear the strike of timeless breath,

the song of kin-starved souls

dragged through dirt roads

to plough the world of feral trees,

stroke the mane of sex-starved beasts;

those who know,

whose ears are trained to hear

that strike of timeless sigh,

will themselves heave a note of despair,

and I too, holding out a note,

join my lungs to that clan of sighs;

my heave is a pinch of grist,

white as this room, as this wall, enough

for a new affair

with this strand of thought,

a piece of shield

against the news.

11

A brother at a coffeehouse

in Manhattan,

where coffees come with class,

but I am what I am,

tasselled in melanin, add to that

a taste of Chaucer,

and I’ve had Hill

and Hölderlin, chugged down

a thousand years of Anglo ale,

and elsewhere, in Oxford,

the spires retain the breath of ghosts,

the meadows release the muffled sighs

of silent cows; I know what I am:

an itch,

a sweet spot rubbed

with the fresh thumb

of remorse. “A loss to your clan,

you are”, a recurrent speech

on both sides of the sea,

and these New York trains, they judge

the nape of my neck,

a noose would suffice,

but I’ve been tossed a chance

to stay away from tea, tête-à-tête,

to rise and send a nod to him,

to hell with decorum;

my unease is a clue

that I know, as the slogan goes,

the worthlessness

of my life.

12

A fun fact du jour,

I know where they are, over there,

names etched on dead tree trunks.

And you, I know where you are,

the shades of old trees, no streak of angst,

no need to face a teacup storm,

“a high time to trudge on”,

your pricked soul quips, into a cluttered void.

A fun fact du jour,

a cabin of curiosities, your maroon, my sepia,

and the preacher’s peach is ripe

for the picking,

though I wonder what will spill

at harvest time,

the white in pink jars,

or the brown we got for free

in Mexico.

13

I am at the Whitney today,

and the kites of New York have come to feast,

nearby, I see them

as they truly are, yonder,

eyes of blood, tender tongues that put

proboscis to shame; yonder still,

Liberty holds out a hand, beleaguered,

“Come unto me, all ye that labour

and are heavy laden,

and I will give you rest.”

Kites feast on new prey,

the laboured and heavy ladened.

The newsman hovers somewhere,

rigging blatant algorithms,

the sautéed cry of the newcomer,

of the sea-whipped child growing old

as each beak, each tender tongue,

digs through its side.

Now “come unto me, all ye that labour

and are heavy laden,

and I will give you rest”.

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