A Poem For Martyrs’ Day
The first vowel of pain
pierces the night, O!
We recoil in our nightmares,
hearing a man scream like sheep
under a merciless knife.
The cry coils about the midnight
pitch darkness, out of Chingwe’s
Hole and Mikuyu Prison Farm.
It strikes our hearts like a Black
Mamba crested with a deadly moon,
a rainbow of blood draped over
the bowed moon’s hidden arrow.
The hills are aflame with dirges,
the valleys sob silently, afraid
of Special Branch ears—
The shock waves spread like
hot butter on this stale land.
The psalms raise the alms in the burnt
incense of dark human flesh
in the dawn of Palm Sunday.
Martyrs’ Day: All quiet—the night’s
Murder well hushed. All quiet.
Darkness chained me to my tattered reed mat
The hand of tyranny sprinkled
The soot of ignorance in my eyes, and sleep
Hammered my head with slogans
Then a nightmare stumbled on my sprawled life
Tripped on the alarm of my heart
And set me singing a healing song.
With song I bandage my ravaged land
With the thread of song I sew the chopped heads
Back on the shoulders of the plucked flowers.
I plug the neck gush with a war chant
With a sharp spear whose tongue sings
I rip the veil of darkness from our land
And the nightmare flees my secret light.
September 18, 1984
Your hammer prints its arc on the face
of the sky when you swing
A thousand birds in your rock hammer
suck the moist sky and sing an intense
song swollen like a wounded heart.
Your ten pound hammer plucks the sun
which you hammer till it showers its southern
warmth all over the earth.
Under your hammerblows we shed the blinding
fish scales and see the rivers in the rainbow
the rainbows and whirlwinds in a teardrop:
You beat the sweat into a jewel,
the broken chain link into a diamond
rare as the sea star and hammer
the diamond into a rainbow whose
translucent crystal hangs down your furrowed face:
The ring of John Henry’s hammer in your mouth
And its dazzling rainbow in your eyes
Your hammerblow cracks and wounds the rock
Pure water jets out of it: you are the sun
That pierces the dewdrop: your rainbow hugs your land:
When you talk into the steel, the steel sings;
When you speak into the rock, the rock cries out
And the restless water in your mouth hums,
Rears like the Mississippi, thunders like the wild Atlantic.
When you look into the iron, the iron flares
into the embittered cane singing in the wind:
Your arms are railroad tracks that embrace
the land you know like a lover’s body
whose sap drums through your veins
its pulse and your hammerblows singing through your blood.
Yes, you will die with your talking hammer in your hand.
—for Sterling A. Brown, on your birthday
—Frank Chipasula is Zambian. He is the author of Visions and Reflections, Night Watcher, Nightsong (Paul Green 1986), and editor of When My Brothers Come Home: Poems from Central and Southern Africa (Weslyan University Press 1985). He is currently Assistant Professor of English at St. Olaf’s College and working on an anthology of African women poets called Mother Tongue.