The Old Year in Poetry | Umar Farouk Sesay

The old year’s gone away to nothingness and night, but the talk of yesterday are things identified, writes poet John Clare. For Umar Farouk Sesay, 2014 was an eventful year and one of the highlights has to be the Medellín International Poetry Festival. 

If, like me, you've never heard of the event, here's how Cultures of Resistance dot org, a website that promotes activists and artists who seek a peaceful, just, and democratic world, describes it:

Medellín, Colombia, a city once notorious for being the epicenter of the cocaine trade, is reinventing itself as a global center for the living word. The Medellín International Poetry Festival was founded in 1991, when the streets of Medellín were at their most precarious. Organizers envisioned the Poetry Festival as a form of cultural resistance--a venue for cultivating peace and a protest against injustice and terrorism, including state terrorism. Over the past 20 years the festival has established itself as the largest of its kind in the world. Since its inception nearly 1,000 poets from 159 nations have come to Colombia, where more than 1,200 poetry readings have been held in 32 cities across the country. The festival was one of the recipients of the 2006 Right Livelihood Award, widely known as "The Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.”

Sesay published his first volume of poems, Salute to the Remains of a Peasant in 2007 in America. His work has also been published in many anthologies of Sierra Leonean poets, including Lice in the Lion's Mane, Songs That Pour the Heart and Kalashnikov in the Sun. He was resident playwright of Bai Bureh Theatre in the '80s. In 2009, he was Cadbury Visiting Fellow at the Centre for West African Studies in the University of Birmingham. Currently, he is working in the private sector and was recently appointed by President Ernest Bai Koroma as chairman of Sierra Leone's new Board of the National Youth Commission. His first novel Portrait on a Rock will soon be published. 

Below are Umar's readings at the 24th annual Medellín International Poetry Festival, reprinted with the permission of the poet.

When the inherent insanity of war was unleashed in my country Sierra Leone in 1991, it took away so many things along its path; lives, limbs, properties, integrity, neighborhoods and neighborliness. It stripped the beacons of values and maimed the language rendering it inept in appropriating the enormity of war. It seemed the language was paralyzed by the grotesque; the syntax, semantics, morphology and metaphors develop centuries ago lack the capacity to accommodate the new ugliness. The numbing of the soul took its toll; the victims of our war were stunned, unable to speak the unspeakable. They hoisted a look of hollowness on their faces that told a tale of doom. The language was broken; words that were used to console sounded hollow and mean. The task to reconstruction the broken language was ceded to the poets. Poets gathered the broken pieces to tell the story of the deluge. The telling heals; it avenges the ingrained tragedy of the initial hurt hence the flourishing of poetry in Sierra Leone immediately after the deluge. Poetry recital became healing places a kind of hallowed ground of humanity, a path way to remembering and forging a return to our commonality.

 In times of carnage of an epic proportion such as the one we witnessed in Sierra Leone in 1991 -2011 the very notion of survival and existence might have made it almost impossible for people to believe that poets have a place in restoring their dignity; in helping to heal wounds. Yet, central to people's idea of life, is that, the poet, in Sierra Leone, and elsewhere, could look at the eyes of those who had suffered, those who had ceased to believe in a compassionate God, and remind them that, yes, poetry can heal the wounds inflicted upon them.

Poetry, in much of West Africa, takes its wealth and beauty from the oral celebration, in our relations to each other; to our mystic world; of an African sense of aesthetics. Throughout our history, as we battled natural phenomena, as we celebrated our great inventions in art, technology like iron, we did so with poetry. Our poetry was, and is a statement about our resilience to problems and tragedies, domestically and externally inflicted on us.

Poet as conscience of nation played their part in collaboration with others in gathering and piecing together the broken pieces to make a nation whole again. As the poet Mohamed Gibril Sesay suggests in his forward to his anthology of Sierra Leonean poems; “we pillared the broken language with metaphor to tell the story of the deluge”.
Chinua Achebe tells us that heroes and heroines are great, but it is the story that is greater, for it is the story that lasts; it is the narrative that carries the seeds of the human will to immortality.

Poets are shapers of those stories, investing them with humanity in the way they tell them, that they become sources of healing. The telling heals; it avenges the ingrained tragedy of the initial hurt.

Poetry has the resilience to want to live even after the deluge. That is it, then, the wanting to continue through the narrative, through the word, the word is mightier than the event it talks about, the word is more resilient, and poetry gives these words a sort of ‘Higgs’ phenomena, for like the Higgs particle, or the ‘God Particle’ that gives some sort of stability and form to material existence, making possible the existence of existence, poetry gives humanity to experiences, it is that which is stable in the retelling, it is that which gives form; beauty, insights, grace, compassion, unto the manifold happenings of the human journey.

Machete wielding renegade
Of rust
Crouched on a cocaine deformed mind
Disenfranchising limbs on a stump
Stuttering a demented mantra
In a drawl: let’s see how you can vote
With short sleeves on both hands

  Pyramidic muscles lifting machete sky high
 Descending on the stump
 Limbs flying like fragments
Fountain of blood sprouting
Wonting the tree stump to grow
 Bearing witness to insatiable insanity
 Pain surging through pores insulating rage
 Numbing senses

The spirit of souls yelling
 Decapitated hands wriggling
The graving for death, gnawing
 Every inch of nerve throbbing
Limbs scarred for democracy

 Democracy came with ink of my blood
Writing rights on fingers
 Limbs on table like limbs on the road side stump
Waiting for the ink to out scar scars
Democrat raises his head
Looking for a finger nail
Stuttering a scripted mantra;
But you need an indelible ink
On a nail and a nail on a finger
And a finger on a limb to vote”
“I loss them to a renegade of rust
On a road side stump
I muttered
Yet the democrats disenfranchise me again
 For democratic fingers
Stumped to a stump on a roadside stump

The stone I wrote a poem from
Was gorged from the core of the earth
Rolled down the hill to the roadside
Away from the boulders
 Holding the hills of Leicester
From spewing rage on men
Disembowelling earth

Leaving bleeding sores on the core
Crevices clutching tales of time
Lacerate the rock like wrinkles
Laying bear stories buried in earth’s crust

The stone bears wounds left by stone breakers
As they butchered the stones
Like cadaver poet looking for metaphors

It tells the tale of the withering hill
Eroded away to the gullies below
And the lumbering of trees
Exposing the hill to the lashing of time

Time chirps away bits of the stone
Changing history at every stroke
Until a stroke brought men of voids
Striking rocks with fire for bread 

The stone Lie on the roadside waiting
For ears to hear her poetry of pain
 Musing in the abyss of time
When man and nature entwine
No machine lumbered away logs
Or stones gorged and rolled

On the roadside
For a landscape in the throes of death

The mute poet muttered verses of doom
To morticians of gloom
 Stuttering a poem of doom
 The stone beckons to me-a panting poet
Passing a bald forest
“Remember the charlotte landslide
Behind the hills of Leicester
 Whispering to me a tired poet chasing a muse
 Listening to the mute stone muttering
A subterranean poem for the deaf
As I contemplate a poem on the poetry stone

I see my poem in your poem
Dangling in gaps of metaphors
Tiptoeing to scold fleeing images
My verses in the shadow of your verse
Stanzas standing in the starkness of words
Stocking the birth of my poem

I feel the pulse of my poem
Pulsating in your poem
Pumping poesy in my poem
I feel the heart beat of your poem
Pounding in sync with my poem’s heart

I hear the muffled voice of my poem
Murmuring like a passing note
And a medley of voices of poets
Of generations past hauling metaphors
To my poem as I read your poem

I feel the feeling of my poem
In every pores of your poem                  
Filtering a feeling in my poem
Like the feeling in your poem

I sense the spirit of your poem
Caressing the soul of my poem

Now I want to write a poem
With shadows of interlocking cycles
Padded by footprint on the sand
And shell shock children playing in bunkers
Just like the metaphor in your poem

 I see my poem in your poem
And I want to write a poem
Just like your poem
Inspiring poets reading my poem
To write a poem just like my poem
Yet crouching in the womb of your poem

Tom the day after you died
The sun draped in dark cloud limped across the sky
The stars twinkled with wrinkles
 Sweat rivulets from brows of peasant spluttered on heaps
Like tears from the sky
 Soaring Ravens console the weeping sky
That day children hug hunger in suicidal embrace
 Drinking gulps of thirst
 Hawking water in pales of wails like the wailers of Romaron
Just like the day before you died
The day after you died
The women of your poems die in child birth;
 a tomb for every eight wombs
Their tears drawn the august torrent
Drenching the soil for the grave diggers
Just like the day before you died
The day after you died
The sky played the rain song again
Showers patters and splatters
 Like the music in your “Farewell to My dying Land “
We danced the funeral dance of our land
On the ambers of our memories
Just like the day before you died
The day after you died
The drums of the land went numb
The balangie chuckles and choke
 The seigureh   stutters and sob
Feet shuffles and shackle
Yet we sing the dirge in muffle tone
Just liked the day before you died
The day after you died
The thudding feet of tyranny beat the drum of the earth
Making dissonance melody to the ears of the soil
And the soul of your downtrodden hacked
Just like the day before you died
But you are not here tom:
to sieve the rays of their hopes from the rising sun

to rip the wrinkle from their twinkling stars
to keep the splutter of their sweat in calabash of memories
to catch the crescendo of their cries in the pun of your poems
to capture the pitch of their pain in your melancholy song

And to hear the chorus of their heart singing the dirge of your metaphor
You are not here tom
Tom you are not here to write their poems
I stand here not to mourn your mould
But to mourn for the metaphor of
the mould of mud mudding on the tiles
 As you lay dead alone, for days
In a cold hostel room
Leaving your remains as a final metaphor
For posterity to read the rot in the land
Like Rabearevelo in the ghettos of Madagascar
Or David Diop dying in the skies of Senegal
You clutch a manuscript of metaphors 
As you descend to eternal time leaving your final metaphor
 For poets to carve the ultimate poem
Tom, the day after you died
Is like the day before you died
But you are not here tom
Tom you are not here
To poem our lives
Marred by the day after you died

5.      RAPE
The bodies of our women we made to a battlefield
Firing at them with chakabulars propped between our legs

Scaring their wombscape like Ruffian killing fields
The sweats from the brow of their soul drown their bodies
We are an invading army looting the obelisk of their Ethiopia
The embers of our loins scorch the sacredness of their being
And the fires of our lust consume the oasis of their soul
We beat our chest on their breast to test our manhood

Cheered by depravity anchored on the pendulum of our loins
The vows to die for their honour fade in the cacophony of our moans
 Echoes of the ecstasy of shame prowl in the cages of our emptiness
The flag of shame we hoist on the summit of their memories
 Fluttering and fanning the fires of hate we stoke in their souls
For the army suckling succor from their breast
While defiling the milk with the bile of their chakabulars
From Darfur to Congo to Rwanda to Kailahun
 Soldiers of shame limp across the continent soaked in shame
Sapping the allure of the muses of negritude
Hiroshima of contempt, we place underneath the core of their soul
Exploding everyday to multiple Hiroshimas in their mindscape
Shame bow down in shame
for the wars we fought on the bodies of women
The trenches we dug in their soul
The estu brute wounds we left in their wombs
With weapons of old forged in the furnace of their wombs

We rape them with chakabulars
And rape them again with the penises of our tongues
The stigma left blisters of shame on their image
Like the blisters we left in their wombscape
And their bodies, now a battle field with wreckages of arsenal
Burning!!! Burning!! Burning!

From the ashes, the phoenix of African womanhood rises
From the verses of Isis the resurrection beckons
From the pyramid of Egypt Cloepatra came on the heels of Nefertiti
From the sacred groves of sandathanka the ankle bells of Nasomala struck
From the Peninsular Casely Hayford’s pen rages
From the rice fields and fishing ports they came chanting
From the shackles of forced marriages they break free
From Angola Queen Nzinga rallied the amazons
From Ashanti Ya Asantewaa raised the flag of pride
From Zaria Queen Amina shouts the command
To reclaim the milk of life we defiled
To gather the souls we scattered
To piece together the calabash we smashed
To redraw the sacred lines we crossed
To reclaim the territory we invaded
To return the obelisk we looted
To replace the beacons we uprooted

To reassert the honor we dishonored
To Nile the oasis we drained
And to wage a war in the landscape of our soul
They came wearing the scars of the battle of our birth like medals
The breast milk we defile drenched the battlefield
The battle cries of estu Brute fill the air
The cries numb our soul

The chakabulars went limp
We retreat like eunuchs spoiled with spoils of our war of shame
And the loot of our burnt image
Saddled on the wounded camels of our souls

After they would have disembowelled the land
And rip the entrails like a hyena will do to a prey
After they would have exhumed the ore and gold in her womb
And leave a trail of tombs
After they would have extracted the bauxite
And leave behind a gaping wound in our cocoa farm
After they would have raped our dignity and rob our integrity
Leaving us draped in self deprecation
After they would have turned the lush forest to wasteland
And leave a barren land to vomit our seeds
After they would have reduced us to slaves chained to poverty
And leave us in rags while they take our riches away
After they would have left to celebrate the gains
While we cringe in pain
After we would have stop the bickering about our differences
And see the uniformity of our anguish
After all became like the wasteland of the final trumpet
We would realize that we have sold ourselves to slavery again
This time in the shores of our land with eyes wide open

They left their narrative on the narrow road
Lingering like a sound print on the ‘sonicscape’
Their dreams dug deep in the soil
Like the tubers of last season
Their hopes hung on farm ban
Like a poor harvest
Their aspiration vaporized
Like the sweat oozing from their bodies
Their cadaver decomposed
like composite to make manure
 for tomorrow’s peasant
This is the story of the peasant of my land
growing in the heaps of my memory.

A stone on a rock
A hammer sinewed on her trunk
Dreams wedged between rocks
Discordant melody of crushed rocks
Make an orchestra of agony
For the soul of the stone breaker

Piles of broken stones
Rubbles of shattered hopes
Debris of differed dreams
Piled at her feet
Every crushed stone
Is a mile without a milestone

She sits on a rock
 Crushing stones with a hammer
As the sun drench away
The morning years of her life

Her stones build castles
But she sleeps with cattle
Dreaming of those castle
Built with her toil

In the break of dawn,
the stone breakers
Of broken hill
 break their sleep; to break stones
 for a breakeven.

After a broken day,
 with broken stones
 On a broken land
with a broken hammer
 and broken hope.
and broken spirit!                                 
without a break through;
They break up to broken homes
Awaiting the break of a breakdown
9.      A BIRD
A bird whispers a song into my soul
Singing of bygone days
Of men come and gone
And a choir of foliage and bird
Now Decommissioned
The soulful song brings memories
Of days when the birds had a choir
But a forest of concrete

Shrubs of steel
And foliage of zinc
Evicts the choir of birds
Today a bird sings a solo song
In bald forest with a solitary tree
To men sowing solitude in their souls

I look for it every day:
The soul of my country
in the unwritten epitaphs:
 Soul carved on broken tablet, and
 buried in the cemetery  of time.

I look!
In the songs of desolate hearts:
those singing ballads that echoes like eulogies
across the wilderness of the soul,
In the mortars of immortality
 the chorus of pestles pounding furrah for the dead
does not ring with the soul of my country
I look for it everyday
The soul of my country:
 Rivulets of sweat,
 gushing from the brows of proud men

and the groans of women dying in child birth,
mirrors the soul of my country.

In the last breath of the unborn,
I look for the soul of my country
As hoes digging their graves drown
the cadence of politicians
singing their wanton dirges of promises

The fluttering feet of infants,
 bruised  for a pale of water,
beckons to me: I look for
the soul of my country in their steps,
In the faces of hungry children hawking food

I look for it everyday
The soul of my country
In the lives we live
The lies we lie
The deaths we die
The truth we truncate

And i look for the soul of my country
 In the last sigh of Richie Olu Gordon
Raging like a tsunami to suck the rot in the land
before he ascends to eternity clutching a nation’s soul
in the fest of his soul
Richie, are you the soul of my country?
I look for it everyday
The soul of my country
In the dance of the Sampas;
 Mask of Faluie;
 bow of Matoma!
 the stroke of the artist brush
  and the lamentation of the poet are you:
the soul of my country?

One day I will stitch the fifty patches of the palette
Into one soul; I’ll wear it like Ashobi

And dance the Gombay for the soul of my country

Until that day dawns
I will look for it everyday
The soul of my country
In the sokobana’s gong beat
In the tolling church bells and
in the echoes of the azain at dawn.

The soul of my country is silent
A loud thunder has drawn her song
and the smell of her sweat reeks of the toil
on an arid soil, while
despair mounts its kites on their faces

I look for it every day; the soul of my country
I just found it in the penury of its pain.

Cheney, today I saw the remains of kaningo the home of your muse
The Euphrates of your soul reduced to a river of sewage

like samba gutter in the rains
Waste clogs her tributaries like sewage on sewers
Debris drowns the water of kaningo in a river of dirt.
 Rot flood the river to the cheering of flies
And the disdain of Butterflies
The Iguana of Kaningo swiming in your poem
 Now a metaphor in an anthology of cassava leaves
 The schools of fishes degenerate to tadpoles wriggling in cesspit of feces
 Kaningo a Euphrates no more but an open tomb for dog cadaver
And your kingfisher, a carcass devouring Vulture
Keeping vigil over the bile of vile streaming to the ocean for a shower

The birds flew to the sanctuary of your garden
Plotting a last stance against the forest of rot eating Eden

 The spirit of your kaningo in shards
Like the gory locks of the madman gridlock at the High Commission
Kaningo’s rage erupt in downpours drowning their shanties in sewage
to reclaim her home now dwelling only in your verse

She writhes in stench as they starve her with their anal sword
Conjuring her water to urine with magic wands wedge between their legs
Wands which earlier conjured this semen of sins now sinning kaningo
The spirit of kaningo lurch towards the open sea
And Kaningo River became a river without a spirit

Just like the body of humanity without a soul transforming her to a sewer
 The Euphrates of your poem now a Gutter less than samba gutter

Cheney, I saw the remains of Kaningo today waiting for your eulogy

Congealed in the chambers of her soul
As she writhes in the holes of Bunce Island

From the torment of her soul
To the pain of her ovaries
A cry of anguish was born

The cry sucks strength
From the gall of her despair

Ebbs through the tides
Strikes her vocal cords
And explodes into the air
Drenching the cacophony of groans

The Girl slave pants
Like a mother in labor
In the slave house
Where the rape of her humanity
Gave birth to the cry
Her cry mingles

With cries of yesterday
Conspires with sand storm

To torment desert Arabs 
The cry drifts in the wind
Unleashing storms
Across oceans

Lashing volcanoes
Takes a sigh in play grounds
Before charging to the Ruffian killing fields

The girl perished
The cry survives her mortality
Hers the Eve of cries

The cry of a century
Drilled though the ears of a poet
The poet packages:
The torment, the pain, and the cry

The cry a verse

The verse a poem
A poem of pain

The girl who cried
Died long ago

In the Middle Passage
Survived by a cry
Perhaps she was born
 For just this cry
And the poet
For just this poem

A bundle of hope, a baggage of despair
Braves the cultural Babel and assaults the stage
Shuffling her age and surfing her soul

For the drifting soul of her ancestry in Afro beats.
She wriggles and writhes through the ring of rhythm
Scarred like the sole of her soul.

Alone in the crowded stage of Zanzibar
She danced for the African woman
Trapped in the corn fields of Africa
Suckling and sucking
She danced for the African woman shackled
In the shambles of western glamour
For whom the drum beats no more.

Her contours contract to the rhythm
And rhythm conjure her contours
Unifying her spirit to the ancestral soul

Oozing from the African drums
Her feet pour on the stage like libation
For the ancestor who died for the survival
Of Seigureh and drums in Carnegie Hall.

Decibel after decibel of her heritage
Congealed in melody drill through her ears
Prick her neurons and stimulate her sinews
The woman danced for a generation of women

Who labored and died without a song
Without a dance


We return to the auction block
Clutching the toil of our soil
And the soul of our toil
Waiting for the hammer
Just as we waited on the auction block
Of the New World in by gone years
We return to the auction block
With the sweat of our toil
Crying against injustice
Just as we cried in the slave house of Elmina

We slouch with sacks
Of devalued cocoa and coffee
Just like we paraded in shackles
With our devalued humanity
In the slave market of North Carolina

We return to the auction block
Banging the doors of G8
For debt relief

Just like we banged the
Dungeons of Goree
For our freedom

We return to the world trade
With mosaic of scars
Stitched on new wounds
On the canvass of our skin
Just like the whip scars
Left on our skin
In the sugar fields

When the tale of the toll
Of the war was told
In the warmth of our room

My husband folded the sleeves of his Ronko
Sharpened his spear
Smeared mafoi on his body
Beat his chest
Spewed honey bees
The lion growled;
“I will die for your honor”

When the renegade came
 Violence galore;
Looting my honor
Raping my dignity

Entombing my womb
He did not die that day
His heart pounds
Stomach of beehive rumbles
His Ronko and spear
 Behind the door
Next to the bottle of Mafoi
Remained untouched
He shriek under the bed
  As the renegades killed my honor
But he did not die that day
Yet he is dying everyday
 For not dying that day

Ronko –Traditional cloth made of rough cotton and imbibed with charms to protect the owner

MAFOI-A themne  people word for a concoction of herbs with healing and protective powers used by traditional warriors


From a thatched hut of mud
On the fringes of the forest
To an unmarked heap of mud
In the depth of the forest

His mortal mould of mud
Is laid to rest
After a life of unrest in the mud

Earth my heart
It aches to see your tender
Ozone skin corroded
By corrosive cosmetics
Made to unmake the maker

It aches to see you wailing
And writhing in chlorofluorocarbon gas

Chambers like a captive.

It aches to see your babies sucking methyl chloroform
Sprouting from your

Poisoned breast

It aches to see you bleached
Grayed, aged, withered by
Carbon tetrachloride
Like bleached ebony

It aches to see your form
Deformed and virility
Sterilized like a sex maniac
By surgeons you mothered.

It aches to see your
Womb entombed and cradle graved
 By morticians you wombed

It is raining again
Just like yesterday’s rain
It tears through the latch
And drips on the thatch
Thuds and thaw hearts

Fossilized with differed dreams
Draining like rain to the stream

 It is raining
 Thuds, thaws and drains
Into drainages with differed dreams
Shattered by agony into seams

It will rain again
On our coffined remains
And they will cuddled our living remains
Pour dreams in their wombs
While we shiver in tombs
But the dream in today’s womb
Will be cold in tomorrow’s tomb
And dreams will still pour in wombs
As it rains again

Raining again
We cuddled their living remains
Warm as their cold tombs
And pour dreams in their wombs
And dreams that will drain
Into the drains as tomorrow’s rain

             19.      LINES

Date lines
Time lines
Dead lines
Front lines
Punch lines
Bottom lines
By lines

Gas gulping monsters
Gushing carbon monoxide
Bleaching the ozone layer
Crawl to the city
Choked with wood and coal
Stolen from the forest

In the name of “hand to mot”

Oumar Farouk Sesay  was born in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, on July 19, 1960. He studied political science and philosophy at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.


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