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African Writing Archives


Esiaba Irobi

Esiaba Irobi

Irobi, the Nigerian poet, studied at the universities of Nigeria, Sheffield, Leeds. He holds a B.A. in English/Drama, M.A. Comparative Literature, M.A. Film/Theatre, and a Ph.D. in Theatre Studies. He has taught at New York University (1997-2000) Towson University (2000-2002) and, presently, Ohio University, Athens, USA, where he is an Associate Professor of International Theatre/Cinema. (2002 -) His forthcoming books include: African Festival and Ritual Theatre: Resisting Globalization on the Continent and Diaspora since 1492 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Before They Danced in Chains: Performance Theories of Africa and the African Diaspora (Harvard University Press, 2008).


 The United States of Amnesia


(for John Martin Green )


I am standing here on top of Mount Morris Park

like the captain of a defeated army, watching

my people, black people, people of African descent,

losing the Battle of Harlem, watching them

evacuated one by one, like wounded, bleeding

soldiers, bleeding in limb and mouth and memory,

like that stubborn couple in that great eviction scene

in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, that great masterpiece

of our history, the history of the invisibles of the USA.


Standing here, I am invisible. An invisible man?

Yes! But I am witnessing and testifying line by line,

with this hand trembling with rage and pain and sorrow

how Harlem is being auctioned block by block

to the highest bidder. Everything must go. Everybody!

Men, women and children. Every one is on sale.

The bulldozers are moving in. The caterpillars too,

And that large ball with which they knock down projects,

What is it called now? The Wrecking Ball! will knock

everything down including the Apollo. The Apollo?

Yes, the even the great Apollo will also have to go.


Every living trace of us, our black faces and asses,

Our smell and color will be erased and painted over

With white emulsion paint and efficient roller brushes.

We will watch entire neighbourhoods crushed

into splinters, and with the crash of each building, comes

crumbling into dust, every scrap of the memory

of our grandparents, parents, our childhoods, schools,

parks, benches, corners, cornershops, nightclubs,

how we grew up, the lives that we lived here in Harlem

The music we made, the paintings, the poetry, the dances.


Sing with me, Houston Baker, you who put knowledge

in my migrant heart, chant with me, you who know so well

the furrows of sorrow on the faces of the future?

Some rich Midas may buy, cash down, that house

where Langston Hughes once lived and died

and convert it into a condominium like the Taj Mahal

in Mo Better Blues where crack will be sold to the new

black and white wallstreet buppies of Harlem. Another star

of this new curfew may buy up Riverside Drive and relocate

Ralph Ellison’s widow from Apt 8D to the suburbs, leaving

behind, like broken furniture and cobwebs, the scent and memories

of the life they once lived in Harlem in that apartment overlooking

the Hudson. The river where it all started. These evacuations!


John-Martin Green, you may have to move again,

You the thrice removed. You may have to leave Harlem

to the high and mighty. Why? Because You can no longer

afford the rent! Besides who wants to be black sushi

for white sharks on an island cruised and rolled over

endlessly by the foam and laughter of unrelenting waves.

You must move again. Removed from Africa by your own

kith and kin. Removed from South Carolina where your

ancestors invented the ring shout amidst bales of cotton wool.

Removed from the Bronx where your father was a barber,

your illustrious mother a great singer. Your brother, a prince.


The barber’s shop where you learnt to sing is gone and

you will be removed to somewhere else in New York city,

exactly where I cannot say for now, the rent will tell.

This is your lot, John Martin Green, you who loved

this country so much that you wore its green fatigues

and crouched in ambush in a thousand forests against

foreign enemies and homemade foes, you will be removed

again into the final pages of the history of the invisible

in this great country, God’s own country, America, the beautiful.

So join me now, John Martin Green, join us also, Houston Baker,

you who taught me how to light a candle instead of cursing

the darkness. Join us now as we sing The Star Spangled Banner.

Tis of thee…Tis of thee...Tis of thee...Tis of thee... Tis of thee...

John Martin Green, as I write, I can feel a fog like a blanket

of darkness falling gradually, very gradually, over the United

States of Amnesia





Winston Salem

(for Beverly J Robinson)


Beverly, I keep rewinding that scene

in The Color Purple where you appear

a black eagle among the yelling crowd. Picture? what crowd

I keep rewinding it just catch a glimpse

of that flash of your spirit which touched

every soul who knew your name and felt

the power that pulsed in your being.

Tall, elegant, gazelle of the savannah

you glide in that scene with ease and grace

as in life. I remember your smile and your sense

of humour when we shared that burger

in Winston Salem during the Black Theatre Festival

of 2000. North Carolina will be different this year.

There will be silences between our speeches

And the trees will remember our muffled tears

When the leaves begin to fall again in autumn

Because you are gone. Because you have passed.

Ostrich of the mountains. Egret of the plains.




 St Louis

(for Lisa Colbert)


In the cemetery where we laid you to rest

the hibiscus flowers still wave their petals

as they wail their song of grief and pain

for a life cut down so soon. In front of the church

were we held the funeral, the butterflies

we released into the air are still hovering

like the stanzas of this elegy and the drumbeats

that accompanied our procession to the graveyard.

In my heart, the sorrow marches on and on

like a stage army. How can I return to St Louis

when you are no longer there. What song

will I sing at your headstone? What new flowers

can I place like a pillow beneath your memory?

And where, in that forlorn city, will I spend the night?








(for Charla Barker)


It is 12 midnight. I am sitting here, on the patio of Room 110

of the Caribbee Beach Hotel, Hastings, Barbados,

listening to the Atlantic replaying, like an old vinyl record,

the philosophy of the sea, on which the light from an aeroplane

passing overhead falls like a brand new stylus.


It is hot. And the half empty bottle of Hennessey

I bought at the duty-free shop in Miami is not helping things either.

My shirt is unbuttoned. I am sweating and thinking of you.

What it would have felt like to have you here, at this hour,


Your voice drowning out the old drooling gramophone of the Sea

Your long, blonde hair falling on my shoulders like the silk

in the wrist of the waves. Your fingertips and lips running all over

my entire geography like that ship in the distance, all lights on,

tracing the erogenous zones of this body of water,

this infinite ocean, the way history once ran over this island

leaving it with only one lovesong: The desire

to be left alone by the West to complete its own epic of love.






(after William Carlos Williams)


So much depends

On a big -buttocked, Caucasian, woman


spread-eagled on my waterbed,

as I write.

Her great white thighs ajar,

like monica lewinsky’s,



at my exhausted bill clinton

which, sadly,

can no longer rise to the occasion.


America, I have given you all I have:

The entire contents of my loins!

I have given you everything!

There is nothing more left in my groins,

No fire, no fight, no force, no more fury!

I am talking to you, America,


You insatiable white whore who seduced me away from my country

And abandoned me here, like the million homeless souls


Swimming like blind spermatozoa

Along the streets of New York.


America, the woman who smiles with her thighs,

Listen to me. I am talking to you:    .  



Il est finis!






(for James Ndukaku Amanklulor)

Jazz, do you remember that Saturday

afternoon I came to Umuode with my friends

and relatives in a 504 Peugeot car

Loaded with yams, kolanuts,

a bottle of whisky, other ritual objects

and a goat, I think, to show you

my gratitude for the love and care

you showered on me at Nsukka

From 1979 to 1989 when I finally left Nigeria

To pursue my Ph.D. degree in Great Britain?


Do you or do you not? You made

an impromptu speech about my gifts

as an actor and my brilliance as a student

which, you insisted, singled me out and

attracted me to your tutelage. You sealed your

numerous encomiums with the Igbo proverb

about how the buzz of the mosquito’s wing

led to the thunderous slap on the thigh

“Anwuta bere nwi nwi nwi m sita kuo tai!”


Later on, I amused you and my entire entourage

by eating the delicious Uha soup your wife, Queen,

prepared and the pounded yam with both hands.

I rolled each white ball between both palms

before dipping it into the bowl, my fingers

foraging for fish like the jaws of a crocodile

scissoring the sea for fins or any living thing that drifts.


It is almost twenty years ago, yet your words

And the memory of that afternoon glistens

like the skin of a snake gliding across the road

leaving strange patterns on the ground

that reminds me of the hieroglyphics

of your blessings on my career

and your love for me forever as a father.


I am now tenured as a professor here in Athens, Ohio

And I have also been diagnosed with nasal pharyngeal

Cancer. I have received treatment and responded well

To both radiation and chemotherapy. We do not know

how things will turn out eventually. But lying on my sofa

this afternoon, and reading a book about Poetry and Love,

I suddenly thought of someone who has truly loved me.

And I remembered you. That is why I wrote this poem.


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