Wednesday, July 15, 2009

arcanum 19 (25)

arcanum 19

sunday, august 24, 1986

shockwaves of urgency jar. my front door,
a talking drum; its message garbled in the
jangle of locks.

“who is it?”

i call, shaken from the vulnerability of

“bala miller,”

the familiar voice replies, & the
unexpected intoned in the percussive
syllables of his name.

“ina zuwa!”

the maestro never visits. he comes, always
a courier bearing news.

my thoughts, acrobats & jugglers; the
whole of my self, an apprehensive
audience, save my robotic hands & feet
which mindlessly negotiate the legs, zipper,
& snap of my trousers.

i open the door; see him hulking there,
framed in the doorway with his shadow,
dressed in surgeon’s white. he enters with
the wind, & the door slams violently
behind him.

“i’m just from lagos” he says.

“is it good news or bad? i ask.

“good news. u’re getting married this

waves of relief rush like rapids down my
neural paths. he terse, spare message
heavy with meaning:

the woman is safe & well; the baby has
quit its abortive departure; is snuggled
secure in the now quiescent womb of its

& i am bequeathed with one last chance at

wednesday, august 27, 1986.

today is a harvest of rainclouds. rain, the
ebullient laughter of angels shakes the
doors, scrapes the walls, pounds the
windows with backslapping hilarity –
laughing at my fumbling preparations, my
mechanical motion packing, my lapses into

i am clumsy with foreboding.
as if on cue, suddenly, i am engulfed in a
different kind of laughter, a mocking,
cloying nether laughter. my stomach,
always on alert, announces the unfolding of
an event.

the air, electric. my body slips into
paralysis; the walls of my room drop away.
i see, rivet see, in this lightless void a
nightmare taking shape; an inmate has
escaped my chamber of horrors.

i know this demon; this snake-haired, facechanging
medusa who has turned my heart
to stone. i know her, because i am her
jailor. her tauntings & imprecations have
haunted me trough marriage after
marriage, affair after affair;
insinuating herself, in my unguarded
moments, on the faces, in the bodies of my
lovers, causing me to hate them, to banish
them down into my subterranean cells,
where she waits to devour & sbsorb
them, thriving, waxing strong in her

& now, she has escaped; prisoner facing
warden, foemen on common ground.

“so,” she hissed, “u’ve found a fool to
marry u; how quaint, how marvelously
nice. we will miss u, all of us, for a
while, my love, but come back to us u;
must u always do.”

she ventures close, her body a parade of
protean shapes. her face kaleidoscopic, a
varies succession of familiar eyes, noses
lips & dimples – a snake-haired, living
scrapbook of bilious, rejected love.
she takes a taloned finger & strokes my

“what’s the matter, baby?” she hideously
coos. “are we not, the legion of us,
enough to satisfy, excite? u’ll never find
another to do u like we do?”

she pushes herself lewdly against me,
crotch to crotch, grinding, rolling her hips,
her fingers finding my flanks, pulling. her
body sentient clay, molding & remolding
on its own accord, dragging my skin,
dredging up names long since whispered. i
am frozen, mute, immobile, & vulnerable.
instead i withdraw, in my breath, to
distance myself, to hide.
she laughs again, hard & brittle.

“fool! do u think u’ll ever be free?
see what u’ve done to us, to me! bound
to yr loathing we must ever comply,
yr one-who-are-many succubi!.

in the night we come when u sleep
alone, compelled by yr need & thus,
undone; for born in torment, we torment
thus. u can never hope to be free of us.

“made in yr image, we are grown
grotesque, on self-hatred feed, yr soul
infest. turn caring to cruelty; loving to
lust. all women u love become one with

i gag on revulsion, my stomach threatens to
empty, forcing its contents upwards, driving
me from my place of hiding back up behind
my eyes.

i open them, & fighting for focus, look
upon her again. she has released me, has
moved away, assessing, waiting to strike the
finishing blow.

i am stunned, my knees, water. i cannot
defend. her words, a strike force,
searching, finding, parading as convicts,
my fugitive misdoings. those well-dressed
murderers of love. memories flood. wash
against my eroding resolve – to stand &
face this, my severest of trials.

i relive in that instant ceremonies of
innocence-turned-ugly, painful. the
ritualistic building of temples of
indifference, with their chambers of
torture in the catacombs below. i relive
those moments, when alone in those
chambers, after the victims have been
disposed, i recline in pools of remorse.

i relive periods of expiation, of self-altering
& abasement; the circumamble & ascent
up mountains of grim mysticism – a
mysticism without self-forgiveness, without
surrender to the power invoked, that love
vast enough to contain i & thou.

a mysticism garbed in the hirsute &
tonsure of self-righteousness, pricking
painfully those who would get close, who
would hold even me. & i relive the
neveragains of heart break, the ruthless
emotional savaging of young women in a
time series of romance; tearing to pieces
their pride, their selfness, & feeding their
emotional carcasses to this shape-changing
fury who would now devour me.

i am like a boxer in trouble, wagering my
life, my happiness against the sounding of
the bell. i reach deep, deeper than ever
before, hurting enough to even call upon
that force i fear; to rouse that sleeping
serpent which might destroy me. but this
torment must end!

i breathe, through the right nostril in, left
nostril out, deep, twenty times, fifty,
infinity. feeling my nerves ignite, the
burning locus between my anus & groin
searing upwards, chakra to chakra,
stomach’s revolving door spinning, whirling
plexus, throat, pituitary, pineal; through
the roof of my head which shatters; the
embrace of god & human fire, the lemonskate
of light, the crown & conduit of power
coming to me, pouring from me, gushing
amber, pervading. i am bloated with
power – power to change, to submit, to see
through walls, to see through myself; to
face, no, to consume this demon!

i force focus this rush, turn this power
outward/inward against her, against
myself… the flamepain, the lightblind, the
scorching good; firewaterlight,
burnboildazzle, freedom, free to choose,
free to die a live again, & unto my self
be true.

my demon shrieks, her bodies & faces
contort & i can see her bathed in the
psycholuminosity streaming from my head.
she is again changing, but this time more
horribly so – she is melting before my eyes!
there is a lurch in my chest. a familiar
breaking which i know to be grief. a
keening despair is sounding in my temples,
in my ears, & i know at once with a
newly awakened prescience how empty my
life would be without this monster, this
furtive fury.

i don’t want her to die!

suddenly, i can move again, can reach out
& pull this decomposing visage to me; to
caress, & to hold. my stingy tears come
unbidden, spill into her wasting faces. my
jaws unlock, my tongue is loosed, & my
mouth on its own shape the words:
don’t die…please don’t die…i love…all of u!

the sound of those words startle me, shock
the molecules in the void, send them
spinning, resonating, awakening all of my
bittersweet melodies of love.
& love i do, up & down scale; from
melted heart to hardened groin, kissing
god on the mouth & tonguing infinite
space; swimming in my mothers milk,
gulping but not drowning; caressing my
battered self, holding…holding in my arms
no wasting apparition, but my
full-fleshed portia, big with my child,
laughing her heavy-throated laugh of love…

the rain comes down in sheets; ebullient
angellaughter. & i, again packing my
bags for a final journey into marriage,
laugh loud & hearty with them.

thursday, august 28, 1986

the silver benz, a prowling, aged cat pads
kaduna’s highways. kachia, zonkwa,
kagoro, shimmering like heat mirages,
disappear almost
as soon as we reach them.

bala, driving, is a study in concentration.
no multilingual banter now; no proverbs or
packaged truisms. behind the wheel he is
deafmute, immured to passenger chatter,
bereft of speech.

his attention is riveted to the road. he reacts
to every phantom, every suggestion of
lorry, maniac motorist, or foolish
pedestrians who would gamble their lives
to reach the other side of the highway.

his will alone forcing six of eight laboring
cylinders upwards to & beyond one-sixty km/h.
through the forest of nimbia, down onto the
valleys of akwanga & lafiya we fly.

i watch in silence this inscrutable sphinx of
a man; watch as one trying to penetrate the
reflecting surface of a deep water body.
hoping to catch a glimpse, or even sense
those forces, those enigmatic compulsions
that move him to lavish acts of benevolence,
friendship, & patronage. acts as surprising as
they are consistent. acts that fuse together
the man & the legend.

he who has filled the shoes previously
unworn by an elder brother; long vacated
by my father. he the global village
blacksmith reforging family linkages;
joining the old world to the new;
highlife to streetlife; native blues to blues.
he who could see better than i the sharp
outlines of happiness etched on my future,
on her future; on our future.
we are pulling into makurdi, now. i can
feel the heat of the forge fires. my mettle
glows hot.

friday, august 29, 1986

the thick moistness of makurdi clings to me
like a second coat of sweat; the undercoat,
an embarrassing sheen of nerves – the two
confluent in dark pungent pools under my
arms; flowing like lazy rapids down the
hollow of my back.

i sit, a supplicant, at the broad, naked feet
of musa akanya, my father in tomorrow’s
nuptial rites; an empty pitcher before a full
fountain, allowing myself to be filled with
the lore of the region, with tales &
parables african; of kola, of native
tobacco, & kegs of palmwine,
of brideprice & female circumcision,
of the marriage of families rather than
individuals. i am preparing, like a neophyte,
for sunrise & metamorphosis; when the
man becomes meat; when i walk willingly
into the mouth, into the belly of tradition
wondering if i will be accepted &
assimilated, or spewed forth, & irritant;
an alien.

saturday, august 30, 1986

oturkpo, idoma’s heartland. a subtle
arrhythmia, the village pulse undermines
the unkempt & makeshift modernity of
the city. her citizens foregather in bundles
of bustle, at work or at leisure; the air is
lace with wet heat & the whisperings of
growing things.

we have come to oturkpo to make camp; a
base from which to proceed down the coaltarred
road, through the heavy bush &
hinterland, through the black fangs of
shadow, to the vivacious ancestral grounds
of ufia. we are like mages, the three of us,
bearing gifts.

we have come with akaja, the salt of the
earth, a preservative & a seasoning; an
enemy of evil. we come, too, with otoro
black iron; the supportive strength of bala;
& okpogo igbo, brass, the filigreed
integrity of musa. & so, begifted &
begowned, with musa, my rod, & bala,
my staff, begin i the ending of a solemn
sojourn – to the village called utonkon;
to the house of its chief; to take away a


we are well met at the village; the elders
have assembled & dissemble among
themselves. they are lean & expectant,
these workers of the land, these custodians
of custom. there is nimbus if venerable
toil over many seasons about them.
bala, then musa greet them on my behalf.
& though i nod politely in
acknowledgement, i am struck mute by the
dictates of ritual; my tongue proscribed.

i can only speak through my offerings:
the five fingered kola; a keg of palmwine;
a large she-goat; several chickens; the
ritual yams, palm oil, pomade, soup, &

i am well-spoken; my offering accepted.
the criers announce in ufia & in english
the impending nuptial. we sit & drink
together, the men, old & young, allowing
rite & custom to prepare us for binding;
the firey forging of one human chain, of
one alloyed family.

my head light with drink, i dare to steal
away, to seek out & look upon the face of
my beloved; to exchange private words of
love with her, over the walls of her
confinement, past her female guards. for i
cannot be with her on this evening, cannot
reassure her or be reassured by her on
this eve of surrender, this eve of the not

no, tonight i must return to oturkpo, to my
transit camp & sleeping mat, to wait,
pretending sleep, for the future to arouse

sunday, august 31, 1986

morning attacks my awareness like a swarm
of mosquitoes – buzzing my ears, gnawing
at my naked flesh, driving me from my
bed. the face of the sun is veiled; it is yet
early. too early for breakfast or
conversation with my companions, who
are inert, who are yet in the thralldom of

i dress & take a goalless walk along a few
of oturkpo’s boulevards & backstreets,
randomly selected in walking meditation,
my feet, alone, in present time, making
leftward, rightward decisions, acting upon
them. i merely count the steps i have taken,
one of my aptitudes, counting, even when
unconscious; the silent drone of numerals
my only link to the moment…

i married first in the baptist basement of a
spokane, washington church. the
ceremony as elaborate as twenty dollars
could buy. even the binding gold rings
were procured from a pawnshop;
the name & sentiments of their previous
wearers inscribed thereon, presaging the
not-so-distant future when fortune, the
rightful owner, would wave a pawn ticket
in my face & reclaim them.

one thousand eight hundred & forth three,
forty-four, forty-five, forty-six…

i married next in a suburban house; a
marriage of co-tenants. a poet’s vows
joined us; the multitudes wished us well.
& the rings, this time were made to
specification, were handworked gold,
encrusted with so many tiny rubies – my
stone & emblem of devotion. but in time,
all the stones were lost; had fallen out with
each breach of faith, with each betrayal,
leaving holes too large to repair…

five thousand & one, two, three, four,
five, six, seven…

today when i marry, there will be no rings
exchanged; neither church nor house will
package this union. but under the canopy
of heaven, with moon, stars, & village
folk as witnesses, i will, as is the custom of
ufia, take this woman, portia, & her family,
& in exchange, give her me & mine; mixing
the waters if the benue with those of the
mississippi; the silicon sands of
nassau with the red clay of georgia & together,
we can look & marvel upon these
mixtures, when the baby comes.


morning has come & gone, & afternoon
is waxing. idle time filled intermittently by
delegations of ufia folk coming to exact
their tariff, to ensure that the food &
drink, the revelry is worthy of a chieftain
daughter. bala entertains the men, musa
bargains with the women, & i move with
regularity between the two, a pendulum. a
joke for the men & beer; many small
flirtations & money for the women, back
& forth until satisfied, they leave.

it is time to go to the village. it is a straight
road to utonkon; an easy way of
conveyance back into the past, back into the
time of imamasi, ekpe & otobukong, the
spear throwner. & igube, from whom
sprang the tradition of marriage because of
the questions he asked of his uncle,
imamasi, & the answer he received.
today, i am igube, coming to take away
igelle agbo, the right eye of her father;
her mother’s enfleshed song.

we arrive in the village as the shadows
grow long. we hasten to greet the chief,
my father-in-law to be. he is in his private
courtyard, in casual council, flanked by the
elders, who seem today to be extensions of
his shadow. he receives us warmly, his
welcome like a father’s to his prodigal.

he orders us served & we exchange
pleasantries over groundnut paste &
slivers of kola, & freshly tapped
palmwine. there is a hugeness of spirit
about this man; & a knowing born of
tarrying in many lands. few are the places
where he might be called a stranger. &
there is virile power oozing from him,
even in a state of repose, made manifest in
the living flesh of thirty-one issues.
he is the centre of many orbits; many
terrestrial bodies benignly reflect his light.
even my own comet-like movement
through space has been arrested, stabilized.
i am summoned by the drums. i take
permission to leave, for it is time for
portia & i to superintend the dancing.

i join her on the dancing ground & take my
seat of honor. the drums speak in tongues;
their language resonates in every muscle,
even in the blood.

& the young, powerfully built, male dancers,
glistening with sweat, translate those tongues
with pneumatic feet, a movement for each
nuance, each rhythmic verb made flesh.
the feathers in the dancers’ hair take them
aloft. they fly, they spin, they somersault.
they form human pyramids, then turned to
bow before us.

i spray them lavishly with currency. i am
moved. i can hardly eat the ceremonial
food place before us, the flesh of a goat
simmered in pepper & palm oil. i chew
& swallow absently, watching now the
procession of age-mates, each with a
different rhythm, each with in reverse,
from old to young. the night has come.

it is time now to greet the elder women. we
are taken to the house of ogba on the
ancestral grounds of the river goddess, eje.
we meet them, thirty or more assembled in
the shadowy sitting room. their eyes
sparkle, catching the light from the
doorway, burning with a light of their
own. we touch hands with each of them,
& each has a blessing to give.

we are led back to the dancing ground for
all of the women are assemble. the moon
is full & beams a silvery love upon all of
her daughters. suddenly, the magic, the
mystery of woman reveals itself in the
undulant movement of hips, of trusting
breast & plaintive screams. even the
drums are somewhat softer, their rhythm
now a polycaress growing in intensity.
the elder sister dance a prayer for the
future. & the girls dance a dance of
seduction; for the woman things hoped for.

bala, musa & the elders have been
negotiating the bride price. the elders
firm, demanding a guarantee that their
well-kept daughter will remain well-kept;
demanding a princely sum reassure
them. musa though, is firmer. for he is a
father of daughter & sons, & a keeper
of tradition. he looks forward many years,
sees the vicissitudes of fortune, the perils
that beset. he cautions moderation, &
gives as guarantee, his word, no small thing
among his people, for he, too, is a chief.
the deal is stuck at last, the sum agreed
upon. all emerge smiling.

now that a settlement has been reached, we
are led, portia & i, by her father’s
brother, back to the house of ogba. &
there in the doorway, we are caused to
kneel. portia, who is also ogba, & who
today is igelle, takes in her right hand a
vessel of water, & in her left, a black
fowl. she prays that may live well in
her house. likewises, after this supplication,
she take the cup & pours the essence of
eje over three young yams placed before
us, as is custom. then the elder ogba, her
father’s senior sister, prays for us; prays to
ivina ukpabi, the sky, & to roche the
earth, to grant us many children, good
harvests, & riches. at the end of her
prayer, the fowl will be killed & cooked &
offered as food to owo, god of life. & we
pray, as we rise, that he will turn not his
face away from our offering.

it is done. we who were lovers, are lovers
still; are man & wife. the baby kicks in
portia’s belly. the drums intone the
rhythm of the chief’s father – we must
dance. the rains come. the elders nod &

“it is good”

we go now to the big house for the father’s
final blessing. he has heard the rhythm of
his father & is content.

“take her,” he says, “she must not pass the
night in this compound. & when she does
return, she comes as a member of yr compound.”

we receive his blessing & bid him

night has passed into morning. it is a new
day & a new life for the two of us. the
link has been forged; & the chain now
stretches from utonkon to the bahamas to
georgia to mississippi.

© Joseph McNair; 2009

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