A Brief History of Understanding & Other Poems

Jay Kophy

A Poem Where History is a Parable

& this is how I was taught to begin every story
like a voyage. a ritual. a resurrection
the rising of a changeless sun giving the day a new name

this way it can be said that history is only as divine as the malleability of iron
which is susceptible to rust because of its need to undo its starvation for time

& what is the value of a thing if not a hunger for its history
a reminder to build altars for the things I cannot forget
like the first time someone called me ayigbe
even when he didn’t understand what it meant

& what that meant was that in Accra my language is still a stranger
sitting at the edge of the city waiting for me to take it home

& I don’t know much about my hometown
except that it was named after a lake that spared my people from thirst
& was undone by another lake which shares no language with them

as if to say that any language which swallows the history of others is without love

I’ve always imagined language as an element of love
how it moves from one person to another as an expression of faith
in search of understanding even if it’s not there

but you are always here or should I say here is always you
which is something we attribute to the things we remember
even though they may not necessarily be ours

& this is how I choose to end this story
by saying. I love you. in this language that isn’t ours

A Brief History of Understanding

on 19 September 2020. on a bus on my way home from work. a woman carrying a baby on her back. stops the bus to get onboard. and as she does. her baby’s head accidentally bumps against the rusted frame of the door. and this young woman. unsettled. immediately unwraps the baby from her back and gently strokes her child’s head. kissing it and says I’m sorry, I’m sorry. and I. sitting a row behind this woman. ask myself why she would say sorry to someone who cannot make sense of the word? I struggle with this question for a while till the shout of a baby brings me back to myself. And then I see that this same baby who was crying from pain and distress a while ago is now shouting with excitement at how the wind is making its mother’s hair swim away from its roots. swinging arms and legs in celebration of that. as if to say the movement of limbs is the only synonym for wonderment. as if to say the body is a collection of expressions. a museum of movement and movement is an act of love. and this makes me think that maybe what we’ve come to call speech is just a duplication of language. a reiteration or denial of what the body has already said. which is to say the body cannot imagine. it can only reveal. like how water unmasks what we call the face of the earth and the earth is a reflection of the sky and the sky is another name for trust. which is to say language is the pursuit of wonderment through understanding and not for knowledge or definition. for example. sometimes I cannot recognize the voice of God but there is music. which is to say I stumble into understanding like an unrequested miracle. like looking for salt and finding the sea. discovering a poem and recognizing it as home. saying a name and hearing you.


in a conversation with my mother about my hometown
she says blood has nothing to do with belonging
which is to say we do not come from a people or place but from naming
& what is naming if not a prayer
where every word is a reflection carrying more than one face
like how the word ɛtsi means water and to grow
as if to say anything expandable carries an attribute of water
how many forms of water do you know now?

there are some forms of water I am still not conversant with
for instance. I am too familiar with rain
but winter is a stranger to me
which is to say memory is tethered to language
which is to say language always returns me
back where my body cannot be present
to make alive again a place where everything is meant to drown
like the Volta Lake where dead cocoa stems
are the only memories the water cannot swallow

this story doesn’t change but the language to it does
like memory eating its way into history
every historical statement is a journey to a place of recognition
that may or may not exist
as in. history is a translation. it is what sits
between a name and its understanding

Jay Kophy is a Ghanaian poet and writer. His poems are forthcoming and have been featured in literary magazines such as AGNI, Four Way Review, The Indianapolis Review, Glass Poetry, Kalahari Review, Tampered Press, and many others. He is the winner of the inaugural Samira Bawumia Literature Prize in poetry. He’s also the curator of the anthologies to grow in two bodies and How to Write My Country’s Name. You can find him on Twitter @jay_kophy.

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