The Doppler Effect & Other Poems
if I turn away from light, head bowed from the sun’s
admonishing glare, peel off from this crucifying
wood and soil punished by a plough’s claw;
if I stalk the village shadows, past the schoolhouse,
through the mire, ascending walls like ivy,
dodging moonglow and priests’ flambeaux;
if I wrestle with the dark, obey the adder wrapped
around my wrist, dance with spirits in the graveyard,
stain my lips with the menses of a witch;
if I succumb to the pull of a milkmaid’s braid, the trembling
of a rabbit underfoot, the frailty of fontanelle, the skin
of a child locked and wailing in a basement;
if I catch a rag doll by the dress, tear its seams,
hold it face down in a pail, pile its hair in the gut of a
wheelbarrow, shove its innards down the gullet of a well;
if I keep a duck’s beak in my boot, a chicken feather
behind my ear, halt death with the hoof of a pig,
watch my enemies sleep in the eyeballs of an owl;
if I conjure a murmuration in the figure
of a scythe, and taunt the crows
who rule the sky but peck at dirt to cling to life;
will you adorn me with dandelions, paint my cheeks
with mulberries’ blood?
will you offer up the bones of your dead when the straw
in your barns catches fire?
will you give to me your withered grass, your grain
that refuses to bud?
will you still say that I know nothing of you? will you still
say that I am not a man?
Run Against the Wind
The spite that sours milk. You smell like
matches and the first chicken
you strangled. Teething on nights spent
loosening mud around a sinking cow.
By fourteen your father’s shoes too small,
your name too light to anchor.
Your thomba a blur, and after,
you climb the tallest building
in your township. Envy the river
reaching out to touch an endless sea.
Your mother knows.
She smells the itch on you,
even when the scent of salted beef
and pumpkin swells the house. She sews
maps into your blazer’s seams, squeezes
your feet so that roots won’t grow.
Makes you a kite from old textbooks;
pages pressed into an epiphany of wings.
Every day racing downhill to trap the breeze;
bending low the price of soaring.
At school, you beat boys’ fists with ice cubes,
splintering light into their eyes.
Playground as threshing floor, isicholo
as a conical flask.
Enter rapture disguised as entrance exam,
wealth bound by scholarship ribbon.
No longer ignoring the beckoning tap
of a branch against your window,
or the way sand over drumbeats settles
in the pattern of okra seeds.
The night before you go, the women come
with all they can carry: gold bracelets, pots of maize,
a pouch of seeds to plant home in your belly.
Some bring only their hands; the decades toughening
the skin. Their palms cool on your shoulders,
your crown, like mothers banishing fever.
The Doppler Effect
And yes, I shoved my way into your memories.
Waved my laughter around your room
when the rumours seeped in. Dropped you
just close enough to the ground that I knew
you wouldn’t smash. What ruse. What loving bruise.
Waiting twenty-six minutes when I said I’d wait ten.
Adding an extra inch when I measured your height
so you’d walk tall. So you’d forget
it was the boy you liked that you smelled
when you washed my sheets. The one whose mouth
I washed out with rain, so that when you ran
downstairs you wouldn’t see my name on his lips.
Can’t you overlook the ways I overlooked you?
Our favourite square of hob is the one we use most.
Don’t make me apologise for using you.
And yes, you cut your feet on glass
when I left your heels on that dancefloor.
But when, in our island hotel, a lizard crawled
from a crack in the wall and rushed toward
your dangling toe, I offered it mine and told you
I had stumbled in the night. Let’s paint our nails
with one brush and wear each other. Let’s tie
our hands and slash us with our tongues.
Two phone lights laughing through a midnight field.
Splitting 99p muffins. Who owes who more crumbs?
Isabelle Baafi is the Reviews Editor at Poetry London. Her debut pamphlet Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020) won a Somerset Maugham Award and was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her writing has been published in the TLS, The Poetry Review, The London Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, and elsewhere. She is also a Ledbury Poetry Critic, an Obsidian Foundation Fellow, and an editor at Magma. She is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Oxford, and writing her debut collection.
*Image by Simon Hurry on Unsplash