A Writer Writes


by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)

Negotiating Culture

As predictable as the muezzin’s call to prayer,
I jog past arthritic skeletons silhouetted against
craggy cliffs on the horizon — Fulani tending
their boney cattle. Into a stiff north wind
I turn to face grains of sand blowing in
from dunes on the outskirts of town.

Stacked with food baskets, bicycles pass me
bouncing along the laterite road to market.
Pestles pound from compounds like muffled drums.
A festival of colors dip and nod before my eyes —
bright blues, yellows, greens, and reds;
blending in stripes, spirals, and polka dots.

A tiny girl blushes and smiles, then waves,
costume jewelry jingling on her chocolate arm.
Her powdered face and deep-brown eyes
break my stride. I want to sweep her up
into my arms and race her to a safe haven,
to carry her far away from her destiny.

Boys run along side of me, their fists raised
in greeting: “Sannu Batuuree” they chime
in harmony. “Lafiya lau” I reply out of tune.
Sun-baked, mud-gray walls straight ahead
mark the limit for Westerners who dream.
I must focus on the moment, not history.

In this race, victory is measured in inches,
by a pivot or a kick in the sand, gestures
that silently negotiate culture. I bend down
to tie my shoe and somersault forward
to the foot of the medieval Muslim façade.
Children’s laughter welcomes me.

One Night in Africa

twilight fades
to terra cotta
savanna shadows
slip into corners

two indistinguishable
black and white silhouettes
moving to essential rhythms

lying down together
on cool sheets


igniting —

village drumming
sky flushing

night people
clinging to life

African Woman

I offer greetings in secret
from my window each morning
as you walk to market,
arms and hips swinging
in counterpoint rhythm,
an Africa I yearn to know.

Your willowy silhouette shifts
and we exchange a look that ignites
the eastern sky in carnation pink
laced with lavender.

Let the gods grumble
and mumble in their beards.
They dare not interfere
with black and white
at last together dancing
on the petals of the sky

The Bent People

I: “Peace Be Unto You”

Across knife-edged gravel they drag
their scabs and stumps and scars,
and pull themselves crab-like
along the scorched concrete to my porch
and groan: “Salamu alaikum.”

II: “Allah is the Greatest”

Blind adults prodded along
by chattering skeletons, tiny children
whose every joint and rib protrudes.
From faces, stretched tight like drum skin,
the chant: “Allahu Akbar.”

III: “If Allah Wills”

Medicine might have revived some
and raised them from the ground,
surgery might have unbent a leg or two,
with prayer a miracle might even save a few.
I whisper: “In Sha’ Allah.”

IV: “May the Blessings of Allah (be upon you)”

I begin my lecture, “Why can’t you . . .
we . . . ” then history intervenes.
I retrieve some coins and fling them
and turn to escape the bent people,
who cry out: “Baraka Allah.”

The Man Most Admired

Stooped and wrinkled, this father
of tribal fathers sits all day
strumming a finger harp
and greeting villagers.

Calabashes filled with juju
hang inside his cone-shaped hut
from white washed mud-straw walls.
A son's son sweeps the loose dirt
from his floor and airs his mat.

Each day he faces Mecca to pray,
but he retreats each week
to a family shrine and scatters
a broken kola on the ground
to guarantee harmony in both worlds.

For a half century this unread man
made a fool of the land, transforming
sand into food for his extended family.
This father who knows no encyclopedias
knows secrets only spirits will reveal.

On market day, they still walk in
from miles of bush to hear his tales
of Fulani princesses and princes.
His memory is endless, linking families
to clans to tribe — He is the legend.

The Fallen Man

The Volunteer kneels on the hot sand
and feels for the pulse of a fallen man.
A wind gust carries the stench of dead
fish and flesh from the river.
He sponges blood from a deep gash
beneath the man’s gray hair.

A tall, lanky man — black hair tangled
with strands snaking from his skull,
his eyes deep cavities, a ragged shirt
hanging from his washboard torso —
raises a machete and advances,
his companions urging him on.

The Volunteer cradles the fallen man
and stares as thick crimson oozes
down his charcoal face like lava trails.
The eyes glaze slowly and close,
and he squeezes the Volunteer’s hand.
The grip loosens — the arms fall limp.

Peering far beyond the shriveled river,
across the parched savanna into a land
of mirages, the Volunteer barely hears
the Machete Man: “Do not interfere,
Batuuree. This is not your business.”
From spectators nearby only vacant stares.

Machete Man leaps and twirls in dance,
and the mob breaks out in frenzied cheers
when he slashes his weapon in the air,
the sun flashing off steel. He points
the tip of the blade straight ahead and says,
“You wish to join your brother?”

A car engine shifts gears, observers scurry
into stores, a highlife record blares
from across the street and vultures hover
above the dusty river bank, waiting,
while cattle with skin stretched tightly
over their bones, drink in slow motion.

The Sahara sandblasts the Volunteer’s face,
but he blocks the wind from the fallen man.
The Machete Man gathers his group together
and leads them down the road.The faint call
of a muezzin is carried away on the hot breeze.
The world pauses for a moment of silence.

African Tragedy

The Northland

Clumps of trees,
dwarfs with bony limbs
unable to hold up the vultures
circling in the pale blue sky,
dot the brown, flat dusty plain.
Beige haze from the Sahara
dulls the sunlight on the horizon.
Heat waves undulate into the air.
A cobra hides beneath a rock.
Men in mud huts plot.

The Son

A small-boned man,
several coats darker than the sand,
with a goatee that never grew,
wears pleated trousers
a size too large
and a white dress shirt,
the collar starched and frayed.
The young carpenter donates
his weekends to the Mission
teaching younger men his trade.

The Southland

I arrive in the twilight
on a muddy rain forest road.
Streaks from the setting sun
play hide-and-seek
with mahogany and iroko giants.
The forest calls to me:
birds cry out from tree tops
blending with sounds,
distinct — sounds
suspicious to untrained ears.

The Father

Dressed in green and blue oba
over his right shoulder,
he sits on a folding chair
next to the chest he built
when his son was his apprentice.
Traces of the son’s eyes
in the old man, large ovals
with heavy, drooping lids;
but eyes stripped naked
by a father’s fear.

The Night

In the small clearing
voices from around a fire,
a silhouette preparing food
by the light of a hurricane lamp.
Trees block the rising moon.
Orange light from fires
seeps into the darkening sky.
Directly overhead stars
begin to glow like
dull gaslights.

The Return

I carry the father’s message
for his son to come home.
But the compound is deserted —
broken furniture, scattered papers —
an overturned tool box —
shutters flapping casually
with a rare gust of wind —
stray mongrels picking at trash —
The stillness raises questions.
The absence answers.

Mallam Ibrahim

The Man

He stands at the brink,
coal-black eyes surveying.
In his beard, iron gray
streaks betray his years.
His skin suggests Mediterranean
rather than his sub-Saharan home.
From his thin lips come
rhythms rounded by Harvard
and Oxford degrees.

The Land

Mallam Ibrahim recalls
water wells, deep beneath
the creepy sands, a land
airborne on winter winds,
long months of naked earth,
its skin cracked by lack
of nourishment from the
sand-screened sky, dried
by the Saharan sun.

The Teacher

He begins at the brink of time,
with stories of the Olduvai Gorge
and the Koi-San Eve of DNA. He
pushes ahead into the mainstream
with Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca,
and punctures the artery with tales
of Goree, Calabar, and Elmira.
He soars to the break of tomorrow,
to prophesy and restoration.

The Mind

A mind is indeed an enchanting thing
that can stir up debris from Plato
and integrate Locke and Nkrumah,
that can pick apart Jefferson’s credo
and splinter the theories of Marx.
Then, like a trapeze artist the Mallam
defies gravity and flings himself
into Picasso’s debt to African art
and music as the universal heart.

Tony Zurlo’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, Humdinger, The Cynic, and Peace Corps Writers. He also has stories and poems appearing in future issues of Armageddon Buffet and Long Story Short.
     Tony has also published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats US, Democracy Means You, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEdNews.
     His newest book, The Legislative Branch: Creating America's Laws will be published in the spring 2007 by Enslow Publishers.

Credits for the published poems:

“One Night in Africa”
New Texas, 2002

“African Woman”
2000: Here’s to Humanity, People’s Press, 1999

“The Bent People”
Identity Theory, Winter 2005–06
Open Windows, 2006

“The Man Most Admired”
New Texas, 1998

“African Tragedy”
Cincinnati Poetry Review 19, Spring 1989