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Authors: Alice Walker

Once

BOOK: Once
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Once
POEMS BY ALICE WALKER

For Howard Zinn

Poverty was not a calamity for me. It was always balanced by the richness of light … circumstances helped me. To correct a natural indifference I was placed half-way between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn’t everything.

—Albert Camus,
De l’envers et l’endroit

CONTENTS

African Images, Glimpses from a Tiger’s Back

Love

Karamojans

Once

Chic Freedom’s Reflection

South: The Name of Home

Hymn

The Democratic Order: Such Things in Twenty Years I Understood

They Who Feel Death

On being asked to leave a place of honor for one of comfort

The Enemy

Compulsory Chapel

To the Man in the Yellow Terry

The Kiss

What Ovid Taught Me

Mornings

So We’ve Come at Last to Freud

Johann

The Smell of Lebanon

Warning

The Black Prince

Medicine

ballad of the brown girl

Suicide

Excuse

to die before one wakes must be glad

Exercises on Themes from Life

A Biography of Alice Walker

AFRICAN IMAGES
Glimpses from a Tiger’s Back

i

Beads around my neck

Mt. Kenya away over pineappled hills

Kikuyuland.

ii

A book of poems

Mt. Kenya’s

Bluish peaks

“Wangari!”
*

My new name.

iii

A green copse

And hovering

Quivering

Near our bus

A shy gazelle.

iv

morning mists

On the road

an Elephant

He knows

his rights.

v

A strange noise!

“Perhaps an elephant

is eating our roof”

In the morning

much blue.

vi

A tall warrior

and at his feet

only

Elephant bones.

vii

Elephant legs

In a store

To hold

Umbrellas.

viii

A young man

Puts a question

In his language

I invariably

End up

Married.

ix

The clear Nile

A fat crocodile

Scratches his belly

And yawns.

x

The rain forest

Red orchids—glorious!

And near one’s eyes

The spinning cobra.

xi

A small boat

A placid lake

Suddenly at one’s hand

Two ears—

Hippopotamus.

xii

An ocean of grass

A sea of sunshine

And near my hand

Water buffalo.

xiii

See! through the trees!

A leopard in

the branches—

No, only a giraffe

Munching his dinner.

xiv

Fast rapids

Far below

Begins

The lazy Nile.

xv

A silent lake

Bone strewn banks

Luminous

In the sun.

xvi

Uganda mountains

Black soil

White snow

And in the valley

Zebra.

xvii

African mornings

Are not for sleeping

In the early noon

The servant comes

To wake me.

xviii

Very American

I want to eat

The native food—

But a whole goat!

xix

Holding three fingers

The African child

Looked up at me

The sky was very Blue.

xx

In the dance

I see a girl

Go limp

“It is a tactic”

I think.

xxi

“America!?”     “Yes.”

“But you are like

my aunt’s cousin

who married so-and-so.”

“Yes, (I say), I know.”

xxii

On my knees

The earringed lady

Thinks I’m praying

She drops her sisal

and runs.

xxiii

“You are a Negro?”

“Yes”

“But that is a kind

of food—isn’t it—

the white man used to

eat you???”

“Well—”

xxiv

Unusual things amuse us

A little African girl

Sees my white friend

And runs

She thinks he wants her

For his dinner.

xxv

The fresh corpse

Of a white rhinoceros

His horn gone

Some Indian woman

Will be approached

Tonight.

xxvi

The man in the

Scarlet shirt

Wanted to talk

but had no words—

I had words

but no Scarlet

Shirt.

xxvii

floating shakily down the

nile

on my rented raft

I try to be a native

queen

a prudent giraffe

on the bank

turns up

his nose.

xxviii

We eat Metoke
*

with three fingers—

other things

get two fingers

and one of those

a thumb.

xxix

That you loved me

I felt sure

Twice you asked

me gently

if I liked the

strange

gray

stew.

xxx

Pinching both my legs

the old man kneels

before me on the

ground

his head white

Ah! Africa’s mountain

Peaks

Snow to grace

eternal spring!

xxxi

To build a hut

One needs mud

and sisal

And friendly

Neighbors.

xxxii

Where the glacier was

A lake

Where the lake is

Sunshine

And redheaded

Marabou storks.

xxxiii

On a grumpy day

An African child

Chants “good morning”

—I have never seen

Such bright sun!

xxxiv

The Nairobi streets

At midnight

Deserted

The hot dog man

Folds up his cart.

xxxv

In Nairobi

I pestered an

Indian boy to

Sell me a

Hat

For five shillings—

How bright

His eyes were!

xxxvi

In a kunzu

Long and white

Stands my African

Dad

The sound of drums

Fills

The air!

xxxvii

On my brother’s motorcycle

The Indian mosques

And shops fade behind us

My hair takes flight

He laughs

He has not seen such hair

Before.

xxxviii

An African girl

Gives me a pineapple

Her country’s national

Flower

How proudly she

Blinks the eye

Put out

By a sharp pineapple

Frond.

I wonder if I should

Kneel

At her bare little

Feet?

xxxix

At first night

I sat alone

& watched the

sun set

behind

the

aberdares

During

the day

my legs

and the sun

belonged

to

the village

children.

xl

Under the moon

luminous

huts. …

Brown breasts stuck

out to taunt

the sullen wind.

xli

A crumbling hut…

in the third

room

a red chenille

bedspread

(by Cannon)

a cracked

jar

of violet

lilies

(by?)

xlii

The native women

thought me

strange

until they

saw me follow you

to your hut.

xliii

In Kampala

the young king

goes often

to Church

the young girls here

are

So pious.

xliv

Settled behind

tall banana trees

the little hut

is overcovered

by their leaves

patiently it waits

for autumn

which never comes.…

xlv

in my journal

I thought I could

capture

everything.…

Listen!

the soft wings of cranes

sifting the salt sea

air.

*
Kikuyu clan name indicating honorary acceptance into the Leopard clan.

*
A food staple of the Buganda in Uganda, made from plantains.

LOVE

i

A dark stranger

My heart searches

Him out

“Papa!”

ii

An old man in white

Calls me “mama”

It does not take much

To know

He wants me for

His wife—

He has no teeth

But is kind.

iii

The American from

Minnesota

Speaks Harvardly

of Revolution—

Men of the Mau Mau

Smile

Their fists holding

Bits of

Kenya earth.

iv

A tall Ethiopian

Grins at me

The grass burns

My bare feet.

v

Drums outside

My window

Morning whirls

In

I have danced all

Night.

vi

The bearded Briton

Wears a shirt of

Kenya flags

I am at home

He says.

vii

Down the hill

A grove of trees

And on this spot

The magic tree.

viii

The Kenya air!

Miles of hills

Mountains

And holding both

My hands

A Mau Mau leader.

ix

And in the hut

The only picture—

Of Jesus

x

Explain to the

Women

In the village

That you are

Twenty

And belong—

To no one.

KARAMOJANS

i

A tall man

Without clothes

Beautiful

Like a statue

Up close

His eyes

Are running

Sores.

ii

The Noble Savage

Erect

No shoes on his

feet

His pierced ears

Infected.

iii

“Quite incredible—

your hair-do is

most divine——

Held together

With
cow
dung?

You mean——?!

The lady stares

At her fingers.

iv

A proper English meal

Near the mountains

“More tea, please”

Down the street

A man walks

Quite completely

Nude.

v

Bare breasts loose

In the sun

The skin cracked

The nipples covered

With flies

But she is an old

Woman

What?—twenty?

vi

A Catholic church

The chaste cross

Stark

Against the purple sky.

We surprise a

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