Kofi Awoonor: From 'Poems & Abuse-Poems of the Ewe'

The sorrow & shock of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor’s death among the nearly 100 killed in this September’s Kenya Mall bombing & massacre is still another horror to live with. Kofi was our friend & comrade in the early 1970s, a fellow poet & contributing editor to my magazine, Alcheringa Ethnopoetics, & a companion & guest at our dinner table in New York. His magnificent translations from Ewe oral poetry (“Poems & Abuse Poems of the Ewe”) appeared first in Alcheringa & in Technicians of the Sacred, & his presence among us was warm & his council invaluable, his accomplishments many. While there is more to be said about the madness that took his life, my tribute to him now is to show him writing through two of the Ewe oral poets that he translated, along with some comments of my own from Technicians of the Sacred in acknowledgement of the continued relevance of the traditional “abuse poetry” that he revealed to us. The first poem, below, is almost a memorial in itself.


by Henino Vinoko Akpalu (b.1888)



I shall sing you a song of sorrow.

When my turn comes, who will sing for me?

There is silence, earthly silence.

This way they said is how the poet dies.

Alas for someone who will bring him over the gulf

and he will come bearing along his voice

Only night shall fall; another day will dawn;

he will sing a song of sorrow.


The skull proclaimed: it is my mouth that sent me.

In the desert the rain beat me

soon the brushfire shall roar Over me.

Folks came asking for song.

Akpalu the poet asked: what song

shall I sing for you?

If I threw a long rope, night will fall.

Let me cut it short.

When you have a short sleeping mat

you do not nod in an easy chair

nor do you sleep on the earthen floor.

We are the owners of song.

Call the poet, call Akpalu from Anyako

he will cut it short, cut it very short for you.



There are guns; those who want to bury me.

To them I say when we meet I will step aside for them.

We know them in life, those who say:

"Die that I may bury you. "

Those on whom I had been counting

to look after me when evil matters fall,

when I meet them I will step aside for them.

I thought I had a child called "all is well behind me. "

Another, I thought, was called "to whom shall I tell it?"

The third was called "I am spread. "

Alas my children turned out to be my songs

that is how things have gone with me.

Let everyone know them, those who say:

"Die that I may bury you. "

Those on whom I had been counting

to look after me when the end comes

there are guns, those who want to bury me.

When I meet them I will step aside for them.



I was made by a great God.

I was made together with other poets.

You call yourself a poet, can you sing with Akpalu's voice?

Who deceived you? I was made by a great God.

I was made together with other singers.

The song of the drum, I do not sing it merely,

It was from old men I heard it;

a child who thinks he understands so much

cannot understand Agoha.

Agoha cannot die.

You may understand the top but not the deep words.

Anagli is going to bark.

You say you are a singer, can you sing with Akpalu's voice?

Who deceived you?

Is there any poet who can sing with Akpalu's voice?

I was made by a great God.

I was created together with other poets.



by Komi Ekpe (b. 1897)



Poverty moved into my homestead

Can I be this way and earn the name of a great singer?

Shall I fear death by song

and refuse to sing?



Hm  hm  hm. Beware,

I will place a load on Kodzo's head.

Nugbleza informed me that

it is the women of Tsiame

who goaded Kodzo into my song.

Questioners, this became the evil firewood

he'd gathered; his hands decayed

his feet decayed.

I am the poet; I am not afraid of you.

Kodzo, winding in the air, his asshole agape

his face long and curved

like the lagoon egret's beak.

Call him here, I say call him

and let me see his face.

He is the man from whom the wind runs,

the man who eats off the farm he hasn't planted

his face bent like the evil hoe

on its handle. Behold, ei ei ei

Kodzo did something. I forgive him his debt.

I will insult him since he poked

a stick into the flying ant's grove.

Amegavi said he has some wealth

And he took Kodzo's part.

The back of his head tapers off

as if they'd built a fetish hut on his breathing spot.

His face wags, a fool with a white ass.

The money opened his asshole

in display to the owner of the farm.

The lion caught a game, alas,

his children took it away from him.

Kodzo’s homestead shall fall, shall surely fall.

Questioners, let evil men die

let death knock down the evil doer.

If I were the fetish in the creator's house

that will be your redemption.

Kodz0, this imbecile, evil animal

who fucks others' wives fatteningly

his buttocks run off, his teeth yellow

his penis has wound a rope around his waist

pulling him around and away,

his backside runs into a slope

his eye twisted like the sun-inspector,

he has many supporters in Tsiame

his mouth as long as the pig

blowing the twin whistle.

Something indeed has happened.



A devotee offended Yewe

and the owner of guns did not fire.

The Creator sent me along this way;

I am all alone. He is not very wise.

I joined a cult whose shrines I cannot build.

Komi Ekpe says his deity lingers in a brass pan.

The beautiful children are in rebellion.

My mother in tears passed the poet on the roadside.

Whence did you pass before entering this world?

Did you fuck a deital virgin still on her way home?

Or did you receive the power of witchcraft?

No. I went acourting, and I was forced

into marriage. My murderers swore an oath.

If I say something please understand it.

I was about to sing so I called my Creator in abuse.

I became the offender of my Creator.

Slowly, I shall go home.

I shall question him closely

for he knows not that I shiver

from companions’ cold.

My enemies, I beg you,

do not eat salt till your heart hurts.

I will die soon. And this town will be empty

for you to crawl over one another.

Questioners, what ancient laws did I break?

The royal palm fruit comes down when it ripens.

The salt lagoon says the strong wind touches

not the tender shoots of the royal palm.

The earth is empty of my loved ones.

Even this bare life I lead annoys.

The palm eating bird soon goes blind.

Kill me, and I shall die.

My life is empty.

You who seek my death

at the eating and drinking place

and seek my death so passionately

I have moved my feet away.

It is man who passed the judgment of death

upon me.  If the elders call me

I am corning.

If death's messenger arrives,

I shall go. I shall go.

I cannot refuse to go.

Kofi Lisavi, raise the shout over my head.

The elders have called me

I cannot refuse to go.



She with the jaw-bone of a cow

falling upon her chest like sea egret's beak,

her waist flat,

earlobes hanging, oversize intestines,

it was you who took my affairs to Sokpe

and asked him to sing against me.

I do not refuse;

I am not afraid of song.

I shall stay at home; if anyone likes

let him come; whatever he has

let him say it;

I shall listen.

I was far up north

when Kunye of the mad ram's face

carne and insulted me.

There is no one. I shall tell

a little tale to the slave;

let him open his ears wide and listen.

They heaped slave-insults upon Aheto’s head

and he swore a lengthy oath

full of boasts and boasts

that he was not a slave.

Atomi came and said it

We caught him, sold him to Zogbede

Zogbede bought him with his own wealth.

Your grandmother was taken from Yosu

from there she came to Tsiame.

You people of Dagbame, do you wear underclothes?

A small pair of underpants was put upon your grandmother

and she burst into tears.



It was the bird that sent

me into the night; I went away

with good deeds

Adzima boys, the beautiful ones cooked

for their husbands

This destiny is mine.

I salute you.

The needle follows the string

The Creator himself salutes you.

Salutations! The collapse of a town

is my divination.

The gun shall leap into the forest!

A fruitless effort, the owner of cloth

    is the spinning wheel.

    Monyo is nobody. I cannot marry him.

I shall wait and marry a priest

So he will give me a priestly child

    The priest did not know I will survive

    The priest Awoonor did not know

                      I will survive.



I cannot walk the walk

of little infants.

The animals begat twins,

But the lion begat only one.

Why has it become a matter of such anger

I want to climb and untie the fresh leaves of the Ago palm

But I walk the walk of flesh eating birds

It fell upon evil for me.


[A NOTE ON THE HALO OR ABSUSE POEM AS REVEALED BY KOFI AWOONOR.  Centered on public events such as wakes & funerals, the halo contests between poets remind us of traditions as diverse as Eskimo song battles, the flytings, etc. of pagan Europe, & the more recent African-American “dozens.”  A reminder too that good-feelings per se have rarely been the central aim of a poetry derived from the workings of shamans & sacred clowns engaged (more often & more like ourselves than we had previously imagined) in traditional rituals of abuse & disruption. (J.R.)]