Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: Memory By Eric Ngalle Charles


For Joyce Ashuntangtang

Just before dawn when the city bleeds,
the poet undresses in the dark and writes.
Witness, she pushes herself to tell
of prison cells and sharpened guillotines,
of how she sees thieves with cloaks and daggers,
their faces hanging on posters and billboards.

When the city bled, in the reddening dawn,
she saw the children, her children.
They were many and feeding on garbage
in bins and gutters, hungry as rats.
In their eyes, she saw before they did
the corpses they would be tomorrow.

Eric Ngalle Charles’ fine diptych is placeless only in the sense that the reader is not privileged with identifiers. Taken from a book of refuges and displacements – the poet was himself trafficked from his birthplace of Cameroon to Russia, before escaping to a new home in Wales – Memory, we infer, is set in an earlier, more brutal time in his West African homeland.

It may or may not be the case that the dedicatee, writer and academic Joyce Ashuntangtang – a fellow Cameroonian – is the poet of the poem. Framed as an archetype, incarcerated in the gaol of memory, the subject yields a bigger symbolic picture than any individual ‘witness’: the bloody dawn of the opening sestet, insinuated in the reflective present, is reinforced, in the second, by the catastrophic metaphor of the ‘reddening’ dawn of a witheringly depicted past.

The creative imagination, driven by the impulse to delineate pain, to witness the voiceless and the dead, is rendered in a storied pastiche of ‘guillotines’, of ‘cloaks and daggers’, as though inadequate to the task of delivering an approximation of brutal authenticity. The second half of Ngalle Charles’ sanguine, open-eyed poem surfaces into recalled actuality, a vision whose clarity is enhanced by a sense of place and of cultural and collective identity: ‘she saw the children, her children. / They were many’. The hunger, the pitiful scavenging in the ‘bins and gutters’, is a preface to death.

The compulsion to witness, to commemorate and to redress is vouchsafed in the children, who carry death’s immanence in their eyes.

‘Memory’ is taken from Homelands, published by Seren Press (2022), and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

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