May 25, 2022. Here we are again. 18 children dead. Twenty-one families blown apart. Twenty-two families. Not one week after ten families were rent in Buffalo. Eleven families. How many of us read Jasminne Mendez’s earnest and heart-shredding tweets this morning and held tears back?
“Drop off was so so hard today. I know I need to go home and work on all the things but I can’t bring myself to leave the school parking lot.”
Two sides. What we need to do, and what we need to do. Impossible choices. The urge is to summon Scylla and Charybdis, but those sea monsters were lore. Our classrooms and caskets are real. How many of us sent children off to school today? How many of us texted I love you to our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and prayed there wouldn’t be a copycat? Our loved ones armed with nursery rhymes and repetition. Thank god video games desensitize the children, how else could we excuse ourselves?1
Since we insist on playing in the dark2, let’s start with the source of all darkness in the American imagination—not the mirror, but the cradle: Africa. Let’s talk about Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni’s poem, “Alternate ending with bloodless dress.” The distance of violence on another shore, violence across bodies that maybe don’t like your kin—some of us don’t have that luxury—may prove helpful for examining a cup that runneth over and splashes its stain, with particular depravity, across the bodies of children. Let’s talk about the tightrope of language this poet has built to navigate unforgivable terror and loss.
If your first language is English, you’re accustomed to using context clues to discern both pronunciation and definition in a language system that is absolutely bonkers to anyone that wasn’t born with it.
Read that again, it sounds mean, doesn’t it?
Now did I mean: I read that again and it sounded mean or was I asking you to revel in my lack of concern for your discomfort as I illustrate my point?
American English, like the nation that conceived it, gives the diabolical illusion of independence: it is up to you to decide what the author wrote and meant—except it isn’t, is it? Because there’s always a right answer when power is at play, and the wrong answer costs lives.
Over, and over, and over again. The first two drafts of this study focused largely on the language work in this poem, but the author addresses those topics in the Q & A, so if you’re truly struggling with the Yoruba and the importance of pronunciation and accents in this piece, please skip ahead to that part then come back.
ọta means bullet
ọtá means enemy
To say body you say ara
To say thunder you say àrá
Teminikan recalls a memory
Teminikan recalls a myth
In America, we don’t bother with these distinctions. Bullet means bullet, and bullet means enemy, and bullet means American, and bullet means schools out. We don’t say body and we don’t say thunder; we say Act of God and Thoughts & Prayers (and both carry insurance policies if you know enough to cash in). By literally codifying myth3 as memory4, the need to distinguish between the two is eliminated. Bonus: this also erases all associated costs and attended expenditures (see also: collateral damage).
This poem is about the Shooting of unarmed END SARS protesters by the Nigerian Army in Lekki, in October of 2020. Remember #EndSARS? You can google this event and read reports from Amnesty International and other organizations on what happened on that October night. Cameras were disabled. Live and blank bullets were deployed5. Some of it was streamed online—does any of this sound familiar? Twelve people died. They estimate.
This poem is about the shooting of unarmed people by armed people in October of 2020.
This poem is about the shooting of unarmed people by armed people.
It is disgusting that by placing this violence an ocean away, on a pathologically mythologized continent, and in a different language, the message somehow becomes easier to understand, the injustice easier to call out, the corruption clearer to spot. Thanni asks the reader: what should our memory hold of October? This line starts an unraveling that is further unfurled by each following line in the poem; always another turn to unfurl because as humans, we keep doing and witnessing things previously unfathomable. Each time we hit a new low, we reel and tremble—but the minute someone puts a shovel back in our hands, it’s back to digging. And whose grave are we digging? What should we remember?
Should. Not what could we remember. Not what would we remember. They’re all verbs: should (shall), could (can) and would (will)—but only one implies deliberation. Should is related to obligation and duty. Should brings a critical lens to the equation. Should creates sides. Would6 makes room for consequences, and could7 invites limitations into view. Consequences and limitations, two elements that are real and impact the speaker but over which the speaker has no power. Elements that are outside the power of most of us, as most of us are not lawmakers, gun manufacturers, or Lone Wolves™. It is not our will nor do we have a hand in the consequences of gun violence.
Unarmed people shot by armed people. What should we remember? The implication is clear: the choice we have is in what we choose to remember. Turn the news on and you’ll find glassy-eyed parents remembering their murdered children: Colorado, Florida, Connecticut, and Texas. You’ll see glossy-haired people remembering the Founding Fathers and their unexpressed intentions on TV, too. Which should we remember?
Our mothers prayed against the gun
Our mothers prayed against the state
Woof. The third world, amirite? Mothers praying against the state? Betty Crocker would never—or is it could never? Let’s say, Betty Crocker never did. Except when her boy’s draft number was up. Except when her kin does resemble those bodies on another continent. Except when the State8 (polity; Texas, et al.) gives a state (all potential answers to a random thing; see also: gun) to a in a state (a condition or set of circumstances applying at any given time; a mood). Maybe Betty Crocker should.
Fly and Break
Free and Remembered
Saw and Sank
Boy and Ghost
Maybe it’s just the day’s news but it almost sounds like a nursery rhyme. I woke up thinking about these eight words: fly, free, saw (see), boy (child)—and their opposite: break, remembered, sank (sunk), and ghost. No matter who you do or don’t pray to, it is always easier to see the rafter in our brother’s eye than it is to see our own. I’ve been sitting with Thanni’s poem for a year now. Since KDP published it. The whole world has changed since then. I have changed. Ọbáfẹ́mi has changed. We both lost loved ones during this time. Both sought comfort in forgetting the meaning of words and the weight of understanding them. Both stood across the distance of grief, contemplating what has to come next. I cannot speak for him, but for me, it has been a struggle.
But this morning, after texting my mother that I love her, and texting my teacher friend to be safe, and praying for my nephews and the families of all those grieving today, I was angry. I am angry. And I’m scared. I called out of work today because I work for a university that gave us hockey pucks9 and warned us that AR-15’s shoot through walls, so we do best to hide under our desks and not in cabinets against the wall. What a luxury, though—to call out of work and be ok, to worry about potential danger from the safety of my home. Not to be in the classroom, or in the principal’s office, or in the parking lot, with a brave face. I’m editing this now and that teacher friend I texted this morning is in a Lockdown. Active Shooter suspected on campus. Or maybe they found a gun. Or someone called in a threat. Not sure. And that’s the thing when someone you love is in a school building isn’t it? You’re not sure it’s not a big deal until it’s over and it either is or isn’t a big deal.
It takes 10 minutes, or it takes an hour, or it takes the rest of their life. It has been more than two decades since Columbine. Entire human beings have been born, attended school, and been gunned to death since then, at least 55410 of them. 554 lives cut short and I’m just talking about school shootings, not mass shootings in general. What will we remember of October, friends? What should we remember?
The brilliance with which Thanni shifts in the second half of this poem is what compelled me to rewrite this Study (for the fourth time) and address current events:
To cause a thing to fly you cast the spell fò
To cause a think to break you cast the spell fọ
The feather floating above the drowned boy sings O you should have seen him fly
The feather floating above the drowned boy sings O you should have seen him break
Flying or broken, the feather exists in proximity to a dead boy. If we cannot change the violence, what can we change? Now Thanni shifts the speaker’s focus to what can be done.
Remember the title of this poem asks us to imagine an alternate ending. To imagine11 something different is an inherent form of empowerment, it requires us to acknowledge what power we do have. We can cause to fly or cause to break and the difference between the two is a breath, Thanni illustrates. In America, we call that a “split second,” and take the human right out of it. We do that a lot, recalling myth instead of memory, as Thanni highlights.
In my mother’s tongue meanings are breaths apart
This line, like “what should our memory hold of October?” stands uncoupled, daring us to examine its fullness. Thanni invites the reader to consider an “alternate ending,” recasting the slender veil between meanings as possibility. He exhorts us to examine the power of our own breath, or intention, or efforts.
A voice points to a wound and says she was the only one who truly saw me
A voice points to a wound and says she was the only one who truly sank me
This voice, the next verse illuminates, is either a boy or a ghost. Do we as the reader have any ability to determine if the voice is a boy or a ghost? Likely not. One imagines the types of people who would open fire on unarmed people don’t read much poetry, Nigerian or otherwise, and few of us are gun manufacturers or lawmakers. But when we point to the wound, as so many of us are doing in this moment, where is our breath? our energy? Is it in the sinking, or the seeing?
In the course of this Brown Study, which I will admit is a bit different from the usual format, I’ve mentioned several mass shootings, mostly in schools, but also in the community: in places of worship. In grocery centers. We have seen shootings at concerts and in workplaces, and maybe it’s easier to show sympathy for K-12 victims because they’re so young. But no life is worth more than another. The loss of 10 lives in Buffalo is no less significant than the loss of 23 in Texas, and these lives are no less pressing than the lives of hundreds of people across this country who die by gunfire every day. What of our voices: are they in service of living beings or ghosts?
This brings us to the one titular element we haven’t discussed: the bloodless dress. This isn’t an American poem, it is a Nigerian poem. And while fruits of violence grow in every garden, this poem is rooted in a specific event. Armed soldiers shot unarmed protesters in Lekki in October of 2020. The universal aspects of this event may soften the harshness of examining our own putrefying fruit, but in subverting the poem’s purpose we commit a second violence: it isn’t that we lift the lives of Americans above lives of Nigerians, no. Instead, the second violence is that we lower the life of Nigerians beneath that of Americans. Because make no mistake: in reflecting on how the violence of Lekki connects to the violence we see here in America we aren’t elevating American lives in any substantive way. A shake of the head, a retweet, maybe a donation to an adjacent cause. Elevate the discourse? How does one elevate an ocean? So we return to the gate. To the mass of young people from of all walks of life who gathered to protest the Special Anti Robbery unit of the Nigerian Police. Thanni paints the scenery for us clearly—the love between families, the high stakes involved in pursuing change (fly/break, free/remembered), and nestled in these intense bonds, intense violence. The blood is obvious, and so the imagination of bloodlessness is easy to understand, but the dress continued to elude me. Here, I will let the poet speak for himself:
At the heights of my country’s crime against its unharmed citizens, an image remained in circulation, long after the state’s sanction of the atrocity became undeniable, even for them. The image is in itself an alternate Nigerian flag, perhaps a more revealing one, with the official greens darkened, and the white streaked with blood.
The flag seemed to me the fabric of cost, of the terror they seek to cower us with. The dress in the title is spun from this fabric; and perhaps it manifests both a future and a dream, a future I dream of where we are adorned in bloodless dresses and do not reap death in the very streets where we resist it.
Artist Q & A
- In this poem you play with duality. What elements of the poem did you marshall to emphasize the duality?
Language is the foremost element emphasizing the duality I experiment with. It is often, if not always, the beginning. The language is then amplified by form, in the instance of the couplets pairing the words, their meanings, contexts and implications.
The implications, in particular, are highlighted by their single word structure as an extension of their earlier contextless meanings. The absence of punctuation and the choice of gaps offers rooms of breath; and the structure interacts equally well with this absence, lending the latter implication of each duality the weight of a period.
- In this piece, bilingualism is the doorway through which the reader begins to observe the scene you’re creating in this poem. Tell us a little about the process of blending two languages acoustically?
Thank you for the image of a doorway, it brings to mind one left ajar, one with duality as one considers if the image is formed as the doorway opens or closes.
Similarly, bilingualism as a heritage is both complete and incomplete, inherent and ongoing; making Yoruba present and absent in my every work. The way these languages interact within myself and by extension, this poem, is mostly a secret kept from me. I am taking the doorway with the reader too, perhaps. My heritage gives me certain knowledge, phrases, verbal experiences that the other tongue is not aware of; and to blend is to split one tongue open and fill it with the wealth of another.
Yet, I know too little, but I can confess to something similar to Safia Elhillo’s striking line “no language has given me / the rhyme between ocean & / wound that i know to be true.”
- This poem carries a slanted version of repetition to great effect. What is your favorite line? Why?
You are going to make me sow jealousy among the lines.
My favourite is the fò / fọ pair by virtue of the transition it contains and the implication it arrives at. A thing becomes a drowned boy, becomes Icarus; and while the association of freedom and flight is known, it is the implication of breaking, of tragedy as a path to memory that held my attention. To consider that freedom is not ‘memorable’, extends to our conceptions of joy and the idea that devotees are forgotten after the ‘brief flight’ of salvation while saints remain in prayers, in memory, for their breaking, their noted pains.
- As you were drafting, were there any lines you loved that did not make it into the final draft?
Because of what the poem experiments with, several acoustic alternates presented themselves for inclusion and this version, which reads as the poem, is one of many alternate endings.
There is, for instance, a rhyme between blood and covenant that excited me, briefly. But the rhyme has familiar implications given its thematic proximity.
- What were you reading when you wrote this poem? What were you reading when you edited this poem?
At the time of writing this poem, I was re-reading Safia Elhillo’s ‘The January Children‘ to establish a translation to implication rhythm. Editing the poem coincided with exploring other ideas, so I was re-reading Ocean Vuong’s ‘Nightsky With Exit Wounds‘ and Anne Carson’s ‘Norma Jeane Baker of Troy‘, while reading Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition‘.
- Imagine this piece in conversation with non-literary pieces of art (i.e.: sculptures, music, paintings, etc). Can you tell me who is in the conversation?
The music and live performances of FKA Twigs certainly opens this conversation. I was listening, almost exclusively, to her MAGDALENE album when I was working on this poem. My experience with the album varied from playing the studio album on repeat, to watching all or select videos produced for the album, or immersing in her live embodied performances. These formed varied mediums for experiencing her work, which is in itself particularly inventive in its songwriting, production and her fusion of the classical and alternative.
As her songs fill the background, the paintings and impulse of Toyin Ojih Odutola contribute to the conversation. I cannot speak to you effectively of the ingenuity of either of these artists, but what shows up in this conversation is a discovery that contributed to her catalogue, A Countervailing Theory. This involved Leo Frobenius‘ discovery of the Ife head12—a centuries-old brass statue in 1910—and his desperate attribution of its creation to Greeks, from the lost civilization Atlantis, because Nigerians did not fit within his conception as creators of such anatomically precise beauty13.
- If you were to trace the lineage of this poem backward two generations, what four other pieces of literature would be in that family tree?
This poem was nurtured by two mothers: Safia Elhillo’s ‘vocabulary’ and ‘second quarantine with abdelhalim hafez‘ [from The January Children] and Tjawangwa Dema’s ‘Homonym’ [from The Careless Seamstress]. The poem also has an uncle in José Arcadio Segundo for his solitary rack with memory [from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude] and a cousin in I.S Jones’ ‘Can you speak Yorùbá‘ [from two poems published by HAD] which expresses the dualities inherited by this poem; confessing the truths of one tongue with another.
- Romano, A. (2019, August 26). The frustrating, enduring debate over video games, violence, and guns. Vox. LINK.
- Morrison, Toni, author. (1993). Playing in the dark : whiteness and the literary imagination. New York :Vintage Books—see how easy it is to cite without losing the thread or skimping on credit?
- Heim, J. (2019, August 28). What do students learn about slavery? It depends where they live. Washington Post. LINK.
NOTE: This source was purposely selected because it predates the BLM protests, 1619 Project, and the wave of CRT panic currently sweeping the United States public education system.
- This one is so on the nose I had to link AND cite it:
Smith, C. (2021, June). Why Confederate Lies Live On. The Atlantic. LINK.
- Adediran, I. (2021, September 28). Lekki Shooting: Live, military-grade ammunition fired at protesters – Expert. Premium Times Nigeria. LINK.
- would: expressing the conditional mood; indicating the consequence of an imagined event or situation.
- could: permitted to. Could we look at other definitions of could? We could, but since there are no diacritics, we could also use this definition, to establish the point, and since we can (tense of could) we shall (tense of should)!
- Cathey, L. (2021, October 28). Why the Second Amendment may be losing relevance in gun debate. ABC News. LINK.
- Christine Ferretti and Jennifer Chambers, The Detroit News. (2018, November 27). Oakland University to fight shooters with hockey pucks. The Detroit News. LINK.
- Loh, M. (2022, May 25). There have been at least 554 school shooting victims in the US since the Columbine High School massacre: report. Insider. LINK.
- Imagination and social movements. H Hawlina, OC Pedersen, T Zittoun – Current Opinion in Psychology, 2020 – LINK.
- I could not find a picture of this particular object but of objects like it: https://smarthistory.org/ife-head-ruler/
- Sylvain, R. (1996). Leo Frobenius. From “Kulturkreis to Kulturmorphologie.” Anthropos, 91(4/6), 483–494. LINK.
Jeni De La O is an Afro-Cuban poet and storyteller living in Detroit. She is a 2021 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow, a founding member of The Estuary Collective, and the Associate Editor at Frontier Poetry. She writes the BROWN STUDY at The Poetry Question and her chapbook, SOFIAS, won the inaugural Tiran Burrell Chapbook Prize from Knights Library Magazine. Jeni has told stories with The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, Lamplight Festival, MouthPiece Stories, and The Moth MainStage. Her poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, Columbia Journal, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Jeni’s debut poetry film, “every diaspora poem is about mangos” was co-created with REEL CLEVER FILMS and premiered in the Spring of 2022.