Why We Call It What It Is










Thrice this dreary winter I’ve dreamed the death
I died in Africa, not buff savanna nor undulating sands
but where the vertical panorama of cumulonimbus
is self-contained, where thunder claps call out
on their own, downpours taking up the theme.
Was it soma or coma? Hepatitis on the Pepper
Coast let my liver have the final say.

Quarantined, stunned with soporifics,
pinned against a sallow tumescent sky,
I felt the whole treacherous tropics gouge
into my guts, leaving me brittle bones from brow
to ribs to toes with shriveled pulp for viscera,
flaccid shrunken testes. My sap was hot with bile,
my shit pale clay, piss shit brown. Was I then to die?
Was this my unction, from a friendly mantis tacit prayer,
for incense the stench of coffee blossoms in fetid air?

A rooster crowed, a dog barked at a stooped
and wizened, demented old man. Myself, I saw.
Then all gravity cut loose. My bed became a bier
in surging currents, dipping down past pallid
shores whence no one I remotely knew beckoned.

Limbo? Purgatorio? Inferno? Whom are we supposed
to meet there, anyway? Fathers whose afflictions
we grow to share; lovers transmogrifying
in our arms; lumpen bums lurching at us to beg
change, faces chafed and skinned like the hindquarters
of small game, rubby veins blasted to the surface?

[We each live out protracted crises de foie.
We call it the liver because this gland strives
against death’s inward seepage. Mine did, and won.]

In Spring, 1968, when the whole planet seemed to be erupting, I was quarantined with hepatitis in West Africa, isolated from everyone else and put in the care of a Kpelle houseboy, James. I failed grossly at learning his language but I did have enough shards of it to exchange words, though not until after the katabasis  described above and my return to the surface. 

Did I merely dream that I was dying and descending into the underworld? Or was I actually dying but then made a miraculous recovery in the course of the fever in question?

The next morning I woke to find myself alive, as if washed up ashore on the near bank of some Styx, exhausted but suddenly hungry. 

Ngá ba mii? James asked, have you eaten, usually meaning rice, which is the main crop and fare of the Kpelle. I had eaten nothing for weeks in fact, so deep had been my nausea. It was just after dawn but I had this hankering for roast chicken and French fries.

Wéli tée, I replied. Returning from the dead enables one to speak. Within a couple of hours James obliged me with the best poulet frites I have ever eaten, though probably not the best thing for my liver at that stage of things.

Wine had to wait two more months. When I did return to alcohol, it was to frizzante early afternoon palm wine, one nectar of the many gods that be, this on my twenty-third birthday in July of the summer that was. 

Palm wine is something to catch as it goes. In the morning it is pure sap and juice, by noon it is spritzy and slightly intoxicating. As day goes on it turns more and more complex, fuller in flavour, sometimes sour, but more and more intoxicating.  As a Kpelle proverb has it, like a women. 

I was lucky that I had only hepatitis A , viral but not serum.  I was young. The afflicted lobe of my liver regenerated. That belaboured gland has held steady for almost fifty years against the glut of toxins I imbibe.

All that remained of my descent into the underworld was the bundle of words and images I have re-purposed here, though the suspension points betray the lack of an ending.

Boiled eggsMy photo of a Kpelle sma boi egg seller, Gbarnga, Bong County, 1968.  Head photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumulonimbus_cloud.

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