What were we watching on the tube under mildewed ceilings in Eastlands?
A Kenyan guy shaking a rattle made from a can
while another guy in the band was talking to the queen
about making sound out of anything? The queen smiled.
The Jubilee receiving line filed through.
We shimmied past tin shacks selling wigs and bananas, coke and goat lungs;
the tine of a kalimba kissed my face. My face kissed the blue plastic of
a soda bottle sliding down a hill of glass.
I paid the gang leaders for protection
and we walked into the hills of airplane garbage,
black and blue plastic bags glowing in the sun spray over the heads
of the marabou stalking the mounds with their knife-blade beaks.
Stevie Wonder and Elton John moved through the Jubilee line.
Prince Charles thanked God for the weather as the camera cut
to fireworks spewing over Hyde Park and then to an image of Nairobi
and the Slum Drummers picking metal out of the collages of garbage.
My jeans were charred from the tin-can fires,
and the grilling pig guts when some men looked up from scraps of wire—
and you went back and forth with them in Swahili before they offered us
some sizzling fat, before we thanked them with our coy smiles and moved on
with Michael who took us
down a maze of alleyways where tin shacks were floating
on polymers and nitrogen and a dozen pigs from nowhere snouted the garbage.
You were saying “Dad”—when a marabou-hacked bag shot some shit
on our shoes—“Dad, kinship roles are always changing”—
when a woman asked us for a few shillings and salt
for her soup. Salt? Did I hear her right? Or was it Swahili
for something else? And through the sooty wind of charcoal fires
and creaking rusty tin you were saying, “Hannah Arendt called Swahili
a degraded language of former slave holders.”
In the soot of my head—I was listening—
and Michael was asking for more shillings for the gang guys
who were “a little fucked up,” he said, “but needed help”—
and when I turned around the heads of chickens
were twitching, the feathers fluttering down on oozing sludge;
“Arendt called it a nineteenth century kind of no language,”
you were saying, “spoken”—as we were jolted
by a marabou eating a shoe—“spoken—by the Arab ivory and slave caravans.”
Out of bottles, cans, pipes, mangled wire—the Slum Drummers
twisted and hacked, joined and seamed their heaven
into the black plastic ghost of a mashed pot.
Pure tones blew from the vibrato holes
like wind through Makadara
where the breath of God flew through sewage pipes.
I heard in a tubophone the resurrection
of ten men rising out of coal and pig snouts
into the blue Kenyan sky where a marabou
swallowed a purse—and a woman’s conga
was parting at the seams above boiling soup cans.
Down a slope of stinking plastic you kept on about Arendt—
“a hybrid mixture of Bantu with enormous Arab borrowings”
I could say poa poa sawa sawa karibu.
We could make a kalimba out of a smashed pot
and pour beans into a can and shake it for the queen.
Yesterday in the soundless savannah the wildebeests and zebras
seemed to float through the green-gold grass toward Tanzania.
We could hear a lion breathe; we could hear wind through tusks.
On TV the guys were grinning into metal go-go drums;
hammering twisted sewage pipes and cut wire like sailors from Mombasa—
harder nailed than da Gama’s voyage down the Arab trade coast—
So, where are we—in a slum of no language?
Walking through steam shovels of light, breaking over
mounds of metal as if the sky were just blue plastic?
Isn’t English just a compost heap of devouring grammar,
joined, hacked, bruised words, rotting on themselves?
I keep following you, daughter of scrutiny, into plastic fields of carrion
between sight and site, vision not visionary, pig guts on the grill,
trying to keep balance
between streams of sewage and the sky,
as you keep hacking, Sophia, at the de-centered,
the burning text, anthropology’s shakedown.
A marabou just knifed the arm of a woman picking
bottles out of plastic bags.
A rooster crows from under a pile
of galvanized tin as if it were morning on a farm.
© Peter Balakian