Soliloquy: A West African Tragedy of errors
The stage is dark as you perceive; yet from
the moonlight improvisations, still may you
discern our eloquent gestic forms come
and go as we mime our shadow life of
zombie dreams, and your inner sense, too,
the talking drum will reach. You hear it,
do you not? Its soft compulsive beat lends
itself well to this discourse of times and
destinies; but later shall the volume of its
fury rise and crash about you in waves of
living sound, O hearers, and then it shall
pound its way into the very chambers of
your heart to provoke the ruddy tide, for
it must speak of pain beyond all bearing.
Do not ignore the warning hiss and rattle
of the gourd, for treachery has such a
sound, and there was much of that, yes,
much of that! The kora this player now
and then shall pluck to affect tears and
blood drops too. How those warm drops
did rain upon the laterite! That red hell!
How it doth ache to vomit out those
marked with Cain's offense for judgment!
These poor props are mood for our dark
story, and, at its end, when you blink in
the brightness of restored light, remember
this — that we, the people of this play, shall
travel on our darkened path for times yet
unfulfilled, because our shadow stretches
back upon the dust of centuries when great
kings ruled — and forward until the world's
deliverance. Hear then such grievous
discourse as tragedy and error have e'er
There was a time (speak of it drum!) when
prophecy croaked in fearsome utterance
the dreaded destiny of this our people
(weep for us, kora!). Ask the harmattan.
It heard too and carried the wail time
and time again on its hot breath. Yes,
inquire of the harmattan. It knows. You
hear the gourd now also, do you not?
O lying tongues! How they fanned
themselves about in the harmattan and
sprayed their foul saliva through its winds
so that it fell on all and sickened all; yet
all believed themselves in prime of health
and blessed the harmattan for this relief
from the sobbing and screaming of the
oracle whom the talking drum doth quote.
There are doubters here? Do you dare to
doubt? Go to the baobab then. See that
you go at dusk. Go to the baobab where
griots sleep. Those parrots! They heard the
word, the word of prophecy, and echoes
of it still relay to this, our present day.
Yes, go to the baobab, that great tree
where the bones of the griots lie. Yes,
inside its trunk are the bones of the griots,
so, by the rising full moon as hyenas
howl, go, inquire of it, you who would
solve riddles. Let it instruct you! Drum!
Gourd! Kora! Hear how in full-voiced
concert now they cry out the bitterest of
all epics. Speak of it drums! O drums of
Africa! Thunder from the earth until you
set our flesh aquiver and our hearts throb
with you in the frenzy of your rhythms
and our feet be — ... Hey! See the dancers!
Let their bodies speak to you also, for
words and instruments are not enough to
convey — to portray all the commotion —
all this emotion! O kings! Mandingo!
Arab! Fulani! Dahomey! French! Yoruba!
Hau! British! Qolof! Ashanti! Heed
the talking drums! Hear how they roar out
your atrocities! And look! See the dancers!
How their bodies leap and writhe to mime
your unspeakable acts! Beware! The stilted
spirits of the frightful masks stride
overhead while the grounded hop and
whir! And do you understand the swirling
agitation of the gourd — the pathos of the
kora? Even zombies you made of us, O
pitiless black kings of the golden stool!
Your sorcerers stared and muttered,
looking for occult signs and omens, yet
could not read the simple terror in our
eyes or hear with their second ear the bawl
of our newborn as they were hurled into
the hungry sea. You Dogon wisemen
danced beneath the mystery of your secret
star, but it would not reveal to you the
power of the circle that your conquerors
rode upon, nor did it foretell their coming.
But you yourselves were all walking in
the heavy shadow cast by Nimrodic
Zamzummim long before your time, and
you could not see the stark reality that
daylight would have clearly revealed to
you. In darkness you could only dream
your silly dawa dreams or the dreams
which the white sorcerers, who knew light
from darkness, induced in you with their
spells. But the prophetess could see and
shreiked and moaned in the agony of her
vision as she bewailed your impotence and
folly. Unheeding, time and time again you
sat by the ocean on your golden stool
'neath the sacred umbrella your slaves held
for you as the receding silhouette of the
slaveship grew smaller than your distended
pupils and, finally, disappeared over the
water's edge. Millions upon millions of us
you sent away from the land of our
placenta to live out our zombie lives in
this hostile land. But they mastered you
too, O kings, and stripped you of your
gold and your great diamonds and the ivory
and the furs. They stripped you naked
of your magnificent cottons and then said
'twas how they found you — naked and
half-mad. Indeed, you were naked and
mad in the poverty of your spirit, and we
must live in the shame of your nakedness,
O kings, for many generations — so said
the prophetess — and the time is not yet
fulfilled, nor will it be until the hour of
the world's deliverance. You have noted
(have you not?) that the drums are
subsiding now, grumbling off into the
distance like retreating thunder after a
summer storm, leaving just a quiet dripping
of rain from the glistening trees just like
our tears — useless zombie tears — and the
kora alone weeps for us for a time and
then stops ... ... Curtain!
//Ramona Robbins Porter Newton was a French and Spanish teacher in the Detroit school system and received her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University in Lansing, her birthplace, and a master's degree in Educational Psychology. Much of her poetry was inspired by a course in Francophone literature. She passed away August 4, 2001 at the age of 82.
"Soliloquy: A West African Tragedy of Errors" was written in 1981, originally published in Soliloquy and Other Poems by Ramona Robbins Porter Newton, and re-printed with permission of the late poet's son.