Knowing: The Cursed Blessing of Being a Poet – (A Meditation) by Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí

(Content warning: Suicide Attempt)

One sunny afternoon in October, my mother died. The bird in her chest stopped singing. God filled her body with perfect stillness. Her bones went numb with the silence of her spirit having slipped out of her body like joy slips out of me at the most unexpected of moments these days. I don’t know what is wrong with my head or my heart or body, but I know I’m ill, and it’s mental illness. And I know one of the reasons why darkness shrouds me like a shawl wrapped around a newly born child is because I have become intimate with the grief of my mother’s death, with the pain of being motherless, with the horror of being a scar to everybody. With the nudity of existence. And it all really began when I found poetry.


I am obsessed with Plath. A dog gave me its eyes. Eve is my mother. Therefore I carry in my body the curse that comes with knowing.


It’s a day in 2018. I flirt with the idea of dying. I take a tie, make a knot, and hang myself to a tree. There’s nobody around. My feet can not touch the ground. The knot is tightening around my neck. Maybe I don’t want to die. A friend finds me, rushes to unknot my death. Death failed but left scratches on my neck.


Mother Eve was the first poet.

                     “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and                       pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took
                      some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her,                       and he ate it.

                     Then the eyes of the both of them were opened, and they realized
                      they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves and made coverings for                      themselves.” – Genesis 3: 6 – 7.

The most important skill a poet must possess is seeing, both the material and the possible. Like Mother Eve, every poet is in the business of seeing. We see goodness, even in the fruit of life with all its dirt; we see beauty; and we are always in pursuit of wisdom. Every poem I have written is a lesson in understanding how to navigate this world; it is also a lesson to help others, who take from my hand and eat, navigate the world.

However, like Mother Eve, the moment we choose poetry we become conscious of our nakedness, and, as a result, we are always in the field of the page, sewing leaves of words.


A bright whole moon gleams through a piece of cloud that looks like it was burned on the edges before being tossed into the sky by an angel. (I don’t know which angel. I am only human.) Before it landed here. Something is moving. I don’t know what.


I am yet to read Dante. But I have read J.P. Clark. I am the boy who sits by a purple river digging his fingers in the soft body of the earth. The river bird appears. Drops on the grass. The river bird and the boy stare at each other for a long time. Though the boy doesn’t hear the clock tick in that moment. Until the boy sees. (It all begins with the seeing.) Then the boy harvests his hands from the earth’s body, dusts off his childhood on his shorts, and nears the river bird.

He says:

                     “River bird, river bird,
                      Sing to me a song
                      Of all that pass” – Streamside Conversation – J.P. Clark.

It always begins with a song. I was looking for music in the mouth of silence. Isn’t that the hunger that brought every one of us to the table of poetry? A song, music, silence.

                     “And say,
                     Will mother return today?” – Streamside Conversation’ – J.P. Clark.

The question is what comes after the music. I began to shape songs out of the body of silence. That was the beginning. Then I began to ask why. Then you began to ask why. Every poet is in the business of interrogating. But I am the boy. Let’s not forget that. You could be the boy too. Cut out the question, write yours over it. But that question is my question: Will mother return today?

She died four years before my mouth knew the taste of will. Four years before the weight of her going sat in my chest like God placing a concrete curse on the body of a river and telling the river not to swallow it. Just carry it.

I carry in my body the curse of knowing. I knew when I saw the river bird. In its eyes was beauty. In its belly was an orchestra. And the way the wind ruffled its feathers, I knew it carried the be of God.


Being a child of Eve, I know what it means to be attentive. It is how I can make something of my bruised mouth. I know the soft pale taste of the wind on my skin. I know the shape of light. Yes, I do. I ask, “What is the language of darkness?” I probe the beyond.

It was Billy Collins who said, “While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in a windowpane.”

I am at my window, watching the rust roofs of Lagos houses, imagining the lives of those who live under these roofs, wondering if, unlike me, they are happy. Imagining, however, comes at a price for those of us who have no bed to call our own, who have no mother to go home to, whose only duty is to pay attention to the world.

Mother Eve paid a price for what she dared to imagine. I too am paying the price. I am paying with my sanity.


The river bird looked at the boy, called up a song, but swallowed it back, like the dog that gave me its eyes in exchange for my yesterday, which it swallowed like a good bone.

When the song dropped in the river bird’s belly, it fell into an emptiness so bright it shone in its eyes. Then the river bird looked at me and said:

                     “You cannot know
                     And should not bother;” – Streamside Conversation – J.P. Clark.

But I knew. It knew I knew. I knew I was naked like Mother Eve. From the moment I saw the river bird, I knew. And my nakedness was motherlessness. Mother Eve’s nakedness was a shadow of things to come. I was a story in Mother Eve. Handed down to the mother whose water brought me here. My shawl. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in October, God snapped off the shawl and dropped a dog. The dog gave me its eyes.

Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí @ErnestOgunyemi is a writer from Nigeria. Some of his works have appeared/ are forthcoming in Tinderbox, Yemassee, Down River Road Review, the Dark Magazine, 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry III, 34 Orchards, Erotic Africa: The Sex Anthology, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology. His tiny book of poems, my mother died & I became _______, is forthcoming from Ghost City Press.

Banner: Vision. Digital art by Robert Frede Kenter

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