JC Niala’s poetry is influenced by her relationship with the land of the two countries in which she dwells: England and Kenya. She spent the growing season of 2021 recreating a 1918-style English allotment on a site at Oxford as a living memorial to the 1918-1919 pandemic, and to those who served in the First World War. Poems written as part of that project will be published by Fig under the title, Portal.
You were the odd amongst the keets.
The one, who would as I nursed Okelo
fall off the earthenware pot-turned-perch
by the confusion of black and white spotted siblings
on my mother’s veranda.
And I did not name you.
It was enough that you would not be eaten
by my family at least
but learn to forage and
like a seamstress
pick out dudus,
from the fabric of soul underneath
the bombax and bottlebrush trees.
The overhanging roof
descended to cocoon us,
Okelo at my breast, born
on the same morning
you all hatched.
You who would not be contained.
Your bright chirps would unveil
my mornings when still wrecked
by broken sleep I would slip along,
slowly to the outside
and listen to the sound of Okelo’s suckles
amidst your birdsong
she would later mimic and sing,
as she toddled
on the silken sandpit near
where I lunched,
while she snoozed.
The day you were taken
Your mother, would have
I am sure,
uttered the same warning as
when she pecked you
back into line.
Do not go into the open green space.
but you strayed
and into the talons of Kite
you, your mother or I
were caught on a breath
and did not cry out.
We watched you
reduced to a cluster of feathers,
The mobile’s shadow
hovered over Okelo’s cot.
I leapt for her.
Watch me grow. I suck it all in to feed the giant.
Out of a swamp I rose like Omweri,
Squeezed through poorly laid pavement.
Still, I welcome those rich enough
And those who put them up.
Boundaries vanish. I swallow whole suburbs, kijijis.
People forget that I once wasn’t here.
Insects still tell the seasons here. Dusk,
when the cicadas, an environmental tinnitus,
obliterate thought with continuous sound
soften into a lullaby above which the chorus
of bullfrogs arise in a vibrato echo and then fall.
Call and response, that talking drummers
once imitated across the savannah.
Beating out news on carved hollow trees
skins tightened over cut trunks to produce sound.
Messages that carried over lifetimes
until they were dulled by walls of concrete
that rise from swampy plains to bring Development.
Now, ringtones cut through the night air
like a panga shearing elephant grass.
Yet just beneath the fired earth, red ants,
termites crawl along their regurgitated tunnels
up and down and through every building’s crack,
dashed lines, urgency on parchment,
an invisible shelter-trail
to inside where
I listen for the smell of rain.
Brood: The Lamp Journal (September 2016)
Sprawl: peripheries: a journal of word and Image (No. 4)
Changes: exclusive first publication by iamb