JC Niala

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the poet

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.

the poems

Brood

00:00 / 01:44

            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.

            Stay close.

            Do not go into the open green space.


            but you strayed


            and into the talons of Kite

            so swift

            you, your mother or I

            were caught on a breath

            and did not cry out.


            We watched you

            reduced to a cluster of feathers,

            picked clean.


            The mobile’s shadow

            hovered over Okelo’s cot.


            Okelo stirred,

            I leapt for her.

Sprawl

00:00 / 00:30

            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.

Changes

00:00 / 01:11

            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.

Publishing credits

Brood: The Lamp Journal (September 2016)

Sprawl: peripheries: a journal of word and Image (No. 4)

Changes: exclusive first publication by iamb