Anthony A. Lee

leeAbout the Poet: Anthony A. Lee teaches African American history at UCLA and at West Los Angeles College. He was awarded the 2003 Nat Turner Poetry Prize (Cross Keys Press) and the 2005 Naomi Long Madgett Award for poetry (Lotus Press).

My Poem from Mali

All poets use whatever experience is at hand to practice their art. It doesnít matter what the experience is. It is the job of the poet to start with the commonplace and find within such everyday experiences the reality of our humanity. That is to say, to assault the readerís illusion of ordinariness, the error we make in thinking that any event is common or forgettable, by uncovering its Truth, its sacred dimension.

As a poet, I find the most sacred moments are found when two human beings find a connection to one another. Such connections are always basic, deep, lasting, and unforgettableóeven if they last for only a few seconds. They are the first building blocks of the unity of humanity.

I was in Mali a few months ago, before the coup díÈtat smashed everything. The Malians are Muslims, of course, the majority of them. I was in the city of Mopti a few days before a major religious celebration, ëAyd al-Adha, which the people there all refer to as ìTabaski,î meaning the ìbig festival.î This is the Islamic feast that remembers Abrahamís sacrifice of his son Isaac (almost) at Godís command, Abraham substituting a goat at the last minute because an angel told him he could.

But since Mali is a very poor country, not everyone could celebrate. Poverty was everywhere. Still, I could be profoundly moved and indelibly changed by my discovery of the ordinary there.

Here is the poem:

Abrahamís Bargain

It was over.
I got up, paid the bill
at the register after breakfast
(croissants and tea)
in the dark patisserie
on the Niger River
in Mopti, port town in Mali.
Not a pleasant meal:
I the only customer.
The street vendors spotted
me going in, saw their chance
and followed. A beggar, too deformed
to walk, crawled around
on the cement floor asking
for coins. I resisted.
I bought a couple of cheap knock-off CDs
of Ali Farka Toure from someone else.
Another guy invited himself,
sat down at my table,
hawking antiquesólittle iron figuresó
one with an absurd long penis,
erect and outstretchedósymbol
of masculine power from Dogon country.
He wanted 250 for it.
I liked him. Young, fresh-faced,
forward, hands in his jacket pockets,
head cocked, he smiled,
settled into his chair.
The recession had hit
them bad, guys with things to sell,
their pupils restless, darting.
(Tabaski was a couple of weeks away.
To honor Ismael, not Isaac.)
They whispered to each other,
necks jerking, feet shuffling.
I offered 25 and wouldnít budge.
He bargained hard, claimed the thing was 200
years oldócouldnít go
that low. I teased,
joked, but kept to 25. He wanted 70,
at least 50. I said I couldnít.
Sad, I pushed back, stood to go.
Then he caved.
I blinked, my mouth open.
I hope heís OK, I thought.
I gave him the money,
wanted to leave fast.
Turning from the register, he
there in front of me, blocking the way.
I frowned, thoughts racing.
Tears in his eyes, he hugged me,
kissed me, thanked me.
Now he has money to celebrate
the festival of Abraham,
to sacrifice a kid on the day.
His family will feast.
I hugged him backóhard, my eyes wet.
No blood spilt--we stood brothers there
for a moment, in the fatherland.
No God to command us,
no angel to stop us.

The Poet Discusses the Poem (but not too much)

Naturally, if the poet has to explain what his poem means, it is a failure. So, I wonít try. But I do want to point out to the reader the very ordinariness of the events described here. Just haggling over the price of a trinket. Yet, I found a deeper connection to the young man I bought it from than to any other person I encountered on my trip. Somehow, sacredness crashed into us. Fear turned to friendship, strangeness became true brotherhood. An apocalypse which I have tried to capture in words. But of course, I cannot.

Still, there is that crazy moment of convergence: A Jewish story found in the Qurían being celebrated in a Muslim country in West Africa, with me from the Christian U.S.A. (though I am a Bahaíi) bargaining for a pagan graven image and suddenly finding my brother standing in front of me. That becomes sacred.

Another Poem

This poem recalls an even briefer moment during my trip to Mali. It was only half a minute in time. But enough for shared humanity to break through. I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Thirty Seconds at the Light

She stood erect, royal,
on the street corner in Bamako,
as a dozen cars paused for the redó
I in the back seató
driver revving, cursing his luck.
Sheath dress to her ankles
suited the eveningís heat, one arm
extended, hand out, palm up,
face no expression,
not asking not offering,
as her father behind stared, blind,
white beard, caftan,
reciting the names of God.
I didnít move, stunned
by the angles of her cheeks,
the thinness of her nose,
her black eyes, dark lips,
how tall she seemed,
the glint of headlights on her hair,
her long neck, her hand trembling.
She caught my staring, leaned forward,
father praying faster now in high pitch.
Sun almost down,
other beggars (some twenty there)
spot my indecision.
The surge begins.
She holds my gaze.
Without breathing,
I fumble for my wallet,
my eyes prisoner to hers. Longing.
But the light is green.
Car jumps ahead.
She lost in darkness behind.
I lost where she stood.

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