Amina Said

birds of ill omen

above black Gorée
basalt boulders encircling the island of slaves
dark cells iron chains the door of no return
the continent far off the port Dakar still farther
beyond the sea and the desert is your country says Hawad
and farther still the islands of deportation

baobabs coffins thrusting up from the red earth of Sahel
towards the white-hot vault of a cloudless sky
bloody offering of a living god to the night’s majesty
a giant moon rises slowly through a dream of sky
storm and seaspray on the immensity of Lake Débo
earthen towns giving themselves over to the sand of its shores
free white horses prancing in the wind
the river traces its course on timeless parchment
on the riverbank rises the tomb of the virgin
sacrificed for the birth and survival
of the earthen village with its lanes of dust
sighs rise in the evening air or is it the river weeping?
labyrinth of the palace that chisels its pink stones
black crescent moon pirogues on the waters
dried fish overflowing the braided baskets
in the shadow of a wall children trace
the sacred words on their wooden slates
and for man’s eternal hunger squares of wheat
and rice turn green alongside the blonde dunes

the wind throws a veil of sand
across the light of Timbuktoo
saints’ tombs with sand covering the loose stones
the guardian of the mosque gives me a cottonflower
the imam a handful of sand
men women children are reshaping
houses and temples of earth
before they return to the earth
then the crowd prostrates itself in the beige sand

in the evening a meal and poems beneath a sky orphaned of stars
when the drums sound—the caravans of grief
I dropped anchor in the crevice of a dune
moored outside time
this earth is our earth and another earth
language of landscapes and men
inscribed in ephemeral signs

— translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker