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The Foreignness of Our Mouths

Three Poems from “A Coda to History”

Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella



The foreignness of our mouths

–Mahtem Shiferraw



A deep grotto, the mist softly rising, the dense mountains

above, the world on mute, a silence, the path is empty,

it trails between banana trees, mango trees,

and one coconut tree—where one expects a goat,

maybe a chicken, there is nothing, the silence is deep,

the seeing moves along the path, an open field,

the side of a mountain, a fence, then green and more riotous green—

if you cut away, then return closer to a bush,

then cut away, and return to the blank sky, and cut away,

and return to the sun glaring, and then cut away

to the sudden brash loudness of crickets at dusk—

the country is as noisy as warfare, that is merely

the sound raised, birds, the sharp cacophony of living,

cut away to silence, the ordinary yard, the path,

the puddle of water, and sudden unrelenting dark.

I have imagined this opening moment of a film—

perhaps the sound of water, that too, not a river,

but a standpipe, leaking, and then nothing else,

like a place with no name, except it is Jamaica,

and it is Kingston, and nothing will happen, nothing

alarming, and yet everything happens here.

This is how I have imagined an unfinished novel.



So much time lost for the novelist to say, “I am a mammy’s boy,

and I am a walking Oedipus cliché who will kill his father

and sip lemon leaf tea with crumbs of sweet madeleines?”

How much time must pass to then say it’s the mother-thing:

Words, words, words in the boulevard, said in the French way.



The soul’s delicate charm of the watercolor—oh to live in such

bearable lightness of truth, the filigree of a sprite’s body,

not always, but in the way of a chi haloing the earthy

efforts of the flesh, or perhaps we mean the dream,

the way of dreams, even those thick as the sudden fall of night;

somehow, somewhere, perhaps on the outline of the mountain,

there is the dance of the ferns, their giggle and whisper,

the thing that makes us breathe. The indulgence of hawthorns,

the profusion of words, and more words, the soul wounded,

seeking in the open fields of spinning flowers, and their toil,

something holy, something unreachable. It is mid-summer,

and the air is heavy with heat, and I sweat without grace,

I sweat with a man’s funk, the constant stench of decay on me.



I continue these daily walks, and the body is finding

its own kind of stasis, the kind that one associates with peace. 

I test my grieve by the prospect of tomorrow,

and while the thing I see before me is not a canvas,

thick with globs of muddy oils, damp, slippery and crowded

and without light—something sub-aquatic, the deepest dark

I have never seen; I remain the beneficiary of chemistry,

the peculiar conversation that continues in my blood,

how sunlight, how my dark skin, how my organs,

how the chemicals I know consume each day with barely

an understanding of what they mean to my vessels

and my heart, this is the faith of the believer—the priest says,

“This is good,” and the second opinions arrives

from the monastery and I accept it, though a Nigerian

woman has been saying that she feeds her children

the ancient herbs of her village, and she knows

that they will stand before every affront

of this modern world, as aliens, as sojourners and will live. 

Some of us face death this way, some of us face

the news of death this way. And we commiserate

at the news of Sue, the singer, she who would stride

the stage of the church of white singers, and bring

soul as old as mud to bear on the praises of people;

Sue, who carried in her body the disappointment of love,

the patience, the anger of love; Sue, the one who weighed

forgiveness against anger, and then said,

I forgive for the alternative would be another death,

Sue, who when the virus stalked, her face, beautified

by the hollow of the chemo’s ravage, zoomed

into our hearts with her last songs—you see it

in the eyes, I said to myself, and to no one else. 

And then the news. And the march of incantations

and denials, the way death makes us inventive

so we can continue on this peculiar lottery with meaning.

Still, the light, the light, how it persists

across this prairie land, how it arrives as a defiant hope,

how it enlivens the blood, how it turns the skyline

into that Proustian delicate watercolor charm.






See our way through. See history's way through.

Through history we see. See history our way, see?

Wayfinding history's legacies which are not history's

but people's and peoples'. Each word that circulates

torn down and rebuilt and torn down and rebuilt.

As we lament a 'lack of nuance' in response; 

nuance will be torn down and rebuilt — but

built out of recycled materials, not rebuilt

as a case of environmental racism: the waste

in that garden, not mine, no thanks. So nuance

is desirable is necessary, but it turns on a pivot,

its foundations those of history, of etymology,

and we know how much we can trust such things.

See history each way, see. See history's way through.

Through history we see. See our way through.


And there are nuances to subtlety. Alone, I find

few things subtle, and lose track of nuance. The

kookaburra watching the yellow-rumped thornbills'

complex nest structure for the right pitch of nestlings'

plea for food, and they won't bother solving the puzzle —

work out the false chambers and hidden entries —

they'll just tear the whole thing apart and extract

the nestlings at optimal food value point: a distracted

husbandry, a subtle nuanced sense of timing,

brutal in its process. A dictionary was the control-

mechanism of history, an obsessive countdown

of words spoken in conquest, in farming the world.

Neither 'Disease'; nor 'Health' are listed in Johnson's

A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, but

Eucrasy is: 'n.s. [ἐυκρασία.] An agreeable well 

proportioned mixture of qualities, whereby a body 

is said to be in a good state of health. Quincy.' And

so is Óther: 'pron. [oðer, Sax. autre, Fr.] 1. Not 

the same; not this; different.' which carries,

as a 2nd definition, an intimation of disease: 

'2. Not I, or he, but some one else.' with an 

example from usage: 'Physicians are some 

of them so conformable to the humour 

of the patient, as they press not the true cure 

of the disease; and some other are so regular 

in proceeding according to art, as they respect 

not the condition of the patient. Bacon, Essay 31.'

Subtle is not listed but occurs in definitions/

explanations... nuance is not listed but forms parts 

of the words continuance and discontinuance

in various definitions/explanations. The absence

and presence of 'nest' is tangled, maybe en passant.


We intend utterances to address and redress but they

go awry because our readings are nuanced and other

people's are not? There is no nuance in language,

only in intent, and in a translation it is found,

which is a surprise. There is no 'translation loss',

that apologia for wanting to be the same as an original

but saying, regretfully, that you can only ever be a copy, 

and a failed copy at that. But the gesture to speak 

across difference can be generative—let words

escape their definitions, question our ability

to read a situation. And then we are disorientated

by the facts and figures, but the actuality, by the 'keep

my head down' until its past self-observation and semi-

accusation. Back to nature, back to pollution and waste,

to desecrated waters and air, to torn skies, I know

beyond my senses that consequence is more

than a word under pressure, more than a word

that shifts emphasis, meaning... it is where nature

collides with de-naturing, and poems of 'history' reside.





There is in the labor of those who have learned

the ordinary faith of a new sun, the calming balm

of a soprano holding a note so long the congregation

breaks from the holler to the deep abiding sorrow

of a moaning; of those people of service and labor,

sunrise, sunset, the long walk home, the calculation

of what one must expend to carry on again, and again;

there is in those people we call the salt of the earth,

those who say, in the face of the deepest sorrows,

“God is my guiding light, God is your guiding and light”,

the light of hope, the calming grace of ritual, those

who honor pain, and defeat it with familiarity,

the familiarity of the faith-filled warrior, those

who find rejoicing in the color of a green-leaf day,

and in the tears the antiphonal hum of deep singers

bring upon them—rejoicing in feeling and beauty—

they give us the light of hope in these our somber days.

there is a shelter to be found in those who never forget

the long litany of their failures, the haunting scent

of their fallenness, those who carry deep

in their pockets, the photos of the hearts

they have broken, the resignation of those they have 

hurt. And when such a one stands in a dark suit and gloves

at the door of the church, the gleam of the hearse

glinting in their spectacles, we the mourners,

the limping wounded, the broken hearted, bewildered

by the shock of our loss, by the unfathomable

hollow of our lamentation, we find this comforting,

for it comes from one who can say with quiet truth,

“I have seen a lot of sorrow, I have seen us at our point

of deepest despair, I have seen how it will all end,

and what I have seen tells me that all flesh is grass,

and the gentle brush of nail polish on an inert hand,

or the caress of talc foundation on a face still and worn,

that sometimes these small, small graces are the mercy

the world needs; and this kerchief, raised to the cheek

is the tender act of our humanity in these dark times.”

This is love in the time of pestilence, this is the art

of love in the time of the plague, this is love in this epoch

of masking. Just before dawn, in the deep silence

of respite, the hushed whispers of prayers like sighs

gather over the houses. They are the preparation

for those who will walk into the world once again,

to offer the shelter of their giving hands, once again.



A camera travels through the narrow lanes of my city—

it has been years since I have been lost in that city,

years since I have walked sun dazed roads, the stones,

the grass, brown and worn, the bodies moving with purpose,

the voices tender in the music of this island, in snippets,

the camera gives me the voice of the praying and the ill,

the voice of the gospeller speaking tongues, the voice

at the edge of bloodshed, the voice of a mind crowded

with music, a mind escaping its logic, a voice full of the mysteries

of our broken histories, the words that turn and swirl,

the girl at the corner, her voice tender as soft soil,

the words thick with a strange shyness, while she offers

the euphemisms: I do not kill, I just fight, I know you look

on me and think that I couldn’t mash ants, but I am nice,

and if my mind take me, I fight, and I hurt, but I don’t kill,

and I stop going to church when I know that slavery

is what put us in the congregation, and when I say that,

they say I am mad, which I am not, as you can see me,

I am not mad, but the preacher tell me I am possessed,

and that was disrespectful to me, even though I get bac

dream, but he don’t know that and I don’t tell him that.

The words are poems in the stone, waiting to be chiseled,

and the woman who meets us with her studification,

those will fall on the water and fade away.  I end

this coda with the futility of one who knows he has

not heard the new language of the world—and this is

the sadness of our times.  The contagion is upon us,

and the voices of the craven and the evil, the voice

of the oligarch and the white supremacist, that is the voice,

that I hear in the soft cadence of the Midwest

of the west, of the calm suburbs, the voice of sheer

madness offering the reasonableness of macro thinking,

of calm consideration, this is the clouding sorrow

that tires me out. I have no patience for these parasites,

I have no patience for their lies, and when I am asked

for my wisdom, I grow mute and silent, or I turn and turn,

and say after the girl in Portmore, the one sitting in the sun,

the one who says, I am nice, I am nice despite what they say,

and I will fight, though I won’t. The camera arrives after

the words are spoken, the camera arrives behind the sound,

the sound goes ahead of the image, the image carries

its own madness, and the world is slipping behind the words.



Dear John, these are the footnotes to the coda we have rendered

for history—I have no room for the sorrow over the earth;

these days I see the light and I am thankful, I press my hand

inside the mud in the backyard, the heavy clay, and I give thanks,

I know I carry in me the deep indulgence of thoughtlessness.

Today, I heard a man deep in his hatred, but incapable

of knowing that it is hatred in his body, and I had no language

for him. I know the gathering of witnesses were waiting

for me to offer the correction, to tell him that his long

reasoning was a mask for his deep hatred of the bodies

of black people, and they waited, and I stayed silent,

and I stepped away from the gathering, for I could not find

the will to correct, to instruct, to set him straight, to say

the words that would be his path back into the community,

the path for him to say, I did not mean this, I did not mean

hatred, what I meant is what you meant and so I belong

to the community. And I can continue to be the leader,

I can continue to be heard, and all will be well. I said

nothing. I felt the deep pain in my stomach, the pain

before my sermon, the pain before my confrontation,

the pain before I say to such a man, your wealth, your power,

your donations, those things you wear as your garment

of acceptance, mean nothing to me, Babylonian beast.

But I walked away, John, for I have lost the will to place

my hand of absolution on those like this one, who my ally

says with diplomatic care, “Oh, he means well, he just

does not know the language to speak, he knows not

what he says,” She says, “Teach him, please, be patient,

with him, he is my husband, he is my uncle, he is my neighbor,

I have loved him, I know he is lovable.” I walked away

from even that tenderness of my ally, I walked away

from the diplomat, I walked away from the meet-in-the-middle,

I walked away from patience, I walked away from this

for my body could not manage it anymore.  These are

the dark times, my friend. For every such gathering,

there is a footnote, the thing left unsaid, the thing set aside,

and deep into the night, my head filled with the slow

march of the hymns of the old church in Kingston,

I know I have arrived at the end of language, of words.




Born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty-two collections of poetry,including, most recently, Nebraska: Poems (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). The recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, he is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, and the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner.

John Kinsella’s most recent volumes of poetry include Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems 1980-2015 (Picador, 2016) and Insomnia (WW Norton, 2020). His volumes of criticism include Activist Poetics: Anarchy in the Avon Valley (Liverpool University Press, 2010) and Polysituatedness (Manchester University Press, 2017). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University. He often works in collaboration with other poets, writers, artists, musicians and activists. He has co-written a number of poetry books with Kwame Dawes. John Kinsella wishes always to acknowledge the traditional and custodial owners of the land/s he comes from and so often writes about – the Ballardong Noongar people, the Whadjuk Noongar people, and the Yamaji people. He has lived in various places in the world, including Ohio.


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