“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?”

The writer, and fellow blogger, Mayowa Atte recently published a very personal post on his blog, Pens with Cojones.  He begins “Notes from a Visit Home” with

I am homesick.

This is what I realize at four in the morning. I’ve been staring into the gloom of my bedroom ceiling for five hours, trying to remember who I used to be. Son, brother, cousin, Christian, Nigerian; none of these ring true. Only “writer” makes sense anymore, and even that only makes sense in the way Glenn Beck’s rants make sense; epiphany through mule-like belief.

He then takes us through the paces of an imagined trip, back home, to Lagos.  His homesickness is a familiar feeling among those who leave these shores for the relative peace that being in the West brings.  But Mayowa is a damn good writer and so his post is sad, funny, beautiful and painfully realistic.

I’d already been thinking of Elizabeth Bishop.  So when I read Mayowa’s post, I immediately thought of Questions of Travel.  Bishop wrote the poem in the late 1950s.  She’d been living in Brazil for about four years thus the poem’s imagery are probably scenes from a Brazilian highway.  The poem reads like an internalized debate  but she also draws us in with the first person plural.  At the end there is that familiar doubt, represented by the question, that plaques all displaced persons.

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
–Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
–A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
–Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr’dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
–Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds’ cages.
–And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”

Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel (1965)



  1. Hey Kinna,

    I just came across this poem by Li-Young Lee and I thought you might like it.

    People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
    a man tells his son, trying to explain
    the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

    It’s an old story from the previous century
    about my father and me.

    The same old story from yesterday morning
    about me and my son.

    It’s called “Survival Strategies
    and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation.”

    It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”

    called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”

    Practice until you feel
    the language inside you, says the man.

    But what does he know about inside and outside,
    my father who was spared nothing
    in spite of the languages he used?

    And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,
    who asked once into a telephone,
    Am I inside you?

    You’re always inside me, a woman answered,
    at peace with the body’s finitude,
    at peace with the soul’s disregard
    of space and time.

    Am I inside you? I asked once
    lying between her legs, confused
    about the body and the heart.

    If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,
    she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,
    at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.

    It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening

    called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”

    called “Loss of the Homeplace
    and the Defilement of the Beloved,”

    called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”


    • MAYOWA, MAYOWA, this is fantastic. And isn’t it great that we get to share such stuff with loads of people. The most personal across this most impersonal of spaces. Poetry, man, it rocks. My mother is going to ask me to read it to her again and again. Thank you.


      • Kinna,

        I’m so glad you both liked it. And yes, it is amazing! I don’t read much poetry anymore (wrote tons of terrible stuff in my younger days though heh) so I’e come to rely on your posts for my fixes so to speak 🙂


  2. Yeah, Like This.

    Modern Secrets.

    Last night I dreamt in Chinese.
    Eating Yankee shredded wheat
    I said it in English
    To a friend who answered
    I monosyllables:
    All of which I understood

    The dream shrank to its fiction.
    I had understood its end
    Many years ago. The shallow child
    Ate rice from its ricebowl
    And hides still in the cupboard
    With the china and tea-leaves.

    Shirley Geok-Lin Lim.


    • Parrish, I really like your practice of commenting with poems! Keep it up and do keep them coming. The poem captures homesickness, assimilation completely. The line “The dream shrank to its fiction” – just says it all. Thanks and all the best.


  3. That has to be the most beautiful poem I have ever read. So expertly crafted, embroidered with imagery so delicately personified. Takes the breath away.


    • Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment. Elizabeth Bishop is simply amazing. She apparently only wrote 101 poems, preferring to spend weeks on a single poem than writing lots of poetry. And this dedication really shows in her work. All the best.


    • You are most welcome. I do hope you feel better. The yearning for home never really abates; sometimes it’s easier to live with, other times it hits you like a wall. Take care.


  4. I’m not familiar with Mayowa Atte’s work– but the snippet you posted is beautiful and intriguing so I fully plan to start looking into him. Thanks for sharing!


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