“In Time of War” by Eli Tetteh

Eli Tetteh

April is here and so is (US) National Poetry Month. Eli Tetteh launched his chapbook, Ellipses, in Accra earlier this month.  I’m so taken by his poetry. I kick off #PoetryMonth here with “In Time of War”. Enjoy!

In Time of War

My mother’s face flickers into view as the web cam kicks in
I have only snippets of time, I think… I have things to do
Yet like every time before, I put on my dressiest smile and wait,
Wondering how, after the better part of three decades,
She can still be so ecstatic at the very sight of my face?

She says my name, bending the two syllables so they dangle, just so.
Like the wings of something dignified.
And I can’t help but think: I am no Angel.
Her hair is wrapped, in that way
That Black women seem to learn from their mothers or their sisters
Or from some quiet corner of themselves.
I can see the silver peek out from underneath, just above her ears.
I have only snippets of time, mother; I have things to do.
But I don’t tell her this.
Instead, I skate across idle small talk,
Placating as all good sons learn to do.

No, I haven’t been sleeping bare chested,
Yes, I do own a winter scarf —
Four, if you count the tattered brown one I’m too self-conscious to wear
No, I have not begun packing for the trip home
Yes, I realise it’s a mere three weeks away
But no, I’ve been too careless to carve out the time.
I am absent minded in ways she will *never* be.
Not even when the silver takes over
And her synapses aren’t what they once were.
Even now, bones ravaged by sickle cell
With a single working kidney
I wish I had her radiance.

She is 58 years old, drinks Black tea
And has difficulty forgiving.
Everybody, it seems, except for me
And my little brother.
Who is 28 years old, despises tea
And has difficulty forgetting.
It makes sense, then, that MY heart
Can hold a grudge like a white-knuckled vice.

She taught me solemnity
To smile with a bullet between my teeth
And to lay my weapons down in mixed company.
Her veins have coursed with civilian blood
Her entire life
But if not for her, I would have never learned
That those who live well, wage the noblest of wars.

The men in our family have marriages that detonate, she reminds me
They burst open, scattering shrapnel like rain
They litter the landscape for the rest of us.
“My sons, ”
She assures me,
“My sons… will not be like that.”
And it rings
Less like a plea… More like a prophecy.

Peering from behind her lenses
Like an Oracle, she melts me.
I don’t sleep bare chested, mother
Because I don’t sleep
I do not count myself among the wise
But in my more foolish years,
My love was reckless,
And my fingertips… far from gentle.

Am 30 years old, drink Green tea
And have difficulty forgiving. Even myself.
But I have enough hope to
Leave her with honest words.
I am no Angel,
Yet somehow,
Our voices
Melt into each another
Hers, a promise…
Mine, a prayer…
No, I say, shaking my head.
Her sons’ marriages will not be like that.

I have only snippets of time, mother; I have things to do.
So we part.
Her, radiant… With all the certainty I wish I had
And me. Wearing a smile moistened with fear
And hoping to God I make good
On my promises.

– by Eli Tetteh



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