The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Moná Toirésa Ó Loideáin Rochelle

Mysteries of Love

 

                         I Flight


What of night?             There are no fires.
Wind wafts smoldering wood. Mother whispers
improbable tales of love during black panther nights.


Near midnight moon haloed birdsong lulls
us to sleep. It’s then she cries for him—
our father. Him in his birthplace. His face


at the edge of the lake—our crops in flames.
On his knees, he begs, Pitié, as militants level guns.
And from his head                   rivulets of red.


Imagine. Rain as a celestial song, imagine trekking
mile after mile through snarled forest for seventeen
months. No one knows the way, not even


mother. We stay silent, traipsing splayed hooves
of bongos, narrow prints that lead to somewhere.
And afternoons? The sun burns mosaics through


canopied woodlands. Etches prisms of blue needled
julienite as bonobos offer us guava & garcinia.
This, my friend, is a treatise of mothers’ love
                                                from beginning to end.

 


                        II After a Killing


If this is the way you will deal with me, then please do me the

favor of killing me at once, so that I need no longer face my

distress.                                     NUMBERS 15:11

 


I am spirit.                   I am nine months old.
My soul’s the color of cassava, a field of bright
white cassava—with clarity of fire. I see countless
Yellow-billed kites slowly cross God’s dome
above. We’re told a child sleeps in the womb,
some to be born under an iridescent moon:
I was born under a blood moon.
            Rapacious beasts, roving rebels
rive, rape, vitiate. A pouring of fuel fills
my virginal vestibule & a match struck
cobalt blue ignites violently—inside me.
& then the shot of a gun, point blank,
through my wound. & when I open
my eyes to the sun, I see my mother—
who formed me & named me Immaculée.

 


                        III Light You Cannot See


A mother on hands & knees & in her womb
a heart beats in its blood cave, cord pulsing
in rubied darkness. Labour of labours.
Like the sea—a storm—wave crashing
upon wave. & in her anguish she groans,
I’m afraid. No family to console her.
The midwife trilled in Swahili—
                        I won’t leave you.


Twenty hours later, the infant enters
the narrow lumen—head crowning,
adorned in rosettes of red gem cuprites
& black garnets unfurling like a dayflower,
                        blooming like an Egyptian Starcluster.


The midwife lays the babe (pure &
blameless) on the young mother’s breast
in dream-like light              sublime white light.
The camp resounds with joyful laughter when
they’re told the mother names her daughter,
                        Exaucée, meaning prayer fulfilled.
Above the tent rain clouds open, fragrant
with petrichor, promising much needed water.
It was then the midwife’s thoughts drifted,
thoughts of New Mexico’s cloudless skies
& mesas of fragrant piñon & sea-green sage.
Yes, she’s been away far too long from him
                        & from her children.

 


                        IV A Child’s Litany


They came & took us away.
We were on foot, you ahead,
& I behind. Six tail-biting serpents
wore guns slung over their backs.
We girls held hands, strung together
                        like mother’s rosary.
There were so many friends I felt safe.
There was an emerald river crossing—
shards of light falling, snagged
in the green burn of noon, where
the jungle, a gateway to marsh,
swallowed us whole.


It was a Mai-Mai camp—I think.
My sister held me close. I could see
their leader, they called him, The Terminator
(my sister called him The Bush Viper).
When I cried my sister said,
                                    ‘Don’t be afraid.’
                                    But I wasn’t afraid.
                                    I was hungry.


The six mambas stripped me,
                                    ugly puff adders, cobras
                                    with sharp fangs smiling.


My sister clothed me—she smelled of fresh grass—


& tried to console me, cooing—


‘Remember the field of maize tasting of mystery,
            sky barely visible, our secret place,
                        the keeper of peacocks?


Remember singing with songbirds & dancing
            under a thousand shadows of trembling
                        gold leaves?


Remember our garden full of friends & the rain
            ruffling palms & swallowtails
                        taking flight on wind?’


I remember mother’s voice, an angelic river singing.
I remember her caress.                I can taste her kiss.

 


                        V Envenomation


Today, I search for you in sleepless
dreams. I don’t think about the ambush
tactics of snakes or soldiers’ gray souls.
I don’t think about lacerations too secret
to heal or castration with blunt machetes
or injustice that quarries one’s heart. I don’t
think of sere hands bathed in blood
or killing everything living or fields full
of dead bodies, a meadow of sorrow
                        drowning the soul.


Today, come back to me maker of song
& mark a sevenness moon under a bright
Congolese night. I’ll pull your body close,
your flesh of fragrant cassia & we’ll listen
to le langage tambourine.              I think
of your soul, my soul, one in love.
                                                I think
                                    of your lips I can’t kiss.
            Forgive my cowardice.
            Did you think I abandoned
            you in our pillaged village?


No. Bush vipers abducted me. I’m afraid &
have forgotten how to pray.
                        LORD deliver me from forever.

 


                        V Saint Dominic Church in Limete


& when they lift their eyes in the village church,
a pastoral peace of morning mass descends


like a Senegal dove filling the morning with fluttering
wings. Family & friends—children of God—kneel.


A child listens to a Madagascar cuckoo’s song
from waving coconut palms outside & imagines


he too has wings. They sway & sing the hymn
Be Thou My Vision in reverence, this & more,


praising God’s wonders, calling for the Glory
of God. Amen. Holy of holies, hear our prayers.


Amen, amen. Mary Mother of God, sorrow
of sorrows, console the dead! Amen, amen, amen.


& in his wisdom, Father Nkongo blesses them,

sending them off with words of love, ‘Do not hate,


for the world can only be redeemed by love.
Remember God knows you each by name,


each irreplaceable. Go in peace to love & serve
the LORD.’ & as the flock flows forth like a river


through a narrow dam, waiting ‘security’ open fire.
Mothers clutch their child to the breast, birds


in a nest. Moved by the mothers’ courage, the priest
sprints forward, finding himself at the front


of the crowd, arms stretched out like a branch,
like St. Kevin’s arms—stiff as a crossbeam!


A drunk child soldier shoots Father in the head.
Is he dead? & when Nkongo shouts out,


‘We’re no abattoir,’ the faithful clap their hands!
& then he shouts each soldier out by name,


one by one by one. He smiles like a child,
                                   blessing the crowd.

 


                        Dénouement


My friends, open your hearts, journey with me &
contemplate the unnameable tales of unnameability.

 

 


                        ENTRACTE


Death comes through borders        invisible.
Ebola rages.                 Civil war’s a débouché.
Words?                        Cataclysmic cacophonies.
So many memories:                  One from 80,000
years ago, Wene wa Kongo.          It reached from
daybreak’s Lualaba River to days end saltwater
sea, l' océan Atlantique. A land of a thousand
scented lilies, perfumed plumeria, wild

ginger’s bite of spice.


Jesuit missionaries wrote that the people
used telegraphe de brousse 2,000 years ago,
thrumming their drums of dried goat skins
so that words crossed rivers & forests.


                        But then Belgian King
Leopold came calling               naming it,
Congo Free State, where indentured slave
shadows shrank from white masters’
madness & machetes, a country of mass
murders & a million severed hands—
all in their beloved land. And in villages?
                        Children watching.


What can you say about militants who force
young sons to rape & kill their mothers
under a crazed moon—all to plunder
rubber & black diamonds in Leopold’s
                        honorable name?


                        Now we call it—Democratic
Republic of Congo, whose borders bleed
Congolese into Uganda & Rwanda:
                        a half million refugees.
& what of the five million IDPs?
& what of the 19,000 MONUSCO attachés?
& what of the eight million dead?


America, word on word. Europe, echo on echo.
            Who answers their bloodstained doors?

 

 


                     THE NATURE OF LOVE


                                  I A Riddle


                           Riddle me this—
                           something’s amiss,
                           De Profundis:
                           for righteousness,


                           goodness, kindness.
                           Licentiousness
                           is their business,
                           & we don’t care.


                           A far-off world
                           so embittered,
                           so embattled,
                           yet love abounds!


                           Where endless wealth
                           ignores poor health
                           with poacher’s stealth!
                           Where might we be?


                           Crystal françoisite,
                           lime roubalite,
                           bright guilleminite,
                           where henchmen


                           steal malachite,
                           black tantalite,
                           red gem cuprite.
                           Etcher’s prisms


                           of loveliness
                           mined in darkness
                           & shamelessness,
                           feed despots’ greed.


                           Countless mines hold
                           reserves of gold
                           smuggled we’re told
                           into Dubai.


                           Tungsten & tin
                           & tantalum,
                           Taken! Stolen!
                           Worth three trillion!
                           Helter-skelter,
                           swelter, smelter,
                           lack of shelter,
                           in unsafe mines,


                           supply our slick
                           phones, electric
                           cars, laptop clicks.
                           Cobalt naïveté?


                           Uranium,
                           germanium,
                           & rhenium—
                           destruction looms.


                           Democracy?
                           Kleptocracy?
                           Demonocracy?
                           The DRC.

 


                     II Ask the Children from Afar to Forgive Us


        He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom

        they met & to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There

        was a massacre of young & old, a killing of women &

        children, a slaughter of young women & infants.
                                            2 MACCABEES 5:12-13


        Anathema maranatha: poaching epidemics,
        deforestation, species depletion, heavy metal

         pollution, land degradation & near extinction

         of the black Grauer’s gorilla. Anathema maranatha:

         consumer neediness & international conglomerate

         greediness. Anathema maranatha: specious militia,
        phantoms of hate, kidnapping Children of God—

         depraved vile defilement—all without impunity.
        Shadows of genocide. Haven’t you heard
        women’s’ bodies are battlefields? The Congolese

         Warlord, The Chairman, laughed after

         a killing spree—
                                When you’re a soldier everything’s free!


        & in a JRS camp’s labyrinthine paths,
        a child craves love: the beauty of a wild
        orchid, fragrant lily, lobelia—all the while bleating
        for her mother & from a tent a woman sings,
        Aren’t you Joséphine’s daughter? With a shy nod
        the child, thin as wind, holds out her hand.
        The wind’s still. It’s there—outside the camp
        silhouettes of a white-winged sunbirds pass
        overhead and the lightness of her mother’s
        presence flashes across the parched sand.

 


                                             III Plague

 

Hemorrhagic fever, bright alizarin,  sanguine  haematite. Épidémiologiste dream outbreaks, unravel genus Ebolavirus inside wildlife: monkeys, chimpanzees, porc espis (reservoirs of the world’s deadliest disease). They find chains of transmission unforgiving. Send vaccines from the four corners. Who cares to hear? (Who hears?) Tell me if you know. Invisible contagion—child to child—friend to  friend—village to village—city to city—country to country—friend to friend—child to child—kiss to kiss—unknown to unknown.

 


                                           IV Fever Fugue


        North Kivu’s a war zone. It’s different this time.
        I might die. Headquarters radios that we have to go:
                    /Evacuate/ Volatile/ Violence/
        & in the isolation unit twelve children lie
        in feverdreams, almost out of their minds.
        I finalize reports on Ebola’s cross-border
        spread but can’t them send today—
        internet’s down. Likely the ADF.         WTF!


        I struggle to adhere to MSF protocol.
        Putting the pen down I squint into the tent—
        she arrived just in time.

         Fragile.            An orchid?       A lily?
        She’s the age of my daughter Sinead
        in Inishmore. I miss her.
                                            I am Sanctifiée
        daughter of Josephine, snatched
        away—my family vanished dew.
        Last night, my flesh blazed
        a funeral pyre. Twenty-one days
        infected. The doctor loves me.
        She tells me, you’ll live and soon see
        your brother.
       I maa—Brother?
                    Where’s my mother?


        Dr. Farrell closes her eyes. All she can hear
                    is the sound of everyone leaving.

 


                                        V Translations


        I come, fountain on fountain, fiery lava,
        like Nyamuragira, eruption after eruption.


                    ‘Truthfully, I’m not sure what
        to say about an Ebola epidemic in a war zone.
        To simply list bare facts of case investigation,
        detection, cross-border transmission & deaths—
        to soon             becomes          near meaningless
        to the world. Even our ongoing stories of medical
        responders, who in the course of visiting villages
        are                   attacked           by             fearful
        grandmothers wielding machetes—it’s grim &
        makes for bad news. I’m no Guillaume Apollinaire!
        I wish I was, poetry’s good for that.
                    Tell me what to do with that?’ said
        Anouk Scroch, an Amsterdammer assigned to Kivu.


        & at that—making the sign of the cross—
        the Congolese field worker in suit & tie reports,
        ‘In all seriousness, to explain what we see all day
        you’d have to be a poet & I’m no Emmanuel
        Boundzéki Dongala! He’s an éclat.’ Then she added,

         ‘Nevertheless, since its genesis I’ve witnessed

         holy innocents’ lives ended, nothing left & acts of

         unreported heroism from mothers
                                           again & again & again.’


        The Spanish epidemiólogo shouted,
        ‘Well, I’m no Miguel Hernández, but listen:
        What’s complex & difficult & radically
        ambiguous here—is truth—one either
        does justice to reality     or destroys it.’
        & then the Spaniard recited

         these lines from memory—
                    ‘Sitting upon the dead fallen
        silent these two months, I kiss empty shoes…
        the nightingale of the pitiful, echo of bad luck,
        to sing and repeat to those who must
        hear me, everything of pain…’

 

 

 


NOTES


FLIGHT: Bongos-a herbivorous threatened antelope, mostly nocturnal, found in African dense forest; Bonobos-endangered great ape found in the DRC.


A CHILD’S LITANY: Mai-Mai are militia who use rape as a weapon of war. Accounts of these rapes include mutilation and the killing of unborn children. The sexual violence is so severe in the DRC that some have described rape in the DRC as the worst in the world.


ENVENOMATION: Le langage tambourine-a drummed language.


SAINT DOMINIC CHURCH IN LIMETE: Stiff as a crossbeam is taken from St Kevin and the Blackbird by Seamus Heaney. Abattoir is French for slaughterhouse.


HOUSE OF FIRE: DRC is the centre of numerous exploitations of diverse metals in a multitude of mines and quarries; therefore, the poem lists DRC’s many precious gemstones and minerals.


ENTRACTE: Telegraphe de brousse-Drummed messages traveling up to 370 miles a day, a mode of communication preceding Morse Code by 1,500 years; IDP-internally displaced persons are those forced to flee
their home but who remain within their country's borders; IDPs-Internally displaced persons; MONUSCO-Mission de l'Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo is a United Nations peacekeeping force in the DRC.


ASK THE CHILDREN FROM AFAR TO FORGIVE US: JRS-Jesuit Refugee Service.


FEVER FUGUE: MSF-Médecins Sans Frontières; ADF-Allied Democratic Forces armed group formed in 1995 on Islamic principles (Salafi doctrine). WTF-What the feck.


TRANSLATIONS: End lines are from Sitting Upon the Dead by Miguel Hernández (translated by Ted Genoways).

 

 

 

MONÁ TOIRÉSA Ó LOIDEÁIN ROCHELLE is the author of two collections of poems: Mourning Dove (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and On the Brink of the Sea (Cave Moon Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in The Notre Dame Review, Southword, The Southern Review, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and elsewhere. She is a volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières. She was a professor at the University of Washington as well as University College Cork researching and teaching high-risk obstetrics and epidemiology.

Visit https://monalydon.com/

 

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