Into White

For Ray Daniels Okeugo

 

Our friend said you lay in a white kaftan, smiling the smile of sleepful death. Your death is my imagination, for the dead is the imagination of the living. But yes I have to imagine that the white kaftan must have been what you wanted. In Accra, our last time together when we shared a room, you wore white underwear as always. Your body was tethered to an invisible white-scape, your underwear, an architecture I believe made you feel present, conscious, kin to purity.

You remember when, as we struggled to cross into Cameroon, our white van stuck in the border-mud, you remained on the driver’s seat, unstained like the rest of us. We spent almost 24 hours in the stretch between Ekok, Nigeria and Ejumoyok, Cameroon. The mud reached our ankles, except of course yours. The van was pushed by the rest of us and sometimes pulled by Hilux four-wheel-drive pickups while you drove. When we crossed over and your feet touched Cameroonian soil, you were wearing a clean singlet. Of course, white.

The days are peeling apart like surging tides, but they return again. Reaching out endlessly, morphing interminably, but remaining the same. From time to time I go to look at your photographs on Facebook. What is the shape of distance? Our friend had said it is shaped like an ameba. Like a microscopic organism you now move by changing the shape of your body, so that your laughter and silence are the same texture. So the right question would be: what is the shape of the distance you now occupy in my heart? Looming large but microscopic? At once being the memory of shared laughter and of shared silence.

This is how the poem ends:

I want to hold you this way

For a few years

[i]

Our last trip together, this past July. We had underplanned. We got to the border that cuts off Lagos from Cotonou. The rainy season had just begun. The ground around us was wet and muddy. As we struggled to clear with immigration and customs, you walked without care on the muddy ground, almost being whisked into detention because you were carrying an expired International Driver’s Licence and attempting to cross over with it. After we had bribed the Beninois officer with all the money we had left we were allowed to leave.

I looked at your shoe with its white sole and dried mud.

A bright romance. I want to be able to make death outstrip its singular gaze at you, so perhaps I should illustrate it as the loss of a lover. The first thing we remember when a lover dies is a look. How had my lover looked at me? In those moments when silence knitted our breaths together, what sort of Look?

I look at you

like the opening minutes of a film,

when you don’t know

what to focus on.

[ii]

Then, truly like the opening minutes of a film, when time slows down and my lover’s hair seems liquid, the prophecy of the narrative becomes apparent. We are seeing a movie neither of us had seen before. So the end is difficult to imagine, a white-scape being colored by strings of events and by evolving action. Doesn’t film begin as tabula rasa, written over by imagination and performance? Anyway, romantic love is premised on a sort of primacy that pre-dates experience. When a lover dies, and experience has come full circle, the living lover mourns an absence that looms large. An indefinite reexperiencing of experience, a perpetual retooling of memory. It soon happens that the living lover begins to think,

You slow down so much

your hair seems liquid

[iii]

Don’t we understand this liquidity? The stance of distance is poured as liquid. It flows back and forth in non-linear time. I feel that when a lover dies the other lover carries the weight of absence until he, too, goes afield. In between the time when she dies and when he dies, a slowing-down occurs. Memories appear and reappear, at first endlessly, and then sparsely without warning. When the memories are sparse, he is wont to think:

Keep walking, but look back

So we know we are together.

[iv]

It is like slowly rubbing off a recolored white-scape until it returns to its original whiteness. By the time the white-scape returns to an original saturation, a pre-dated experience, the surviving lover is dead. What happens when both lovers go afield I do not know. The conscious world is however bereft of the experiences they exchanged. Perhaps it is inevitable to imagine white as bereftness, as absence, as going afield, as Eternity.

The feeling of going afield. We were artists crossing Otherness. The premise of our trip was to see past our immediate identity, to construct a trans-African identity and stagger within the bracket of the word “Africa”. As we drove past Benin Republic and entered Lome, sometime after sunset, the capital city stretched, blurred into white. No other color might suffice for the wide road beside which was the beach, the sea opening into vast stillness, like painless dying. You were driving. I went back and forth between sleep and waking. As the day darkened and the roads lost their whiteness, the night swept into my eyes. What swept into yours as you drove? Fading light? The most available light? The approaching destination?

I keep imagining your imaginations.

Until 2005, the Togolese had not had a change of President for thirty-eight years. A recurring offer of poverty on a platter of totalitarianism. We drove through an exact, but unjust beauty. The sort of life you lived is one that deemphasized this sort of unjust beauty. Even your death, I have recently learned, was at a hospital disaccredited from offering dialysis. You seemed to me like one who always wanted to commingle with people at the margins. You would wear a white kaftan so that you could roll in the dust. And so, in your memory and as a prayer for that small city we crossed,

I look again at the painted city, falling

silent at sunset, even the birds stilled.

In the last flash of the sun, the city gleams

white and hard as bone.

[v]

One afternoon in Khartoum, as one of your final Facebook posts attested, you joined the protests against fuel subsidy. What did you wear on that afternoon you were almost mobbed in a country you were visiting? No, not anything white, considering the dusty air. About eighteen months earlier you took photographs of fuel subsidy protests in Lagos. One of those photographs is of a burning tyre blackened beyond recognition, dark smoke piercing the sky. And with this photograph we see your gesture, a question: How does the stance of undefeated despair work?

In your photographs there’s mostly a staging of itinerant comedy. Your gaze was on fleeting grace. I see how you do it. You stop in the middle of the road to take a photo, putting the rest of us in the van in panic. Here is grace, your eyes say, I can’t let it pass. The grace of laughter, of a costumed dancer pausing mid-performance to check his phone, of a madman beside a statue. Grace in spite of life’s contradictions is the stance of undefeated despair.

Aren’t our lives gasps of undefeated despair? To live as you did, and to die in the circumstances you did, is to exhale with our mouths wide open. If I had seen you as you lay dying, how would I have imagined your final gasp? Life had unploughed you, so that you began to vanish into a white-scape. Your body was broken so that your spirit could emerge.

This is how I imagine a white-scape. No, it is the dream our friend had after you went afield. You are sitting in a bar talking as you do, with complete audacity, eyeballs almost shooting out – you were always opinionated, always operated as though it was you against the world, as though the explanations of the world could never appease your bravado. So you’re there, talking amongst a group. A road separates the bar from where our friend stands calling out to you. He calls but you do not turn in response. Your white-scape assumes that silence is a form of communication. And distance (that road separating our friend from the bar) is a new form of companionship, bearing on our hearts like the contested space between two worlds. So we look into this contested space, and we imagine that your death was an inimitable calling card, a blank invitation into eternal whiteness. Because this is when we begin to re-experience you.

 


 

Source Notes


[i] All poems cited are by Gabeba Baderoon. This is from “Memories of a blue fortnight.”

[ii] From “The Opening Minutes of a Film” in Sentinel Poetry (Online), No. 37

[iii] From “The Opening Minutes of a Film”

[iv] From “The Opening Minutes of a Film”

[v] From “A Prospect of Beauty and Unjustness” in World Literature Today (July 2008)

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