Collected Poems

Collected Poems

by Chinua Achebe


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"The father of African literature in the English language and undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the second half of the twentieth century." —Caryl Phillips, The Observer

Chinua Achebe's award-winning poems are marked by a subtle richness and the political acuity and moral vision that are a signature of all of his work. Focused and powerful, and suffused with wisdom and compassion, Collected Poems is further evidence of this great writer's sublime gifts and it is an essential part of the oeuvre of a giant of world literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400076581
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/10/2004
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.31(d)

About the Author

Chinua Achebe (1930–2013) was born in Nigeria. Widely considered to be the father of modern African literature, he is best known for his masterful African Trilogy, consisting of Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, and No Longer at Ease. The trilogy tells the story of a single Nigerian community over three generations from first colonial contact to urban migration and the breakdown of traditional cultures. He is also the author of Anthills of the SavannahA Man of the PeopleGirls at War and Other StoriesHome and ExileHopes and ImpedimentsCollected PoemsThe Education of a British-Protected ChildChike and the River, and There Was a Country. He was the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and, for more than fifteen years, was the Charles P. Stevenson Jr. Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College. Achebe was the recipient of the Nigerian National Merit Award, Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement. In 2007, Achebe was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement.

Read an Excerpt




our thoughtless days

sat at dire controls

and played indolently

slowly downward in remote

subterranean shaft

a diamond-tipped

drill point crept closer

to residual chaos to

rare artesian hatred

that once squirted warm

blood in God's face

confirming His first

disappointment in Eden

Nsukka, November 19, 1971

Benin Road

Speed is violence

Power is violence

Weight violence

The butterfly seeks safety in lightness

In weightless, undulating flight

But at a crossroads where mottled light

From old trees falls on a brash new highway

Our separate errands collide

I come power-packed for two

And the gentle butterfly offers

Itself in bright yellow sacrifice

Upon my hard silicon shield.

Mango Seedling

Through glass windowpane

Up a modern office block

I saw, two floors below, on wide-jutting

concrete canopy a mango seedling newly sprouted

Purple, two-leafed, standing on its burst

Black yolk. It waved brightly to sun and wind

Between rains-daily regaling itself

On seed yams, prodigally.

For how long?

How long the happy waving

From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus?

How long the feast on remnant flour

At pot bottom?

Perhaps like the widow

Of infinite faith it stood in wait

For the holy man of the forest, shaggy-haired

Powered for eternal replenishment.

Or else it hoped for Old Tortoise's miraculous feast

On one ever recurring dot of cocoyam

Set in a large bowl of green vegetables-

This day beyond fable, beyond faith?

Then I saw it

Poised in courageous impartiality

Between the primordial quarrel of Earth

And Sky striving bravely to sink roots

Into objectivity, midair in stone.

I thought the rain, prime mover

To this enterprise, someday would rise in power

And deliver its ward in delirious waterfall

Toward earth below. But every rainy day

Little playful floods assembled on the slab,

Danced, parted round its feet,

United again, and passed.

It went from purple to sickly green

Before it died.

Today I see it still-

Dry, wire-thin in sun and dust of the dry months-

Headstone on tiny debris of passionate courage.

Aba, 1968

Pine Tree in Spring

(for Leon Damas)

Pine tree

flag bearer

of green memory

across the breach of a desolate hour

Loyal tree

that stood guard

alone in austere emeraldry

over Nature's recumbent standard

Pine tree

lost now in the shade

of traitors decked out flamboyantly

marching back unabashed to the colors they betrayed

Fine tree

erect and trustworthy

what school can teach me

your silent, stubborn fidelity?

The Explorer

Like a dawn unheralded at midnight

it opened abruptly before me-a rough

circular clearing, high cliffs of deep

forest guarding it in amber-tinted spell

A long journey's end it was though how

long and from where seemed unclear,

unimportant; one fact alone mattered

now-that body so well preserved

which on seeing I knew had brought me there

The circumstance of death

was vague but a floating hint

pointed to a disaster in the air


But where, if so, the litter

of violent wreckage? That rough-edged

gypsum trough bearing it like a dead

chrysalis reposing till now in full

encapsulation was broken by a cool

hand for this lying in state. All else

was in order except the leg missing

neatly at knee joint

even the white schoolboy dress

immaculate in the thin yellow

light; the face in particular

was perfect having caught nor fear

nor agony at the fatal moment.

Clear-sighted with a clarity

rarely encountered in dreams

my Explorer-Self stood a little

distant but somewhat fulfilled; behind

him a long misty quest: unanswered

questions put to sleep needing

no longer to be raised. Enough

in that trapped silence of a freak

dawn to come face-to-face suddenly

with a body I didn't even know

I lost.

Agostinho Neto

Neto, were you no more

Than the middle one favored by fortune

In children's riddle; Kwame

Striding ahead to accost

Demons; behind you a laggard third

As yet unnamed, of twisted fingers?

No! Your secure strides

Were hard earned. Your feet

Learned their fierce balance

In violent slopes of humiliation;

Your delicate hands, patiently

Groomed for finest incisions,

Were commandeered brusquely to kill,

Your melodious voice to battle cry.

Perhaps your family and friends

Knew a merry flash cracking the gloom

We see in pictures but I prefer

And will keep the darker legend.

For I have seen how

Half a millennium of alien rape

And murder can stamp a smile

On the vacant face of the fool,

The sinister grin of Africa's idiot-kings

Who oversee in obscene palaces of gold

The butchery of their own people.

Neto, I sing your passing, I,

Timid requisitioner of your vast

Armory's most congenial supply.

What shall I sing? A dirge answering

The gloom? No, I will sing tearful songs

Of joy; I will celebrate

The Man who rode a trinity

Of awesome fates to the cause

Of our trampled race!

Thou Healer, Soldier, and Poet!

Poems About War

The First Shot

That lone rifle-shot anonymous

in the dark striding chest-high

through a nervous suburb at the break

of our season of thunders will yet

steep its flight and lodge

more firmly than the greater noises

ahead in the forehead of memory.

A Mother in a Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch

Her tenderness for a son

She soon would have to forget. . . .

The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,

Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs

And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps

Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there

Had long ceased to care, but not this one:

She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,

And in her eyes the memory

Of a mother's pride. . . . She had bathed him

And rubbed him down with bare palms.

She took from their bundle of possessions

A broken comb and combed

The rust-colored hair left on his skull

And then-humming in her eyes-began carefully to part it.

In their former life this was perhaps

A little daily act of no consequence

Before his breakfast and school; now she did it

Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

Christmas in Biafra (1969)

This sunken-eyed moment wobbling

down the rocky steepness on broken

bones slowly fearfully to hideous

concourse of gathering sorrows in the valley

will yet become in another year a lost

Christmas irretrievable in the heights

its exploding inferno transmuted

by cosmic distances to the peacefulness

of a cool twinkling star. . . . To death-cells

of that moment came faraway sounds of other

men's carols floating on crackling waves

mocking us. With regret? Hope? Longing? None of

these, strangely, not even despair rather

distilling pure transcendental hate . . .

Beyond the hospital gate

the good nuns had set up a manger

of palms to house a fine plastercast

scene at Bethlehem. The Holy

Family was central, serene, the Child

Jesus plump wise-looking and rose-cheeked; one

of the magi in keeping with legend

a black Othello in sumptuous robes. Other

figures of men and angels stood

at well-appointed distances from

the heart of the divine miracle

and the usual cattle gazed on

in holy wonder. . . .

Poorer than the poor worshippers

before her who had paid their homage

with pitiful offering of new aluminum

coins that few traders would take and

a frayed five-shilling note she only

crossed herself and prayed open-eyed. Her

infant son flat like a dead lizard

on her shoulder his arms and legs

cauterized by famine was a miracle

of its kind. Large sunken eyes

stricken past boredom to a flat

unrecognizing glueyness moped faraway

motionless across her shoulder. . . .

Now her adoration over

she turned him around and pointed

at those pretty figures of God

and angels and men and beasts-

a spectacle to stir the heart

of a child. But all he vouchsafed

was one slow deadpan look of total

unrecognition and he began again

to swivel his enormous head away

to mope as before at his empty distance. . . .

She shrugged her shoulders, crossed

herself again, and took him away.

Air Raid

It comes so quickly

the bird of death

from evil forests of Soviet technology

A man crossing the road

to greet a friend

is much too slow.

His friend cut in halves

has other worries now

than a friendly handshake

at noon.

Biafra, 1969

First time Biafra

Was here, we're told, it was a fine

Figure massively hewn in hardwood.

Voracious white ants

Set upon it and ate

Through its huge emplaced feet

To the great heart abandoning

A furrowed, emptied scarecrow.

And sun-stricken waves came and beat crazily

About its feet eaten hollow

Till crashing facedown in a million fragments

It was floated gleefully away

To cold shores-cartographers alone

Marking the coastline

Of that forgotten massive stance.

In our time it came again

In pain and acrid smell

Of powder. And furious wreckers

Emboldened by half a millennium

Of conquest, battening

On new oil dividends, are now

At its black throat squeezing

Blood and lymph down to

Its hands and feet

Bloated by quashiokor.

Must Africa have

To come a third time?

An "If" of History

Just think, had Hitler won

his war the mess our history

books would be today. The Americans

flushed by verdict of victory

hanged a Japanese commander for

war crimes. A generation later

an itching finger pokes their ribs:

We've got to hang

our Westmoreland

for bloodier crimes

in Viet Nam!

But everyone by now must

know that hanging takes much more

than a victim no matter his

load of manifest guilt. For even

in lynching a judge of sorts is needed-

a winner. Just think if Hitler

had gambled and won what chaos

the world would have known. His

implacable foe across the Channel

would surely have died for

war crimes. And as for H. Truman,

the Hiroshima villain, well!

Had Hitler won his war

de Gaulle would have needed no

further trial for was he not

condemned already by Paris

to die for his treason

to France? . . . Had Hitler won,

Vidkun Quisling would have kept

his job as Prime Minister

of Norway, simply by

Hitler winning.

Remembrance Day

Your proclaimed mourning

your flag at half-mast your

solemn face your smart backward

step and salute at the flowered

foot of empty graves your

glorious words-none, nothing

will their spirit appease. Had they

the choice they would gladly

have worn for you the same

stricken face gladly flown

your droopéd flag spoken

your tremulous eulogy-and

been alive. . . . Admittedly you

suffered too. You lived wretchedly

on all manner of gross fare;

you were tethered to the nervous

precipice day and night; your

groomed hair lost gloss, your

smooth body roundedness. Truly

you suffered much. But now

you have the choice of a dozen

ways to rehabilitate yourself.

Pick any one of them and soon

you will forget the fear

and hardship, the peril

on the edge of the chasm. . . . The

shops stock again a variety

of hair dyes, the lace and

the gold are coming back; so

you will regain lost mirth

and girth and forget. But when,

how soon, will they their death? Long,

long after you forget they turned

newcomers again before the hazards

and rigors of reincarnation, rude

clods once more who once had borne

the finest scarifications of the potter's

delicate hand now squashed back

into primeval mud, they will

remember. Therefore fear them! Fear

their malice your fallen kindred

wronged in death. Fear their blood feud;

tremble for the day of their

visit! Flee! Flee! Flee your

guilt palaces and cities! Flee

lest they come to ransack

your place and find you still

at home at the crossroad hour. Pray

that they return empty-handed

that day to nurse their red-hot

hatred for another long year. . . .

Your glorious words are not

for them nor your proliferation

in a dozen cities of the bronze

heroes of Idumota. . . . Flee! Seek

asylum in distant places till

a new generation of heroes rise

in phalanges behind their purified

child-priest to inaugurate

a season of atonement and rescue

from fingers calloused by heavy deeds

the tender rites of reconciliation

A Wake for Okigbo

For whom are we searching?

For whom are we searching?

For Okigbo we are searching!


Has he gone for firewood, let him return.

Has he gone to fetch water, let him return.

Has he gone to the marketplace, let him return.

For Okigbo we are searching.


For whom are we searching?

For whom are we searching?

For Okigbo we are searching!


Has he gone for firewood, may Ugboko not take him.

Has he gone to the stream, may Iyi not swallow him!

Has he gone to the market, then keep from him you

Tumult of the marketplace!

Has he gone to battle,

please Ogbonuke step aside for him!

For Okigbo we are searching!


They bring home a dance, who is to dance it for us?

They bring home a war, who will fight it for us?

The one we call repeatedly,

there's something he alone can do

It is Okigbo we are calling!


Witness the dance, how it arrives

The war, how it has broken out

But the caller of the dance is nowhere to be found

The brave one in battle is nowhere in sight!

Do you not see now that whom we call again

And again, there is something he alone can do?

It is Okigbo we are calling!


The dance ends abruptly

The spirit dancers fold their dance and depart in midday

Rain soaks the stalwart, soaks the two-sided drum!

The flute is broken that elevates the spirit

The music pot shattered that accompanies the leg in

its measure

Brave one of my blood!

Brave one of Igbo land!

Brave one in the middle of so much blood!

Owner of riches in the dwelling place of spirit

Okigbo is the one I am calling!


In memory of the poet Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967)

Translated from the Igbo by Ifeanyi Menkiti

After a War

After a war life catches

desperately at passing

hints of normalcy like

vines entwining a hollow

twig; its famished roots

close on rubble and every

piece of broken glass.

Irritations we used

to curse return to joyous

tables like prodigals home

from the city. . . . The meter man

serving my maiden bill brought

a friendly face to my circle

of sullen strangers and me

smiling gratefully

to the door.

After a war

we clutch at watery

scum pulsating on listless

eddies of our spent

deluge. . . . Convalescent

dancers rising too soon

to rejoin their circle dance

our powerless feet intent

as before but no longer

adept contrive only


eccentric steps.

After years

of pressing death

and dizzy last-hour reprieves

we're glad to dump our fears

and our perilous gains together

in one shallow grave and flee

the same rueful way we came

straight home to haunted revelry.

Christmas 1971

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