Everytime I look into your face

A poem about a Rwandan genocide prisoner. I visited many of them in my year there, held in cachots throughout the province where I worked.

Everytime I look into your face

I see
banana groves bending in the rain, children
being born – one a year ; cousins, brothers,
and neighbours gifting tall lilies
for each child. I see hills
as round as your wife’s breasts
before she bore your first,
or as your round cheeks, and as freshly green :
age and memory have not caught up with you.

Everytime I listen to your voice, I hear
your graceful-horned cows shuffling and lowing
by streams in open water-meadows,
I hear clear water over stones,
that throws itself, out of sight, into the muddy
river. I hear shots of laughter
at a wedding, and shouts
of joy when the sweet banana liquor
flows up the woodstraw straight into your eyes.

Everytime I come close to your skin
I smell the thud of hoe on the red earth
of your small holding. I smell the sweat
of your long morning’s work in the sun
washed off by the afternoon’s rain.
I smell the churning sour milk
and the sour sorghum beer your wife prepares
sitting on her heels. I smell the milky
skin of the new baby she carries on her back.

I don’t smell the children
you killed and threw into
the muddy river. I don’t hear
their cries that turn your nights
into dark days, slower than tears.

I don’t see the face of the woman
you plundered, first with your sex
then with your harvest knife,
taking her life as you beheaded sorhgum
every June that you remember: but that one.

I don’t see a bed on which to rest
your nightmares, your limbs stiff from too much squatting
and surviving; your skin
that glows with unnature

Every time I look into your face
I see tenderness trying to redeem you
the quick soft pull of your fingers
sewing a pillow for the cell-mate
whose dreams are more bottomless than yours
but in your eyes I see a mind emptied
of all past: and all hope

every time I hear your voice
– what’s a voice ? your cough stills
all conversation – I hear the blood that fills
your lungs with sentenced death,

and smell your fear :
you don’t fear death, you don’t even fear hell ;
you fear the moment when the soap runs out
or your wife finds another man
to round her belly; or the sorghum meal
is stolen from your unguarded pack; and at night
surrounded by haunting faces,
you fear that tomorrow you’ll hear
the ibis cry as it flies overhead
from your cell to the hills
from the hills to the river.