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Pedro Pérez-Sarduy

Pedro Pérez-Sarduy ~ Cumbite (1)

In memory
Of those who have struggled
And fell for the Ngola of today.

They say it happened when the rains came
at the proud behest of all the orishas (2)
and nobody could have stopped them
until a sacrifice for a victory battle
had been won with ivory blood and fire.
So the Old man tells it.

Father Long Arms (3) was to preside over the meeting.
He arrived late at the cumbite in the thick of the forest
evading the capricious thunderbolts
of the Fourth Alafin (4) of Oyo.
Bareback he rode his beautiful obsidian steed
and wore wild cowries.

The night before
Eshu (5) The Messenger had left open the way
at the crossroads
so when the sun climbed silk cotton and monkeypod trees
and tangled baobabs
the warrior from overseas dressed in the green of olives and the younger
son of Kiluanji (6)
who had traveled far from the lands of Ngola
could without trouble reach the summit of Ife
where they would discus the new tactic to follow.
Then Sili (7) arrived
the Mandinga lord and master of the elephant's secret
wearing his most precious boubou of adire
printed in cool magenta and blue
by dedicated craftswomen humming old songs
blended with the hues of the dye
and the rhythms of oral legend.
And he waved a white kerchief
in the manner of his people.

Oggun had not yet come.
With all his experience in war he was to act as adviser but
he had been hard to find this time.
For a long while he had been covered
by a mantle of nontribal wars
a little to the south of the mighty Zambezi
with the Zulu spirit of the great Shaka (8) coursing his veins.
But all knew that punctuality was his third virtue.
And so it was.
When the Fourth Alafin of Oyo
had finished decorating the two-headed axe
its walnut plaited with oxhide thongs

a present
for he who had come
across the Atlantic

the famous warrior appeared
beside the handsome Yoruba-born black

irreconcilable lover
of the most beautiful of his maids

brandishing his machete of iron tempered
with the sacred stone of Kilimanjaro.

The forest thick with drums and kora music.
And among leopards and frustrated white warlocks
shadows attack mercilessly not for the first time
hostile smiling conspiracies
to try and divert history
which with death-rattles finally flows into the Great Lakes.

New Corn.

The secret ceases to be one as it takes shape across the sea.

I greet you brothers.
Let's drink a toast with cane spirit
to fire the soul with peace
and efface the hostility others fostered.
The middle Passage
and the plantation economy
after centuries of sweat and anemia
turned our West Indies
into an eternally indestructible
outcrop of solidarity.
Then our muscles
our culture
our collective spirit were enslaved.
Today the dried blood has become
the blood of sacrifices.
Here I am for the cumbite of all times.

We went slowly following the tracks
philosophizing prudence
and we did not find the elephant's secret.
We regret this error.
Here is my tribeless arm
to crush the long Western and Christian snake.

Thus the Mandinga
heir by direct line of the great Sundiata's (9) victories.

How much fugitive pain has been impregnated with our skin with our people. How many lies spread through woods and villages trying to humiliate us. Why has our dialect ceased to be... So alien to us.

And they turned back their memory.
A long journey to the night in Conakry
when they shot him down
so that Amilcar would not dare to find the dawn
of his green land.
Bit by bit from Lusitanian eyes
we tore our lightless emeralds.
Thus spoke the brother of the one they killed
to win a war.
But the voice does not die and echoed free in the wind.
The history of the world
would be very easy to make
if the struggle were only undertaken
in unfailingly favorable conditions...
The orishas gathered there
stood up
in sign of praise for the dead man.
There is no other metaphor than palm oil for curing wounds.
The Santa Maria's and the silk cotton thorns
have multiplied in the silence of ships
laden with captive blacks.
Today the Caribbean sea writhes with ghostly galleons
to redeem the absence of those who died.
The moonless night and the ocean's strict confidence
were witness.
Hate is not fortuitous here.
We have never despaired.
We are coming back and at this point blood still reddens
charcoal wrath. 
We returned with reaffirmed reasons
ready to bless with gunpowder our anger's actions
if it were necessary.
The Master of all Metals(10) 
the warrior par excellence made his bells ring.
The Fourth Alafin of Oyo exploded stones spearheads
contrived flashes and danced frenetically
to the rhythm of monkeypods.
The Lord of the Kingdoms rejoiced
and made his cowries shimmer and sparkle.
He seemed satisfied with his mortals.
He meditated and listened
to the peace he brought with him
galloping on saddles of silence.
Rather like this total submission
to the law of the unending flow of life
or a torrent of froth and pure water that bears us
from desire to desire from pain to pain
condemned to this cycle of rebirth.
There is no alternative but to dissolve
what produces this very desire. 
Father Long Arms contemplated his empty calabash
inseparable attribute.
Will and power over all quarters.
He spoke thus.
I love those who do not search
behind my stars for a reason to sacrifice
themselves in death.
I love those who sacrifice
themselves here on this Earth.
So that one day my stars might be theirs.
And moving his arms in a flury of green leaves
he opened a sufficient clearing
and set down his strange figure with its fresh wounds
assuaged with spring water jasmine
and orange blossom pollen. He spoke thus.
Everlasting in my vision
the faces of my dead misery and discord.
My dead.
Where the sun sets
they conspire
with sandalwood root
and chalk powder.
There they refuse to relinquish
once and for all
that historical dimension
in which
since ancient Greece and Rome
until the imperialisms of today
they have always confused civilization and power
and would relegate us
to the category of barbarians
both the condemned peoples
and those who refuse to be so.
Neither do I want compromises.
Compromises make us weak
like the New World humming bird
in a storm
and cracked like the earth in a prolonged drought.
Compromises mean inertia
There they only recognize
one recourse.
And here is my force.
Beginning and end of all things.
My black peoples overseas
and those in this land
North and South of the Sahara
only have one choice.
Servitude is the alternative.
Or are we difine
as the quintessence
of suffering to live in barbarity
served up in cellophane packs
trimmed with entrails.
Our entrails.
Why not live in tolerance
of one another.
In cumbite.
In the solidarity of the night
awaiting dawn.
Let everyone assemble
my native
my lepers
my penned in and
my healthy ones
in this southern land
where they lack everything
except the good fortune to be savagely used
and I will send
quartz and cobalt
corallite and vanadium ore
lava of cooper and titanium
crashing down on the heads
of those ambitious mortals.
I want thunderbolts.
Thousands of thunderbolts.
Thunderbolts of saltpeter and gunpowder.
Thus did he speak and they went back into the shadows
as they had come.
The rest stayed just a moment.
All that was needed to end the cumbite.
To return later.
With haste.
With the confidence of the approaching dawn in their fists.
To go on...  


Explanatory Notes

1 Coumbite in Haiti, a gathering with spiritual connotations
2 orisa, Yoruba deity
3 Obbatala, Yoruba deity, creator of mankind
4 Alafin of Oyo, supreme ruler of the old Yoruba kingdom of Oyo
5 Eshu, orisha of good an evil, with two faces, devilish brother of Eleggua, the orisha who opens and close the path
6 Ngola Kiluanji, hero of the Angolan resistance 15th c.
7 Sili, elephant in malinke language, symbol of strength
8 Shaka, legendary Zulu hero, beginning of the 19th c.
9 Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali empire, beginning of the 8th c.
10 Master of Metals, analogy to Ogun, Yoruba god of iron and war

Poema epico del Libro Cumbite y otros Poemas, 1976
Translated by Michael Tarr

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