In this story of a boy’s departure to boarding school, the author remembers leaving behind not only his family but a whole linguistic world
Leaving home at 10
It was an old Peugeot 403
They don’t make them anymore
Tyres inspected, engine oiled, brakes checked
All in order as only an old Peugeot can be.
Its creaking body held together by care,
My father drove me to the boarding school
In a small town one hour away from home …
My tears and the car held through the journey
Through the pothole in my heart and the tear on the road
Through the window, I watched the world rush past
The houses and the trees and the streets and the names
I had known and loved, all running backwards, with
No time to pause for a goodbye, no time to wave
To the departing son leaving the embrace of home and hearth
We arrived over an hour later, father and son,
driving through the school gate to the dormitory
that was to be my home for the next five years.
Then my father left … and, averting my eyes, I cried.
On initiation night I recited the prescribed words:
“I am a fag, a rotten green toad. I promise
to give up all my rustic and outlandish ways
and to become a true student of Government College, Ughelli.”
Soon after I lost the language of guavas and spirits
And ever since I have been boarded up in a new home,
A new language with neither spice nor bite.
I miss all the coarse and colourful words I can no longer use
The power and potency of the curse uttered with a gob of spittle
Let loose in the language of the body and the spirit
I miss the language that once lived in my body.
This week’s poem is by the Nigerian poet and scholar Harry Garuba, and comes from his second collection, Animist Chants and Memorials. Garuba published his first collection in 1982. He currently teaches African Studies and English at the University of Cape Town. His work was recommended by Poem-of-the-week poster Idowu Omoyele.
Dedicated to the memory of the poet’s father, Joel O Garuba, his second book has an epigraph that is almost a poem in itself: “Animist chant – / a chant that wakens / the soul of things / animate and inanimate / a spell that rouses the spirit / that lives in bone and stone.” The summoning voice of the singer in these poems is often light in its rhythms, and flexibly negotiates with the informalities of free verse and everyday speech.
Leaving home at 10 begins with the poet’s story of beginning a five-year stint at a city boarding school. The phrase “at 10” tells us the boy’s age and might also indicate the time of the departure, which would have been emphasised by the parent in advance, no doubt, and branded into the memory of the child.
Regarded with affection by the speaker and his father, the family car, “an old Peugeot 403”, is a symbol of change and obsolescence (“They don’t make them anymore”). It has been carefully prepared for the journey, though there’s perhaps a hint of doubt in the narrator’s tone that the car will make it. Perhaps he was rather hoping that it wouldn’t.
The animation of inanimate things that began with the Peugeot continues in the second stanza, where houses, trees, streets and, significantly, names, are seen “all running backwards, with / No time to pause for a goodbye, no time to wave / To the departing son leaving the embrace of home and hearth.” The retreat of these once-friendly and fatherly guardians of belonging foreshadows the bigger trauma, the separation of the boy from his actual father.
The narrative remains plain and understated, and the transition from school gate to dormitory is swiftly effected. “Then my father left … and, averting my eyes, I cried.” It’s significant that the boy averts his eyes after the father has left, as if shutting out his new surroundings, turning in on himself and his grief.
Inevitably, we come to the most crucial loss of all. Born in Akure, Harry Garuba spoke Uneme as a child, “the language of the old Benin empire that was headquartered in Benin City … the northern dialect of the Edo language, spoken in the part of south-west Nigeria known as Edo state.” Now at school, he will be required to speak English. The chant demanded on “initiation night” (stanza five) sounds comical and almost parodically “public school” but it is a formula that will inoculate the child against his very identity.
Being “boarded up in a new home” means being imprisoned in English and Englishness. The new language is bland food, “with neither spice nor bite”. Taste, texture, salivation are evoked by the mother tongue: it was food and drink, “guavas and spirits”, the salty joys of cursing. Garuba likes to pun, as in the earlier reference to the “tear on the road”, and here, the word “spirits” mixes us a verbal double. The last line, brave and succinct, uncovers the depth of the wound: “I miss the language that once lived in my body.” (My italics.)
Answering a question about the mixture of upper and lower case letters for line-openers, Harry Garuba said: “It was always a difficult choice for me in all of the poems – to balance the notion of the chant and its solemn, ritualistic quality as sound that evokes/conjures the object and the more conventional sense of words and sentences as simply meaning-bearing units, as signifiers, if you like … the intention was to signal the age of the chant in the first three stanzas with the capitals and thereafter the alienation.” In the poem’s concluding lines, too, the forgotten-yet-remembered first language becomes almost audible, its sonority and emphasis giving strength to the English words.