The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (81-85)

2014-08-02 20.54.12

81.

Last night she comes round to our table

cupping her hands and says:

    • I’ve been collecting words.
    • Only beautiful words

She opens her palms

& words cascade onto the table

creating something sublime

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82.

She smiles & leaves

she returns with a phone in her hand

she says:

  • these you will need to listen to
  • these words will lace your brain with poison

She hands the headphones over to me

She whispers:

  • poison

I’m sure she says poison

not:

  • glory, glory, glory

2014-08-03 11.18.32

83.

It’s finally warm in Vancouver

Granville Island is resplendent in beauty

I’m being pulled out of a hole in my head

There’s a pressure there, like birthing

Enjoy, says my Kenyan friend

Drink some water, says my Polish friend

I wonder if I should sit down, my Acholi self suggests

Vancouver is beautiful

Where am I going, leaving this body?

Vancouver is beautiful

Why am I still here?

Vancouver is beautiful

What is my responsibility in all this?

Vancouver remains beautiful

Enjoy your existential moment

Drink waer

Sit

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84.

We don’t fight, we don’t quarrel

we don’t finish each other’s sentences

or ask questions beyond the banal

or plan

or dream

or hold hands

or go anywhere

or think anything at all

We smile, share meals

clean up

watch TV

sleep together

& wait for the other to die

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85.

I returned unrecognizable to those I’d left behind

I returned contaminated

covered in nastiness

spewing nightmares

(You see? You see?)

I only said I wanted to finish the song

(You see? You see?)

Now they won’t let me anywhere near the source

It’s not me, they say

The me they knew had nothing

wanted nothing to do with music

(having been away for so long)

The me they knew will never come back

or get to anywhere near the source

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (76-80)

2014-08-02 20.25.13

Views from the bus from Gulu to Kampala

76.

Tree stumps in a clearing

Still

Like children right before the lunch bell

Waiting

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77.

A wooden coffin, a backdrop of unending forest

Soon, the coffin whispers

Soon

the trees nod in response

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78.

Three children by the wayside waving at the bus

The bus roars past

I’ll be back, the bus wants to say

Kids only hear: back!

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79.

A man’s gaze is fixed on the lower branches of a mighty tree

Not now, the tree states quite clear

And not tomorrow either

He can’t hear

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80.

Words filter through

Letting in only nightmarish narratives

& other terrible things

Spider webs ever growing crowd my throat

Great Conversations at the Uganda International Writers Conference

http://www.africanwriterstrust.org/great-conversations-at-the-uganda-international-writers-conference

Written by Juliane Okot Bitek

Juliane Okot Bitek

Juliane Okot Bitek

 

When Professor Zakes Mda gave his keynote speech at the conference, he beautifully lined out and linked the theme of his speech: “Autobiography, Memoir and Memoires” to the conference theme of “Truth and Memoir”. Writing from memory, he told us, requires emotional truth whereas autobiography calls for provable facts. Writing a reflection from memory a couple of weeks after the conference (having lost my notes on the last day) means that this reflection is a product of an emotional truth and there was plenty of that during the African Writer’s Trust Uganda International Writers Conference, which was held at Fairway Hotel in Kampala, from 1st-6th March 2015.

The conference brought together 30 writers from many parts of the world, including the USA, the UK, Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, most of whom had only hitherto been preceded by their work or social media presence. Goretti Kyomuhendo, the director of the African Writers Trust and her very able team brought together a week of text, body, mind, heart and a spirit that drove the theme through the week. There were panels and presentations in the morning and in the afternoon, powerful binding and rebinding of relationships over drinks until late. To begin, Dr. Susan Kiguli (Uganda) presenting on a panel entitled: African Literary Renaissance: Return to Glory or Superficial Gloss? gave a brilliant and brief history of the 1962 Makerere conference to this moment; it was a powerful reminder that the same questions of power, authenticity, writing, and the role of the artist still dog us today.

Susan Kiguli, Juliane Okot Bitek, Susan Nkwentie, Jennifer Makumbi, Louise Umutoni, and Noo Saro-Wiwa.

L-R: Susan Kiguli, Juliane Okot Bitek, Susan Nkwentie, Jennifer Makumbi, Louise Umutoni, and Noo Saro-Wiwa

 

All mind-eyes listen to Oduor Jagero

All mind-eyes listen to Oduor Jagero

 

In that single week, writers that live in Uganda and writers that live outside Uganda and writers that live outside Africa became one; defined by vocation and not location. Shadreck Chikoti (Malawi) illustrated how some publishers discourage African writers from contextualizing their work outside of the continent while Melissa Kyeyune (Uganda) provided examples of the ways in which digital publishing can ameliorate the need to define one’s self by location – her e-novels are set in cities around the world and they sell very well. Jagero Oduor (Kenya) bravely dove into and introduced the green shade with which African writers abroad can be considered while Chinelo Okparanta (Nigeria/USA) reminded us that exclusion and derision against Diasporan African writers was self-defeating for us, African people. Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda) presented her experience of winning a writing award as a very positive experience.

Left: Glydah Namukasa, Mildred Barya, Emma D'Costa, Juliane Okot Bitek, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Jackee Batanda, and Chinelo Okparanta.

L-R: Glydah Namukasa, Mildred Barya, Emma D’Costa, Juliane Okot Bitek, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Jackee Batanda, and Chinelo Okparanta

 

Distinctions emerged from the different genres in which we work. There wasn’t much on playwriting, as Charles Mulekwa (Uganda) noted, but when he introduced Zakes Mda, with a call and response that electrified the room with the power of performance, our echoes welcoming Professor Mda would remain, even when we were gone – a powerful reminder that art is nothing without the people who live it, consume it, remember it, think about it, talk about it and bring it to life.

Women’s writing communities from Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda were introduced to us by Timwa Lipenga (Makenawa’s Daughters) Hilda Twongyeirwe (FEMRITE) and Louise Umutoni (Andika Ma); while Susan Nde spoke about the complications of writing, reading and getting published in a minority English- speaking Cameroon. Peter Kagayi (Uganda) introduced us to Lantern Meet of Poets, a community of poets who have reimagined poetry as a social and communal space. So having poets and prose writers reading together on the last evening at Kati Kati Restaurant was the practice of a new community.

Group picture

From left front row: Chinelo Okparanta, Godfrey Byaruhanga, Goretti Kyomuhendo, Zakes Mda, Mildred Barya, Jackee Batanda, Charles Mulekwa, Susan Kiguli, Timwa Lipenga, Hilda Twongyeirwe, Emma D’Costa, Glydah Namukasa, Juliane Okot Bitekt, Peter Kagayi, Beverley Nambozo, Diana Santiago, Dilman Dila, and Danson Kahyana

 

We went to the FEMRITE offices in Kamwokya, where we interacted with beginning and established Kampala writers. In the comings and goings, we were immersed into writing culture and thinking about writing and writing about thinking; Jennifer Makumbi (Uganda/UK) gave a hilarious account of her first attempt at self-promotion on social media.

Michela Wrong, Shadreck Chikoti, and Noo Saro-Wiwa

L-R: Michela Wrong, Shadreck Chikoti, and Noo Saro-Wiwa

 

Two nonfiction writers, both journalists talked about the work of writing about political figures and events. Michela Wrong (UK) and Daniel Kalinaki (Uganda/Kenya) spoke about the process of working with material that for the large part was already known and may have been published in the media before. Michela presented her insight as the fact that her third book: It’s Our Turn to Eat (2009) found the narrative which connected the news stories and pointed towards corruption in Kenya. Like Michela, Daniel’s book on Uganda’s opposition politician Kizza Besigye also used previously known material but he also spent much time and travel seeking to interview Besigye and his wife and others, who he says were very generous in filling in the blanks and humanizing the man beyond the politician known as Besigye.

Left: Beverely Nambozo, Goretti kyomuhendo, and Juliane Okot Bitek

L-R: Beverely Nambozo, Goretti Kyomuhendo, and Juliane Okot Bitek

 

I laughed far too much, I learned a lot. I discovered connections that I might never have imagined. The next time I’m in Gulu, I’ll go visit my father who lies at St Phillips Church and tell him about the conference. I will also look for the grave of Michela Wrong’s aunt who I understand probably lies close by.

Juliane Okot Bitek was born to exiled parents, both who hail from Gulu, northern Uganda.  As such, the notion of home as a place that one belongs to by virtue of birth, has always been elusive.  She currently lives and works in Canada. Juliane holds a Master’s Degree in English and a BFA in Creative Writing, and is currently a PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Students Graduate Program at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. Her doctoral research focuses on post-conflict narratives of formerly abducted women in northern Uganda. Her work has been anthologized and published widely on-line, in print and in literary magazines such as Arc, Whetstone, Fugue, and Room of One’s Own. Notably in 2004, her short story Going Home, won the Commonwealth Short Story Contest, and was featured on the BBC and CBC.

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (71-75)

2014-08-02 20.54.12

71.

World without end

world without end

so this is what it means to know that you have a crazy mother

world without end it was always like this

world without end and then someone broke in

& told us & told us & told us that our mother was crazy

world without end she was normal

she ironed her memories into her kanga

she used that same kanga to wrap her head

to carry us

to dry the plates

to wipe the snot from the baby’s nose

world without end that’s the way it always was

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72.

now that we know that our mother is crazy

we wrap ours about our waists

to protect us from evil

til the hour of our death

amen

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73.

we’re the startling green grass after the fires of the dry season

insistent

& clear

& knowing

& remembering

& expecting that this was not the last of the fires of the dry season

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74.

the earth remains as still as it ever was

dust rises and rises

creating silhouettes of the men in the road before us

red powder

red powder everywhere

and then the re-settling into stillness

the earth is stony, rocky, stubborn

it will only yield at 3 in the afternoon

& it will take in volunteers

in the smallest of yawns

to maintain the red of the the dust

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75.

over here, money is liquid

it melts nothing

costs nothing

buys nothing

moves nothing

but copious amounts of pleasure & satiation

over there money is cold

it moves everything

costs more

induces cold sweat

& can never provoke a smile

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (66-70)

2014-08-04 16.58.39

66.

At 3.15 am the door slams

the last of the whole words are gone

an army of ants had taken their place

& are hauling out crumbs

& verbal punctuations

bits and pieces

ahs & ums

shas & sheez

jeez & jesus!

all crystalline

all salty bits of sound

 

the ants make quick work

by mid-morning they’re all gone

 

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67.

by midday

all that’s left are images

too awkward to fit through the door & windows

 

like the two bald girls lipsticked and high heeled

like their mother wiping off some of the lipstick

like the one girl pouting afterwards

like the other smacking her lips, still smiling

 

like the mad man scouring the pews with his eyes

like the moment that he seeks you out

like the stern point he makes towards you

making all your pew-mates glance at you

 

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68.

a story emerges after church

how he has a wife & daughters

how he has a twin brother

how his name is Forgod

& how his equally mad brother is Forget

 

& how all this

is performance & story without words

 

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69.

Incandescence, I tell you

isn’t the sum of everything

it’s not even the multiplication of light

it’s nothing without the tapestry inside a black sky

 

Didn’t I tell you that stars would wear thin?

Stars don’t change

Stars don’t move

Stars don’t do a damn thing but stare

 

Incandescence is a red moon

a white moon

a low moon

a half moon

a sliver

a joke

 

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70.

A gecko darts silently out of the shadows

& scurries across the whitish wall

& then stands still

 

A mosquito buzzes angrily

she has no access

 

Inside the safety of a net

I snicker

& then

wait

what’s with the sudden itch

of a spider bite above my knee?

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (61-65)

2014-08-02 20.54.12

61.

You & I on the couch this morning

You in your work clothes & I in my bathrobe

Both of us cloaked in silence

 

when is a good day to die?

 

Not Monday because she’s fair

Thursday maybe

because Thursday’s child they say has far to go

 

A list of words to go through:

Laundry

Banking

Baking

Insouciance

Slithery

Computational

Universality

Dispersal

Do words feel the tongue of the speaker?

 

In the middle of a sentence, a dream

After fucking like dogs pounding ourselves into each other

Intent on each of us becoming one other

 

When is a good day to die?

 

At the junction where Broadway meets Main

A heart falls out on to the road

& the bus brakes just in time

 

Look after your heart, mister!

What are you doing?

Didn’t your mother teach you

to take care of your heart?

 

May or August, perhaps

Any month but your birthday month

That would be altogether too cruel

 

2014-08-04 15.47.3262.

This week we swore we’d dismember language

We pinky-promised to make a list

 

We’d take first English apart word by inept word

We’d begin with articles

 

From Monday on, we’d dismiss the specific

the general, the commander & the war

& just like that:

there was no more war & no language for it

 

On Tuesday you suggested

that we bleed out the possessives

Nothing could belong to anyone or anything

Share one, share alike

& I was no longer your darling

 

So we buried Conrad in the backyard

Along with all five European languages he used to speak

We buried Marlowe beside him, greedy fucker that he was

along with all the declarations he made

 

By Friday we could still articulate love so we hanged on

to action words as political cowardice

 

Saturday, there was no more point

we opened blue caches of verbs

No subject

No verb

No object

No simple sentences to point towards complex existences

 

No subjects

No other

No thing

So we hummed ourselves to sleep

 

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63.

Beloved, yesterday I sent my gal to the market

& she hasn’t come back

 

Beloved, I sent my daughter to the market

the loud one

the big one

the noisy one

the boisterous one

I sent my best self to the market

&  now she won’t come back

 

She was to pick up fresh vegetable, fruit

some other grocery — soap & the like

 

How long was she there?

Not very long, I expected her back any minute

 

Yesterday’s market isn’t there any more

That big, loud, boisterous space

where storied & money & goods changed hands is gone

 

All the souls fled except for the ones that hang around

Dancing in the breeze

& whistling through plastic bags that flap about

 

All the scattered things & bodies & embers

All the bits that used to represent life

All the stories that were interrupted mid sentence

when my daughter, strapped by some strangers

blew up into nothing

 

Yesterday I sent my life to the market

It’s as if I never existed before

 

Beloved, where did we take the wrong turn?

 

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64.

Today you bury your son

breath in & breath out

How is it even possible?

 

Yesterday I sent my daughter to the market

& today you bury your son

 

Breath in & breath out

never stopping, never stopping

even in the middle of wracked grief

where did we take the wrong turn, beloved?

 

Where?

 

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65.

Adjectives, nouns & adverbs

in a bowl

like fruit

from last week

starting to go bad

starting to have the sick sweet smell

of fruit going bad

starting to die

starting to know that fruit knows

that they’re dead

the moment that they’re picked from the tree

 

A collection of wilting words

waiting to be thrown out

into the compost

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (51-60)

 

 

 

 

2014-08-04 16.58.39

51.

How you left me with your foot in my arms

Your foot, & nothing more to take into the new year

 

52.

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How you left me

Like the sigh after that last kiss

I cannot reach back into last year

to grasp at that sigh

I cannot hold on to a moment

not a moment so firmly stuck to the past year

 

53.

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You left me like blood seeping from bone

at the touch of salt — beautifully and completely

 

54.

2014-08-03 11.18.32

Like a blood dropping onto a clear puddle of water

A ripple from a red explosion & then delicate spidery tendrils

& the water is pinked

as if it was never clear

as if you were never there

as if you were never part of the bloody foot I hold on to

 

55.

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So sing, Mary, sing

No one else remembers that song

Sing anyway

 

When you forget this song

then you will come to know

how completely you left

 

 

 

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (45-50)

 

 

2014-08-03 11.18.32

 

45.

He was young

He was shiny

He was slim

He was brand

 

He was earth

He was sky

He was tremor

He was fall

 

He was chartered

He was bus

He was hampered

He was slowed

 

He was kind

He was vain

He was branded

He was armed

 

He was questioned

He was game

He was knowledge

He was stained

 

He was awed, keening, blurred

He was bloody

He was serious

He is damned

 

2014-08-02 20.54.12

46.

Was I ever sober when I declared the hierarchy of love

As chocolate, wine then you?

 

It’s cold outside

It’s cold inside

My skin is clammy with desire

And there’s no one else at home

 

Let me instigate this kind of trouble

Let me trouble this investigation

Investigate this troubling notion

That silk and cotton

Are perfect replacements for your hands

That smokes and alcohol can be remedies

for an unkissed mouth

That this last weekend

Is an almost forgotten dream

 

2014-08-04 15.47.32

 

47.

I don’t want to meet for coffee any more

I don’t want to meet you in the deepest corners of cafes

and talk about newspaper articles and yesterday’s news

 

I don’t want to spend two hours with baby at breast

Waiting for sibling at nursery school

In a cafe full of strollers with other mothers and other babies

Waiting for siblings at nursery school

 

I want you to take me home

Let sleeping babies sleep

I want you to guide me to the sink

Drape a towel over my shoulders and run the warm tap

 

I want you to hold the back of my head

I want you to guide the soap away from my eyes

I want you to rinse my head with water, a tad too hot

I want you to wash my hair

 

On Thursdays I want to walk by the shampoo aisle

with baby at breast

And remember the smell of shampoo

 

2014-08-04 16.58.39

 

48.

There is no power to a wretched god

a ratchet god

coughing up phlegm

 

There is no power to a god

who holds up his pants with one hand

as he waits his turn to walk

through the metal detector at Heathrow

 

There’s even less to god in a good suit

nothing

nothing

not even the remote possibility

not even the light

of a small smile

 

2014-08-02 20.54.12

49.

This morning

we found her curled up, asleep inside a potato

 

When she woke up

she said it was good for her skin, all that starch

she said it was soft and warm and dark

she said potatoes smelled like earth

she said we couldn’t understand

she said that all she wanted was to go back home

 

2014-08-03 11.18.32

 

50.

Days stumble into each other

Friday collapses into Monday

After you

A golden city awaits

After you

A city resplendent in memories and glittery with tears

After you

Home

 

 

 

 

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (41- 44)

41.

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There is no power

There is no power to a cursed god

A dumb god

A rabid god

A terrible, terrible god

 

However

There is power to a nature that doesn’t care about curses

 

42.

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My fiction is a seduction — let’s get married

My fiction does not lie — c’mon, let’s get married

Fiction doesn’t cajole or threaten — what is it with you?  you have nothing to lose

Fiction will carry you, light as nothing but your actual weight

Fiction will place you there, right there, in medias res

 

Once there was a girl who had started to run long before the story started

& then you became the girl

& then you were the one that was chasing her

& then you became the fiction and the girl became the teller

 

What fiction is that if it’s not true?

C’mon. Let’s do it. Let’s get married today

 

43.

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A thirsty god finds me at the shore

selling water by the cup

A thirsty god, a broke god stands before me

You pay first, I tell him

You pay first

 

So this thirsty god tosses a couple of coins into the metal bucket

& draws deeply from the cup

Another cup?

You pay first

 

My god turns his pockets inside out

Shows me his wallet, his overdrawn credit cards

You pay first, I tell the damned god

 

I’ll give you a wish

A wish from a cheap god, a broke god

 

I wish, I begin

I wish I knew if she still wore that pink underwear

 

My god sputters out the water in his mouth

That’s it?

Not world peace?

 

I meet his incredulity with steady eyes

My wish, god, not yours

Who died and made you judge?

 

Christ, my god mutters, his lips still wet

Jesus Christ

 

44.

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Once a woman came to give a talk

I sat in the audience, rows and rows and rows away

almost in the back

 

After the introduction she got up from the front row

She wore all black — black top, black pants, black scarf

but as she got up there was a flash of pink at her waistline

 

 

 

 

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New Poems (36-40)

36.

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On the other side of Saturday

she is shiny with desire

Today, not so much

 

Desire for what?

A clean house?

Well-behaved children?

A successful practice?

An unwavering hand at her back?

 

Saturdays leave much to be desired:

Breakfast in bed for a tired woman

One day in the year, two, three — a bouquet of flowers

Weloveyouweloveyouweloveyouwedo

A lopsided smile

A sensuous pinch

 

Ah, bwana. Lakini wewe?

Let us not arouse the dead

 

37.

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Distinctions:

1. Your loveliness — for this there is no struggle

2. Your location on the east gate.  No one is coming to acknowledge your presence

3. The relationship between a stiff breeze and a full skirt

4. There is nothing else

 

38.

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Grace Lee Boggs on the period of transition:

“I’m very conscious of that sense of time. How long will I live? How long should I live?  I’m very conscious of what time it is on the clock of the world.  As I have grown older, I think in terms of centuries, whereas eight or nine years ago, I was only talking about decades.”

It’s almost morning on the clock of the world

The chandelier in the living room used to swing on its own, remember?

A pale sky

A tired night

 

It’s almost morning on the clock of the world

The earth itches and convulses

The chandelier swings wildly

I’m remembering the first sign that the cold season was over: earthworms wriggle out

I’m remembering the first sign that the cold season will never be over: Grace Lee Boggs is gone

 

39.

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This is only an idea:

— That the spell is complete and no one has to believe it, least of all you

— That the narrative matters

— That banners spell doom

— And friendship isn’t blood.  Glue and horses are related by foot

 

This is only an idea:

— That some encounters are nothing more than the evidence of of humour from an old ghost

— That there is a frenetic energy to this story

— A fragile end and a distant close

 

This is an idea:

That this is in fact a story that we cannot poke with a finger.  We live in the shadows of castles and castles of clouds

On occasion, we look up and say: look! the rain is coming

 

40.

2014-08-03 11.18.32

 

I’m yearning to speak to you in a language in which blow means kuti

I want to speak to you of a breath that we can climb onto

A breath like a single note

A breath in which I’m holding on to you

Holding on to you on a note that time will not control

 

It’s on the breath out, isn’t it?

Kuti

It’s on the breath out, right?

 

Let’s climb back on to that note

Let’s try

Music is nothing without you