Into a Rightness

Another poem from Teju Cole, in response to this.

For you shall be in league with the stones of the field
and the wild animals shall be at peace with you.
—Job 5:23

The hand emerges
from the pocket
on its own, its splodge
of low brown hills
a keloid map of how
I’d failed to heal.

Gnarled, tidal wind:
a leaf storm hassles the air.
Argumentative clouds.
This hand is strange to me.

I’d stretched it out
as makeshift landing gear,
like one reaching out
for help, or to bless,
and badged it instead
with dirt and blood,
red archipelago
from base of thumb to wrist.

The dog had stopped
and looked at me
with his mangy face,
and slowly turned away.
I left a part of myself there;
the road rehearsed itself in me.

“They can smell
your fear, you know.”
Yes, I’d thought of that.
This gift of theirs
was what I feared,
dull humanity unmoored
from the strangeness of a dog.

Cousin, I’ll go chasing trees,
wade ankle deep
in the soft coin they mint,
spend hours tailing memory,
a dog on scent,

a child in the creek
of full human being,
trampling prodigal bounty:
hand-sized leaves
—burlap, silk, damask—
weeping off the branch like sails,

blush-hued, wine-hued, gold:
healing scars that
protect the stones,
eyelids for their perfect eyes.

Let us agree to pray
for each other:
that the tidal wind
settle us into a rightness

and recreate from these faults
and fears, fitter selves,
as lean years follow fat.

© Teju Cole 2008

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Website. Writer, art historian, street photographer, Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. Born in the US (1975) to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria. Lives in Brooklyn. Author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and a novel, Open City. Contributor to the New York Times, Qarrtsiluni, Chimurenga, the New Yorker, Transition, Tin House, A Public Space, etc. Currently at work on a book-length non-fiction narrative of Lagos, and on Small Fates.

9 Comments


  1. The Job quote is amazing. I found it online as 5:23, not 5:22, if that’s any help from one who — aack! — doesn’t seem to own a bible anymore.

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  2. I’d read it right (NRSV), but transcribed it wrong. It is, as you say, v.23. Thank you, Bill.

    The verse occurs in the context of Eliphaz’s unctuous (towards God) and heartless (towards Job) monologue; our use of it here reminds me a little of the way people love to quote Polonius, that silly old prattler.

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  3. The epigram from Job suits the poem (or vice versa) — I love the places where this poem seems to rise off the screen as though it were scripture.

    The stanzas which begin “Gnarled, tidal wind,” “Cousin, I’ll go chasing trees,” and “Let us agree to pray for each other” are the ones which move me most. There’s something archaic, strange, and lovely about the appellation “Cousin.” Like “Brother.” Names of relationships we don’t use often in common speech. There’s an elevated diction there.

    And oh, that last line, with its echoes of Pharaoh’s dream! You can still sling sacred writ, brother Teju.

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  4. Oh,my,yes. And I can neither stop listening nor speak.

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  5. I edited the citation to read 5:23. Should’ve caught that myself.

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  6. “the road rehearsed itself in me” — I fucking love that line. (You’d better keep an eye on me in the coming months to make sure I don’t steal it, unconsciously make it over in my own image as we are so often want to do with the ones we love.)

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  7. I agree Dave. How in the world did putting it that way ever happen? I think it’s probably incidental, but did you check the etymology of rehearse (from harrow from tooth of a wolf)? What in the world is the road rehearsing? — itself, on the stage of a house of flesh. The idea of anything rehearsing itself is pretty cool, and probably one you are already familiar with, but the in part is magic. Fates breathing with a tidal wind through human tissue.

    There are potent elements in this poem: keloid, tidal wind… I love the way nothing is real: the hand, the keloid (and I was shocked to learn about the medically all too real keloid!), the landscape are unstable as reality and belong at least half to the world of metaphor. Everything is mixed with with everything else.

    I had fun with other etymologies, gnarl = stone. I thought it fun and fitting that gnarly = both excellent and disgusting.

    There is a tug, a tide (tide = time) between wind and land, air and flesh — the confusing weather: is it in the atmosphere or in the flesh? Both.

    I like the hopeful emotive arc. The hand-sized leaves which are able to sail in the tidal wind; to place an eye of stone in the face of a hill, like an archipelago in a sea, like bone in flesh, like lean after fat.

    It’s just so well made. Not polished but sanded to shape.

    Anyway I’m glad you peeped up as I’ve been wanting to ooh and aah myself.

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  8. I neglected to mention keloid = claw.

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  9. One last disbursement, so I might sleep: I love the “tidal wind” thing. Google vivified it with this diorama: (meteorology) A very light breeze which occurs in calm weather in inlets where the tide sets strongly; it blows onshore with rising tide and offshore with ebbing tide. It’s so like other mix-ups in this poem: the road rehearses itself in an arm, the moon breathes itself in a sea. Today, for me, rehearse and breathe are transitive verbs in a way they never were before — Ha! Google says there’s a word for it: ambitransitive. They’re close, but I don’t think they’ve quite caught up with Teju Cole.

    Nor have I.

    Verbs of transference?

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