Teju Cole

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.

Photos and text by Teju Cole

foggy park-like area in Savanna, Georgia

In Savannah, a homeless man, quite drunk, came out of the fog. “I am homeless,” he announced. He began to fulminate about the statues in front of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. They were of famous artists, but he took them to be conquistadors. “This one,” he said, pointing to Raphael, “was a mass murderer. And that one over there” — Phidias — “was a child abuser.”

I gave him money. He reached into his coat and handed me a flower.

hand holding flower

Another poem from Teju Cole, in response to this.

Living in the body of a seal,
diffident as a crippled hound
stealing some shut-eye in the belly,
night office of the soul.

Enfolding not the future,
no gland of hope or glory,
the lobes will only testify
in favor of the shadowed now.

Solemn a temple of deception
as bird flight or other sign:
staves scattered across desert,
dowsing through text-terrain.

Wolf call hints at augury,
unfurls like lifting fog,
antenna pitched at gods who
are much too fond of sleeping.

© Teju Cole 2008

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

Download the MP3

a letter from Teju Cole

Nature: in the dream
it sounds like a thump,
a guest rapping
the floor boards from below.

Raccoon, groundhog,
milk snake in the walls,
the sound of summer
perfecting its two-step.

Country cousin,
I work a two-strand braid,
from outside in—
culture na yarn, na jolly

wey man dey take carry
burden for him head,
nature come dey help am
comot the load again.

The Soul Washer
protects another’s life.
Born the same week-day
as the Asante king,

he wears around his neck
a disc of solid gold—
the disc absorbs all evil
lofted at the king—

gold and man agree
to carry such a load.
Nature thumps again—
let me out or let me in,

the sound of summer
perfecting its two-step—
raccoon, groundhog,
milk snake in the walls.

Download the MP3

© Teju Cole 2008