Shifting Load

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

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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.


  1. How welcome it is to study naija lingo.


  2. Such resonance.

    I love the lingo (is it naija?), whatever it means.

    I love “gold and man agree / to carry such a load.”

    Heck, I love it all.

    The setting seems to be Dave’s. Is Dave a “country cousin”? Did Teju visit and absorb his surroundings this well?


  3. Tonight, tired, headachy, these words and Teju’s voice were as warm and welcome as a hot cloth on my forehead. Thanks.


  4. This is meant as a back and forth, a conversation in poetry, between Dave and me. I can’t wait to see what develops.

    Bill, Peter: the lingo is indeed Naija. Nigerian pidgin, to be precise–the lingua franca of the people.

    Thank you all for your comments.


  5. I love the parabola of the poem, and “the sound of summer / perfecting its two-step” and “Country cousin, / I work a two-strand braid, / from outside in.”

    And yes, hearing it aloud doubles the wonder for me. So glad this dialogue in poetry is arising.


  6. Parabola is a good word. It also occurs to me that “burden” is another word for “refrain.” I don’t completely understand this poem, and hope I never do. (My own biggest self-criticism is that my work is too readily understandable.) A great start for what I hope will turn into a fruitful dialogue.


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