Talking Drum

inspired by “Sweet exiled words: two poems by José Luis Appleyard” translated by Natalie d’Arbeloff

when we were gathering the bitter-
leaf and stopped to play, throw rocks
to coax the spirit of the old baobab
into generosity, beg it to drop one

of its itchy-covered pods down from
the heights that we might break it
open, feast upon sweet-sour powder-
coating on its seeds, when hot breeze

carried first phrase from the drum in
our direction, we would freeze, tilt
our heads to listen for the repeat,
dama gazelles we were, catching scent

upon the wind, waiting for the repeat,
confirmation and instruction, goatskin
rhythm telling us which way to run

goatskin scraped free of hair, scraped
to translucence, soft thick parchment
stretched upon a narrow-waisted body,
hollow carved of wood and secrets,

stretched and threaded with leather
laces waiting for the compression of
the drummer’s upper arm, vocal cords
to tighten, loosen, flex the speaking

surface so the striking mallet could
write words in the language of the drum
each phrase held a message, repeated
and repeated, tonal speech encoded

into total speech, decoded by the body
of each hearer, heads tilted to receive
and suddenly we are stotting, feet
inscribing jubilation in hot sands:

the chieftain’s daughter, she is to
be married, there will be a wedding,
there will be a feast, there will be
rice with black-eyed peas and chicken,

and we all are welcome, welcome, we
are all invited to come and offer
blessings, come and dance in circles
for their union, come and dance our

thanks to those who’ve gone before,
thanks for continuity, dance for them
a prayer for peace beneath their roof,

a welcome for the children yet to come

Note: The talking drum was still an active means of communication between and within villages when I was a child; Natalie’s translations brought back a sense of loss and longing, memories of listening to their messages, knowing their meanings as a child without remembering learning them. I chose the dama gazelle for this poem because it has become critically endangered in the Sahel due to modernization and loss of habitat.

5 Replies to “Talking Drum”

  1. This is wonderful, Laura! And I’m thrilled that my translation stimulated you to re-live this and give it form.
    Now it demands setting to sounds and sights….I’m tempted to have a go….perhaps…perhaps.

  2. I read about the talking drums in Africa when I was a young girl, and I always thought there was something very special and almost magical in this form of communication. You brought this world alive for me and taught me more about it in this wonderful, beautifully written poem! Thank you, Laura for sharing this very special poem! :)

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