Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, GOLD COAST CUSTOMS, by EDITH SITWELL



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GOLD COAST CUSTOMS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: One fantee wave
Last Line: For the fires of god go marching on.
Subject(s): Customs, Social; Gold Coast, Africa


In Ashantee, a hundred years ago, the death of any rich or important person
was followed by several days of national ceremonies, during which the utmost
licence prevailed, and slaves and poor persons were killed that the bones of the
deceased might be laved with human blood. These ceremonies were called Customs.

ONE fantee wave
Is grave and tall
As brave Ashantee's
Thick mud wall.
Munza rattles his bones in the dust,
Lurking in murk because he must.

Striped black and white
Is the squealing light;
The dust brays white in the market place,
Dead powder spread on a black skull's face.

Like monkey skin
Is the sea -- one sin
Like a weasel is nailed to bleach on the rocks
Where the eyeless mud screeched fawning, mocks

At a negro that wipes
His knife . . . dug there
A bugbear bellowing
Bone dared rear --
A bugbear bone that bellows white
As the ventriloquist sound of light,

It rears at his head-dress of felted black hair
The one humanity clinging there --
His eyeless face whitened like black and white bones
And his beard of rusty
Brown grass cones.

Hard blue and white
Courie shells (the light
Grown hard) outline
The leopardskin musty
Leaves that shine
With an animal smell both thick and fusty.

One house like a ratskin
Mask flaps fleet
In the sailor's tall
Ventriloquist street
Where the rag houses flap --
Hiding a gap.

Here, tier on tier,
Like a black box rear
In the flapping slum
Beside Death's docks.
I did not know this meaner Death
Meant this: that the bunches of nerves still dance
And caper among these slums, and prance.

"Mariners, put your bones to bed!"
But at Lady Bamburgher's parties each head,
Grinning, knew it had left its bones
In the mud with the white skulls . . . only the grin
Is left, strings of nerves, and the drum-taut skin.

When the sun in the empty
Sky is high
In his dirty brown and white
Birdskin dress --
He hangs like a skull
With a yellow dull
Face made of clay
(Where tainted, painted, the plague-spots bray)
To hide where the real face rotted away.

So our wormskin and paper masks still keep,
Above the rotting bones they hide,
The marks of the Plague whereof we died:
The belief,
The grief,
The love,
Or the grin
Of the shapeless worm-soft unshaping Sin --
Unshaping till no more the beat of the blood
Can raise up the body from endless mud
Though the hell-fires cold
As the worm, and old,
Are painted upon each unshaped form --
No more man, woman, or beast to see --
But the universal, devouring Worm.

When the sun of dawn looks down on the shrunken
Heads, drums of skin, and the dead men drunken,
I only know one half of my heart
Lies in that terrible coffin of stone,
My body that stalks through the slum alone.

And that half of my heart
That is in your breast
You gave for meat
In the sailor's street
To the rat that had only my bones to eat.

But those hardened hearts
That roll and sprawl,
In a cowl of foul blind monkey-skin,
Lest the whips of the light crash roaring in --
Those hearts that roll
Down the phantom street
They have for their beat
The cannibal drums
And the cries of the slums,
And the Bamburgher parties -- they have them all!

One high house flaps . . . taps
Light's skin drum --
Monkey-like shrunk
On all fours now come
The parties' sick ghosts, each hunting himself --
Black gaps beneath an ape's thick pelt,

Chasing a rat,
Their soul's ghost fat
Through the negro swamp,
Slum hovel's cramp,
Of Lady Bamburgher's parties above
With the latest grin, and the latest love,
And the latest game:
To show the shame
Of the rat-fat soul to the grinning day
With even the ratskin flayed away.

Now, a thick cloud floating
Low o'er the lake,
Millions of flies
Begin to awake,
With the animation
Of smart conversation:
From Bedlam's madness the thick gadflies
Seek for the broken statue's eyes.

Where the mud and the murk
Whispering lurk:
"From me arises everything,
The negro's louse
The armadillo,
Munza's bone and his peccadillo,"

Where flaps degraded
The black and sated
slack macerated
And antiquated
Beckoning negress
Nun of the shade,

And the rickety houses
Rock and rot,
Lady Bamburgher airs
That foul plague-spot
Her romantic heart.

From the cannibal mart,
That smart Plague-cart,
Lady Bamburgher rolls where the foul news-sheet
And the shambles for souls are set in the street.

And stuck in front
Of this world-tall Worm,
Stuck in front
Of this world's confession --
Like something rolled
Before a procession,
Is the face, a flimsy wormskin thing
That someone has raked
From the low plague-pit
As a figure-head
For Corruption dead,
And a mask for the universal Worm.

Her apeskin yellow
Tails of hair
Clung about her bone-white bare
Eyeless mask that cackled there:

The Worm's mask hid
Her eyeless mud,
Her shapeless love,
The plot to escape
From the God-ordained shape.

And her soul, the cannibal
Amazon's mart,
Where in squealing light
And clotted black night

On the monkey-skin black and white striped dust they
Cackle and bray
To the murdered day,

And the Amazon queen
With a bone-black face
Wears a mask with an apeskin beard; she grinds
Her male child's bones in a mortar, binds
Him for food, and the people buy. For this

Hidden behind
The Worm's mask grown
White as a bone
Where eyeholes rot wide
And are painted for sight,
And the little mouth red as a dead Plague-spot
On that white mask painted to hide Death's rot,

For this painted Plague-cart's
Heart, for this
Slime of the Worm that paints her kiss
And the dead men's bones round her throat and wrist,
The half of my heart that lay in your breast
Has fallen away
To rot and bray
With the painted mud through the eyeless day.

The dust of all the dead can blow
Backwards and forwards, to and fro
To cover the half of my heart with death's rot,
Yet the dust of that other half comes not
To this coffin of stone that stalks through the slum

Though love to you now is the deaf Worm's lust
That, cloven in halves, will reunite
Foulness to deadness in the dust
And chaos of the enormous night.

How far is our innocent paradise,
The blue-striped sand,
Bull-bellowing band
Of waves, and the great gold suns made wise
By the dead days and the horizons grand.

Can a planet tease
With its great gold train,
Walking beside the pompous main --
That great gold planet the heat of the Sun
Where we saw black Shadow, a black man, run,
So a negress dare
Wear long gold hair?
The negress Dorothy one sees
Beside the caverns and the trees
Where her parasol
Throws a shadow tall
As a waterfall --
The negress Dorothy still feels
The great gold planet tease her brain.

And dreaming deep within her blood
Lay Africa like the dark in the wood;
For Africa is the unhistorical
Unremembering, unrhetorical
Undeveloped spirit involved
In the conditions of nature -- Man,
That black image of stone hath delved
On the threshold where history began.

Now under the cannibal
Sun is spread
The black rhinoceros-hide of the mud
For endlessness and timelessness . . . dead
Grass creaks like a carrion-bird's voice, rattles,
Squeaks like a wooden shuttle. Battles
Have worn this deserted skeleton black
As empty chain armour . . . lazily back
With only the half of its heart it lies,
With the giggling mud devouring its eyes,
Naught left to fight
But the black clotted night
In its heart, and ventriloquist squealing light.

But lying beneath the giggling mud
I thought there was something living, the bray
Of the eyeless mud can not betray --
Though it is buried beneath black bones
Of the fetiches screeching like overtones
Of the light, as they feel the slaves' spilt blood.

In tiers like a box
Beside the docks
The negro prays,
The negro knocks.
"Is anyone there?"
His mumblings tear
Nothing but paper walls, and the blare
Of the gaping capering empty air.

The cannibal drums still roll in the mud
To the bones of the king's mother laved in blood
And the trophies with long black hair, shrunken heads
That drunken shrunk upon tumbled beds.

The negro rolls
His red eyeballs,
Prostrates himself.
The negro sprawls;
His God is but a flat black stone
Upright upon a squeaking bone.

The negro's dull
Red eyeballs roll. . . .
The immortality of the soul
Is but black ghosts that squeak through the hole
That once seemed eyes in Munza's skull.

This is his god:
The cannibal sun
On bones that played
For evermore,
And the rusty roar
Of the ancient Dead,
And the squealing rat
The soul's ghost fat.

So Lady Bamburgher's Shrunken Head,
Slum hovel, is full of the rat-eaten bones
Of a fashionable god that lived not
Ever, but still has bones to rot:
A bloodless and an unborn thing

That cannot wake, yet cannot sleep,
That makes no sound, that cannot weep,
That hears all, bears all, cannot move --
It is buried so deep
Like a shameful thing
In that plague-spot heart, Death's last dust-heap.

* * * * *

A tall house flaps
In the canvas street,
Down in the wineshop
The Amazons meet

With the tall abbess
Of the shade . . .
A ghost in a gown
Like a stiff brigade

Watches the sailor
With a guitar
Lure the wind
From the islands far.

Oh far horizons and bright blue wine
And majesty of the seas that shine,
Bull-bellowing waves that ever fall
Round the god-like feet and the goddess tall!

A great yellow flower
With the silence shy
To the wind from the islands
Sighs "I die."

At the foot of the steps
Like the navy-blue ghost
Of a coiling negro,
In dock slums lost,

(The ghost, haunting steamers
And cocktail bars,
Card-sharpers, schemers
And Pullman cars)

A ripple rose
With mud at its root
And weeping kissed
A statue's foot.

In the sailor's tall
Ventriloquist street
The calico dummies
Flap and meet;
Calculate: "Sally go
Pick up a sailor."
Behind that facade
The worm is a jailer.

"I cannot stiffen . . . I left my bones
Down in the street: no overtones
Of the murdered light can join my dust
To my black bones pressed in the House of Lust.
Only my feet still walk in the street;
But where is my heart and its empty beat?

Starved silly Sally, you dilly and dally,
The dummies said when I was a girl.
The rat deserts a room that is bare,
But Want, a cruel rat gnawing there

Ate to the heart, all else was gone,
Nothing remained but Want alone.
So now I'm a gay girl, a calico dummy,
With nothing left alive but my feet
That walk up and down in the Sailor's Street.

Behind the bawdy hovels like hoardings
Where harridans peer from a grovelling boarding
House, the lunatic
Wind still shakes
My empty rag-body, nothing wakes;
The wind like a lunatic in a fouled
Nightgown, whipped those rags and howled.

Once I saw it come
Through the canvas slum,
Rattle and beat what seemed a drum,
Rattle and beat it with a bone.
O Christ, that bone was dead, alone.
Christ, Who will speak to such ragged Dead
As me, I am dead, alone and bare,
They expose me still to the grinning air,
I shall never gather my bones and my dust
Together (so changed and scattered, lost . . .)
So I can be decently buried.
What is that whimpering like a child
That this mad ghost beats like a drum in the air?
The heart of Sal
That once was a girl
And now is a calico thing to loll
Over the easy steps of the slum
Waiting for something dead to come."
From Rotten Alley and Booble Street
The beggars crawl to starve near the meat
Of the reeling appalling cannibal mart
And Lady Bamburgher, smart Plague-cart.
Red rag face and a cough that tears
They creep through the mud of the docks from their lairs;
And when the dog-whining dawn light
Nosed for their hearts, whined in fright,
With a sly high animal
Whimpering, half-frightened call
To worlds outside our consciousness
It finds no heart within their dress.
The Rat has eaten
That and beaten
Hope and love and memory,
At last, and even the will to die.
But what is the loss? For you cannot sell
The heart to those that have none for Hell
To fatten on . . . or that cheap machine,
And its beat would make springs for the dancing feet
Of Lady Bamburgher down in the street,
Of her dogs that nose out each other's sin,
And grin, and whine, and roll therein.

Against the Sea-wall are painted signs
"Here for a shilling a sailor dines."
Each Rag-and-Bone
Is propped up tall
(Lest in death it fall)
Against the Sea-wall.
Their empty mouths are sewed up whole
Lest from hunger they gape and cough up their soul.
The arms of one are stretched out wide . . .
How long, since our Christ was crucified?

Rich man Judas,
Brother Cain,
The rich men are your worms that gain
The air through seething from your brain;
Judas, mouldering in your old
Coffin body, still undying
As the Worm, where you are lying
With no flesh for warmth, but gold
For flesh, for warmth, for sheet,
Now you are fleshless, too, as these
That starve and freeze;
Is your gold hard as Hell's huge polar street,
Is the universal blackness of Hell's day so cold?

* * * * *

When, creeping over
The Sailor's street
Where the houses like ratskin
Masks flap, meet
Never across the murdered bone
Of the sailor, the whining overtone
Of dawn sounds, slaves
Rise from their graves,
Where in the corpse-sheet night they lay
Forgetting the mutilating day,
Like the unborn child in its innocent sleep.
Ah Christ, the murdered light must weep --
(Christ that takest away the sin
Of the world, and the rich man's bone-dead grin)
The light must weep
Seeing that sleep
And those slaves rise up in their death-chains, part
The light from the eyes
The hands from the heart,
Since their hearts are flesh for the tall
And sprawling
Reeling appalling
Cannibal mart,
But their hands and head
Are machines to breed
Gold for the old and the greedy Dead.

I have seen the murdered God look through the eyes
Of the drunkard's smirched
Mask as he lurched
O'er the half of my heart that lies in the street
Neath the dancing fleas and the foul news-sheet.

Where, a black gap flapping,
A white skin drum
The cannibal houses
Watch this come --
Lady Bamburgher's party; for the plan
Is a prize for those that on all fours ran
Through the rotting slum
Till those who come
Could never guess from the mudcovered shapes
Which are the rich or the mired dire apes
As they run where the souls, dirty paper, are blown
In the hour before dawn, through this long hell of stone.
Perhaps if I too lie down in the mud,
Beneath tumbrils rolling
And mad skulls galloping
Far from their bunches of nerves that dance
And caper among these slums and prance,
Beneath the noise of that hell that rolls
I shall forget the shrunken souls
The eyeless mud squealing "God is dead,"
Starved men (bags of wind), and the harlot's tread,
The heaven turned into monkey-hide
By Lady Bamburgher's dancing fleas,
Her rotting parties and death-slack ease,
And the dead men drunken
(The only tide)
Blown up and down
And tossed through the town
Over the half of my heart that lies,
Deep down, in this meaner Death with cries.

The leaves of black hippopotamus-hide
Black as the mud
Cover the blood
And the rotting world. Do we smell and see

That sick thick smoke from London burning,
Gomorrah turning
Like worms in the grave,
The Bedlam daylights murderous roar,
Those pillars of fire the drunkard and whore,
Dirty souls boiled in cannibal cookshops to paper
To make into newspapers, flags? . . . They caper
Like gaping apes. Foul fires we see,
For Bedlam awakes to reality.
The drunken burning,
The skin drums galloping,
In their long march still parched for the sky,
The Rotten Alleys where beggars groan
And the beggar and his dog share a bone;
The rich man Cain that hides within
His lumbering palaces where Sin
Through the eyeless holes of Day peers in,
The murdered heart that all night turns
From small machine to shapeless Worm
With hate, and like Gomorrah burns --
These put the eyes of Heaven out,
These raise all Hell's throats to a shout,
These break my heart's walls toppling in,
And like a universal sea
The nations of the Dead crowd in.

Bahunda, Banbangala, Barumbe, Bonge,
And London fall . . . rolling human skin drums
Surrounded by long black hair, I hear
Their stones that fall,
Their voices that call,
Among the black and the bellowing bones.

But yet when the cannibal
Sun is high
The sightless mud
Weeps tears, a sigh,
To rhinoceros-hided leaves: "Ah why
So sightless, earless, voiceless, I?"

The mud has at least its skulls to roll;
But here as I walk, no voices call,
Only the stones and the bones that fall;
But yet if only one soul would whine,
Rat-like from the lowest mud, I should know
That somewhere in God's vast love it would shine;
But even the rat-whine has guttered low.

I saw the Blind like a winding-sheet
Tossed up and down through the blind man's street
Where the dead plague-spot
Of the spirit's rot
On the swollen thick houses
Cries to the quick,
Cries to the dark soul that lies there and dies
In hunger and murk, and answers not.

Gomorrah's fires have washed my blood --
But the fires of God shall wash the mud
Till the skin drums rolling
The slum cries sprawling
And crawling
Are calling
"Burn thou me!"
Though Death has taken
And pig-like shaken
Rooted and tossed
The rags of me.
Yet the time will come
To the heart's dark slum
When the rich man's gold and the rich man's wheat
Will grow in the street, that the starved may eat, --
And the sea of the rich will give up its dead --
And the last blood and fire from my side will be shed.
For the fires of God go marching on.




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