Archives: Longlisted poems


Some of us have a vulture
in our psychology. Razor-winged,
it makes a tender cage
of the skull. Its music
is a scream of inquiry.
It puts a claw through any kiss.

It makes little chicks of us;
feather-tailed showgirls.
The sequinned shame of morning
is where it feeds.

Change, for me, is a fluorescent-lit
theory; but I have heard that
some have a songbird.

What I Mean When I Say I Was Brought Up Bilingual

The words taste strange. My mother’s milk
has become a foreign cuisine, baby food
replaced by a sophisticated, grown-up menu.

In my grandmother-tongue, mother-tongue, auntie-tongue
I am still a child,
a much-loved child who knows where
and with whom
she belongs.

In my father-tongue, I am an adult,
educated, articulate, professional.
The words of my father-tongue are the tools of my trade,
and with them I have crafted the construct that I am.

Words sit uncomfortably in my mouth,
familiar and unfamiliar,
myself and other
and in between.

Schoolyard Obsession

It’s gay / That’s gay / You’re gay / Reyt gay
Gay boy / Gay lord
Bum boy / Batty boy

It’s all any of them ever
Wanted to talk about:
Fantasies of me
Licking balls / Sucking dick / Groping biceps
Snogging men / Getting bummed
It never occurred to me
To ask why

I became obsessed
With it too:
It’s gay / That’s gay / You’re gay / Reyt gay
Gay boy / Gay lord
Bum boy / Batty boy

It wasn’t something I ever
Dared to bring up,
Not until now
Because now
I know I’m not
The only one
That’s gay / Quite gay
Kind of gay / Bi actually
Gay boy / Gay lord
Bum boy / Batty boy

And I’m sure some of
You are too
After wasting so much
Of your breath
Convincing us you weren’t
And now those of you who aren’t
Any of those things
Never want to talk about it again,
Never want to think about it again,
Never want to look us in the eye
And see how proud we’ve become

What exactly is wrong with
Being gay / Reyt gay
A gay boy / Gay lord
Bum boy / Batty boy

It’s occurred to me now
To ask why

A Bi Awakening in a Red State

My first friend was my first crush.
It’s hard to split apart
our female friendship
when you don’t know what is allowed
in the world as a kid.
You just know the feeling
of anticipation and butterflies
before you see them
and don’t understand what it could mean
outside of what’s been prescribed to you.

I understood that I was supposed to
fan girl at boy bands and litter my room
with tasteless posters of some
teenage heart throb
but I couldn’t ignore the excitement
for the lady pop stars on my TV.
How could both Aladdin and
Jasmine awaken something within me?
How could the entire cast of The Mummy
be inexplicably so attractive
and stir the beginnings of puberty?

I didn’t have many answers
outside of the previews from shows
like Will and Grace or the whisperings
from the lone out gay kid in our grade.
In college I do remember
learning about the Kinsey scale:
something surprisingly queer
coming out of southern Indiana.
It made me open my eyes
about something surprisingly
not straight about me.

I also remember coming out
to an old friend on a late cool night
in the dorm commons,
as we stumbled through words
to share who we are,
breaking free from fear
instilled from the religion
of our parents and the shame
that comes with it.
We hugged to bind our secret
to the Midwestern spring night
and prayed the dark kept our secret
until we could come to the light ourselves.

Like any true American, I came out to my mom
in a rainy Walmart parking lot
as she asked me why I went to Pride
and didn’t I know that it’s a gay parade?
I gripped my steering wheel
in a brace of release:
from Catholicism,
from all religion,
from fear,

Mom, I’m bi.

In June I will fly my pride flag,
one of just a few in my neighborhood
and not even a block
from the Catholic church I was raised
and confirmed in.
While they huddle in the basement
trying to save one another
from the sin of “sexual confusion”
I will do one small act of rebellion,
of compassion.

Maybe some other kid
with their first crush
on their first friend
will see that rainbow on my house
and a few more
and understand that they are not alone.
Perhaps they will have a few more answers
and a few less battles
as they begin to awaken
in this state we call home.

The Gentle Giant

I knew this lanky fella
called Joe, once.
He told me how he’d grown the size he was;
six foot, seven foot, eight foot plus
cos when he was younger
he tripped on his bonce
and the nurse told him
that it would always affect his growth.

‘Skyscraper,’ we used to call him
(very imaginative).
We used to joke that he’d always be first
with the weather forecast.
‘What’s it like up there?’
He’d smile gently, then look up for us, at play.
‘High chance of rain,’ he’d say with outstretched palm
and we’d buckle with laughter.

He could never meet a girl,
he told me much later.
It was cos of his size, he said.
But what I reckon was that
he just got tongue-tied –
a lack of confidence
– just like the rest of us.
‘It was more than that,’ he said.

Getting clothes to fit was a problem
(they never did).
Always bursting at the seams they were
and getting a proper bed was another
(his long bony legs were to be found
most nights hung out the window to the moon).
I lost touch with him not long after.
Moved on.

If I ever bumped into him again
and nowadays that’s well within reason –
I’d spot him a mile off
– and I’d ask him how he’d been
and if he remembered old times when we were friends.
I’d tell him that I always liked him on my basketball team. We often won.
And I’d ask him if he’d met someone,
you know – the one – cos it would be really good for him.

When People Tell Me I’m “Still the Same Person”’

I watched the shoreline pushing back the ice for weeks
until the last knotted muscles of the lake broke free
and it smiled in silver glimmers beneath the pier,
took cast-off leaves in quickened fingers to adorn its cheeks,
and was happy.

Someone will say it is the same lake
because they love joy less than they hate surprises
and don’t feel the difference when the light strikes the bottom.

This Is What it Means to Be a Yorùbá Nigerian and Practising Muslim, or, Refusing this Biased Shahada of Cancel Culture

ereyesterday, i updated my facebook
profile & poured my complex identity
into a bio of two nominal phrases:
yorùbá nigerian & practising muslim,
all cases lowered as though to
stifle the soundtrack of sobs
mapping the topography of all the
humiliations osmosing through every
follicle on my skin to the
epicentre of my mental health.

i’ve lost count of how many times the
screen of my gionee m12 has insulted
the labour of our heroes past: sorry
this [ ] is not available for you-
r country! does this mean the internet
collages me from all the 419ers
this nation has ever exported? when
the only inheritances from your
brothers’ reputation is a (cyber)prison
& a raffle ticket to xenophobia, you
begin redrawing your family tree.

i don’t know which compatriots to
call my brothers any more. last month
while in kaduna, i hid my àbàjà tribal
marks under a concealer of pretence
by which i mean i camouflaged my
tongue to avoid becoming the next big
sallah ram. in this country, we convert
patriotism to ethnic chauvinism, &
measure its depth by how much our
blind bullets or knives or cudgels
recognise our own kinspeople.

in the inaugural communion of a poetry
group i just joined, i introduced
myself as habeebullahi, told them
it means God’s beloved. someone asked
if the [A]llah suffixed to my name
hailed from sokoto, & when i’d lynch
blasphemy off the next deborah.
another queried if i’ve ever considered
the alchemistry of transfiguring
my abrahamic brethren to soot a shortcut
to my harem of 72 virgins in jannat.

down south, in the dawn of the recent
religious skirmishes up north, mike, my
best friend since primary school drilled
a hole in the ship of our relations: he
unfriended me over my bio, said in his
eyes, my bearded profile photo next
to the bio has started slideshowing
the faces of muslim murderers of his
christian brethren. i forgave his choice
of faith over familiar friendship, but i
don’t get the mathematics of how
someone who nicknamed me dove
suggested my addition to the list
of sleeper boko haramists. i’m still
trying to dissect the psychology of the
transfer of hatred & hostility—how
the mob actions of an unknown people
subtract the history of positives shared
between pals, till it zeroes to negatives.

on most days, i wish to bowdlerise these
stereotypic nominals & adjectivals
from my psyche & proclaim : i am!,
or i want to be! — meaning, i am a victim
of my brothers’ errors; meaning, for
once, i want to be a holidayer in a
foreign identity, free to live outside
of mine. i’ve started erecting a barrier
between my individuality & the devils
these people are trying to lump me with.
i’m saying even when i wear my identity
on my head like the abetí ajá cap,
i refuse to make a credendum this
biased shahada of cancel culture.

Freedom in Viriditas

it is my job to love the ever-turning earth, in its fierce and undefinable chaos;
often i feel as though i walk between worlds,
as glossolalic ambassador to the transgressors;
as a well-intentioned missionary,
waxing lyrical about flea-bitten pelts and the smell of the earth;
sermonising on the goose and the squirrel,
on the air and the water,
on freedom in viriditas.

i know the wilds as holy blurred boundaries.
bright-eyed and flea-bitten, the lioness grows her mane;
divinity is in her sunlight corona, flashing copper under the hot cat’s-eye sun.
thus crowned, she defends her people;
the uncaring brazenness of her change is almost unbearable,
but my dreams of pack-running find solace in her gold-brown gaze,
and in her pride.
there are, after all, no bargains between beasts and men.

Mother Tongue (Beau Bassin-Rose Hill)

There is a little girl, on a flowered hill,
who you can no longer speak to

because you, the third of four, were too little
to fill the body of water

that welled between mothers
and satellites
and empresses that made you sign away

her left hand with your right,
blow her into glass

and paper to stay the shore
that remained unburnt.

But still I heard her
five decades later,

in another country that
sugared words down your throat,

my proud number crumbled under
a mother tongue,

just like they said it would
just like they said she shouldn’t

and called in sisters
to transcribe her wrongs

rend her out of
the whiplash between seas

and eyes meaning you
to be bloodless

So you might stand before us
and claim you cannot speak

while the basin of your mouth overflows
water from two islands, fluent

like those measures of hands and fragrance
in the half focus

behind our words, in the kitchen
as you come to

make something
that she would know

to be home.

Pink Lady Razor

if I was to contain myself
to an existential form
you would spot me
between early morning
purple clouds
above the town
I grew up in and
polaroid red flash reflections
in the eyes of my laughing friends
because the best parties
are those that
are not planned
sometimes you would find me
neatly tucked away
in the back of my
grandmas’ wooden cabinet or
buried under frozen pizzas
in the Sainsburys freezer section
shyly offering smiles to whoever
walks by and I will call it
fate if our gaze meets for
just a second before we
go back to
our busy minds
but don’t be afraid
for we will meet again
one day in the forest
behind the school
like we used to

tuesday gave birth to me
and I chose to get up again on a
wednesday kicking and screaming
I defy gravity of relentless
tiredness on sober
thursday afternoons
and the lingering dread of
time grinding my bones
every time I realize
it’s Friday again
what if I told you
a buzzcut can save a life
and so can some poorly
applied bleach
the hairs under my arms
have become life lines
I cultivate like flower seeds
the pink razor of my
girlhood long forgotten
but the scars still show
most days

if you would ask me
what I want to be
I would tell you
that you cannot
contain me
at all
if I was to choose
my existential form
I’d rather be a paint stain
or a freckle on my
mother’s nose
the way smoke evaporates
but always leaves behind
a smell that lingers
on your clothes for days
a bubble just popped
but still reflecting
light in every
shade of rainbow
what if I told you
that most things
don’t mean anything
yet we make them
what they are
and because of
that you may
find me in between
these lines or in
the silence before
we wave goodbye
both on different
sides of the
and yet right
next to
each other