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from Abidjan Notebooks

[First Introduction]

On December 24, 1999, Côte d'Ivoire suffered its first military coup d'etat when enlisted soldiers mutinied over pay. President Bedie was ousted & General Robert Guei became Chief of State. The international community spoke of the "bloodless coup" because very few people were killed, & everyone expected Côte d'Ivoire to remain the oasis of stability it had always been in a poor, war-torn region. Three months after the coup my husband Doug & I moved to Abidjan with our 8-month old son, for Doug's job as a journalist.

At first General Guei assured everyone that he was only here to "clean house," had no interest in power, & would soon hold elections. He surprised no one when he decided to run for office himself, & has slowly but surely turned into a thug, implementing summary executions of petty criminals, having unarmed protesters & journalists whipped & beaten, & arresting or exiling junta leaders he suspects are no longer loyal to him.

After 9 months under a military regime, everyone is speculating nervously as to the outcome of a volatile political situation. How long will Guei manage to stay in power? Will his opponents respond with violence to his aggression? His main opponent is Alassane Dramane Ouattara (whose supporters call him "ADO"), over whom there has been much contention as to whether or not he is in fact Ivoirian, which is really just a way to keep him from running for president.

Foreigners have been leaving in droves, some because the economy can no longer support their businesses, & some because they fear civil unrest.

In the poem I mention Foday Sankoh, who became a frequent name in our household when Doug went to Sierra Leone to cover the RUF's kidnapping of 500 UN "peace"keepers. Sankoh is the former leader of the RUF, a particularly evil bunch of rebels who amputated the limbs of thousands of people in Sierra Leone, including children as young as 2 years old.

This is first installment of a longer poem which will not be finished until either General Guei is removed from power, or when I leave Côte d'Ivoire.

September 20, 2000













military swamp stature
invoking veiled weapons
�veiled I mean by my out
of focus stare�we arrive
to "ward off stimuli" in
order to live. not looking

love, & flowers abide
these unctuous rules
when distanced you come up
to your center, livid &
unkempt�here you are�
lovely, sated, kind of












I'm no closer to Congo in Abidjan than I was in Washington. The light brown girls with long braids begging at Carrefour de la Mort are from Mali. Beautiful, fearless eyes peer into your car window, the girls on their toes. I could be anywhere, in this house by the polluted lagoon, floating thread, ignorant, separate. A window face, Madame on the new grass.

May 4













my stupor & birds
at noon
then dusk, dawn
& my stupor
at the entrance
political magic
a cartoon


there is no reconciling being white
in Africa
just be yourself
just don't be yourself


being a mother is so hard sometimes
it makes me want to smoke & drink












Dinner with a crowd of journalists last night. I was the only spouse. Purnell defended Luis, saying, "I think he'll find his legs. He's got some stories�he was telling me about being held at gunpoint, having his life threatened when he was working on the Mexican border." I wanted to say, any old sod can be held at gunpoint or have his life threatened, that doesn't make you a hero it just scares the shit out of you & gives you a story to tell. What I worry Luis won't be able to handle is the more mundane stuff�the constant hassle, the lack of comforts when he travels, a violent bout or two of diarrhea, maybe malaria�& worse, his own defensive response to poverty, repression, insanity, violence done to other people, not him.

May 10













sampling a loneliness, to trudge against
its tumbling maps, lurching, heavy, my
vanquished necklace of hands & loving
what tropics, descendants must have loved



moving toward your name &
rank   because it brought
you here & became you, manservant,
treasure, lost under the century's
demon head   to sweep
& to serve vainglorious
gritty    chitty
chitty bang bang in American
movies we want
war, silliness,
& war












Yesterday Jonas went to his first birthday party. Ariana turned one year old. All the babies ate cake, except Jonas who didn't notice it. One big fat baby who is 13 months old & still can't crawl, just falls on his face & screams, & generally whines & cries all the time, stuffed handfuls of cake into his mouth. His mother laughed. "Should I stop him?" she said, doing nothing. Ariana's father said politely but with a trace of disgust, "I would."

I heard that last Monday 2 photojournalists were publicly flogged for taking pictures of General Guei picking his nose.

May 15













the trees lining Blvd. de la France have been cut down
ten feet up their fat trunks�huge branches summarily lopped
off, & now they make me think of Foday Sankoh.
I don't want to think about him 9:00 a.m. Friday.

after a mutiny, the dove
hoots & snails eat the rabbit's
carrot. no shooting, cars
circulating normally, people
having evenings

all over Africa, white people carry on as if.
& it's if.

the wood-carved Baoulé couple in the corner,
looking so good. wisdom & fertility. so many
ways to consider a family. art's
the means & the baby looks fabulous
in a sleeveless orange sport shirt.

pile me up a guru,
& disconnect me from my filter!
exaggeration's a distinguished seat in my beach-
side bungalow. death is always scurrying
about, obsequious
riverman in white linen.

history means to pass us by
& will hate the innocent
a cemetery singling out the disease












Monsieur le "President" arrested 3 of Ouattara's top men, one of whom Doug was supposed to interview today. Grey morning, 7:35 a.m., Jonas still asleep after a semi-fitful night. I had a dream: I am on a subway in the States & I notice 3 teenage girls looking at me & laughing. They're pretty & fashionably dressed. So I look back at them & laugh at them defensively. I realize they're making fun of my clothes, so I stand up & say, "You know, it's not really as bad as it looks�the clothes individually are okay, if nondescript." And I point to the clothes one by one to prove my point. "The pants�regular khaki pants, the shirt�the neckline is ruined from washing it too many times, but for the most part it's fine. The jacket is really what's messing everything up & making me look stupid." The girls seem to accept this.

July 14













what stops a line
blue ink on my arm
my child eating mango
& yogurt & speaking of it


be thorough in your thoughts
so the thought police can't
steal you. stay home
this evening with the yellow
blooming orange blooming
flowers on the vine

child at the door, reasons to greet him
fondly, my darling, your grins & decisions.
which tower should I knock over?
lovely ancient love. my dear in great pants.
blocks & puzzles & colors on shapes�
I've written it all down.
the last living polkadot.
purple & blue. yellow & white.












There is this white guy writer, Robert Kaplan, who claims to understand African people because he has traveled throughout the continent on their buses. This man writes that a woman breastfeeding her baby in a public place does it for the same reason another woman urinates in a public place�squalor. This man wrote a long book & westerners bought it.

August 15













Listen, my octopus, my little rabbit eating the roots, listen
to how the soldiers made us wait for hours outside!
I wanted to say Hey! Why do you make us wait
out here in the sun like cows in a field? But I wasn't
sure I could say it in French without saying "I am a cow!"
There are tons of things going on here
but I don't know what they are.

It's not me they've come for. Dragging skeletal
smiling through rubber streets in a maze�
not here�leopard-face & elephant-face,
we've many songs about you, Heavenly Father
& children. I'm not talking about burdens
or even prayers.
Prisoners & believers always up at dawn.
Somewhere off the coast of Sierra Leone a man should die,
but he eats the food he likes to eat.












When I signed up for my free Yahoo e-mail service, Côte d'Ivoire was not among the choices for country of residence. I had to find the secondary country list. Some people are in New York City feeling at the center of things. Culture, etc. But there is no other culture other than what you had for breakfast. Sometimes I might shut myself up in my room. And so that's my culture too.

August 17













A fairly silent tree bug whistling
guru, in tree tops, smelling us
from up there, these people, all
prickly, in pursuit of our lost
tails all the damn day long.
Does it please me?
It does not.

There are ants who will eat a snake
digesting a big meal. You can smell
these ants in the forest, Salif says.
Political undergrowth thrill.

Other people's breakfasts can be mildly disgusting.
On a Monday. Being a post-colonial
Madame in the tropics�who wants
to undress it? Dirty rubberbands around dirty
bank notes. The country has striped horns & striped
feet & leans down to pray, today Tuesday.
My staff surrounds me. My son
a small stranger, hanging on
to his carrot. All afternoon, evening,
& went to bed with it.












President Guei has accused Ouattara & the Imams of bringing guns & mercenaries into the country in case the Supreme Court commission rules Ouattara ineligible to run for president. The Imams responded with a statement that they foresee a genocide of Muslims. Salif thinks that if the Court rules out Ouattara's candidacy, there will be tribal warfare. My father writes from Colorado that Ouattara is a "courtly gentleman" who was an old friend's neighbor in Bethesda, Maryland.

August 25













this old coast, hat in hand
little army of misfits, book of French

mistakes, straying, cave-
dweller suspicious

the hibiscus bloomed last night
I saw it from my bedroom window

Jonas calls everything "manga"
except fish pigs cows balls sheep

manga manga manga manga manga
Nobody calls. I also don't call anybody.

sturdy lectern narrows our
salute & hypocrisy clocks

us spins us forward a
terrible ribbon

nights of black cars lowing
watchmen sipping Nescafe

in the alley, all those

blooming a final
confusing trust












It was being speculated the other night at dinner whether Côte d'Ivoire would erupt in violence. The British woman whose husband works for Nestle said she didn't think so because the Ivoirian people seem very peaceful. I grew up in Kenya, & Kenyans, she said, are very violent. Ivoirians aren't peaceful, the Dutch host who also works for Nestle said. They're cowards!

September 6













hold up your battered bones, soldier,
lit by disease & displeasure
in a complicated scenery
hoisted up by our various sins
our whole-hearted canary-stinkin' bourgeoisie
a future will tell you: this is unhappier,
this is after your time's up. I'm listing toward
my parallel life. my child knows I'm that way.
the rabbit pants, but it's not hot.












Yesterday Alfonse was very quiet as he walked me to my car. Then he said, "Is it true that in the United States you can walk around without your papers?" He was surprised to hear that in fact you could. If you're on foot? he asked. If you take the bus, or a taxi?

September 7













so versed with animals
in my son's gnawed books
a light fever, some gas
he sleeps on my bed
dark, air-conditioned,
silent room staring
who breathes for her winged
self invisible?
who speaks to her
for everyone now?
my guardian, his arms
flung over his head

the weather has been lovely
anger comes & goes
so quickly�erased
& convinced, dreary
to be steadfast, my arms
full of child in yellow
raincoat a leap
in the wet garden
faith in the long run
& our pleasure in
books toys & places
to sit down












Doug & I caught the tail end of an ADO rally, people streaming out of the Hotel Ivoire, yelling & singing & dancing in the streets�Blvd Latrille & Rue Booker Washington�there was a police truck politely making it's way through the crowd, & some of them actually waved from the back of the truck as they drove away. These are the same police who beat the shit out of ADO supporters just last week in Le Plateau�stripped them naked, made them walk on their hands & knees & whipped them, in broad daylight. ADO! ADO! Thousands of people filling the streets with their bodies & enthusiasm.

September 15













undressing the prisoner
all night this century
mountain, strung chain
gang & failure



can't write to it�his eyes
somebody's friend so defeated












After the so-called assassination attempt, President Guei held a press conference to reassure the Ivoirian people that he had everything under control. The state-controlled TV station showed a long video of "what happened this morning." The camera lingers over bullet holes in car windows & doors & walls in Guei's house, pools of blood on the ground, the armored vehicle that had crashed through the gate & a wall, all the time an eerie synthesizer 1980s horror movie type music playing, no voice-over. The clip ends with what looks like Guei's dead dog but is actually his dead horse. The captured perpetrators are immediately undressed. One of them was filmed with that same eerie music in the back of a pick up surrounded by soldiers intermittently whipping him, his shirt off, his arms bleeding, his head bleeding, holes in his back, they were taking off his pants, he sat there with his eyes rolling around.

September 18













the world grown inward
its shapely sentiment condemned
that man grumbles
so this one trembles
sensing religion's gifted
stench with silent
lectures unraveling, world
is orange now, world is
speaking, soil, lizard, jostled
missile, leftover












You can make anything sound unreal. Little actors in little countries. (What will they have to do to become international stars, like Idi Amin?) Where the imperial powers are always saying with a big laugh: the President's people came to see us today & asked what did the (empire) people think we should do? And of course the (empire) people don't even know where (little country) is, much less care what they should do! Ha ha ha ha ha!

September 20