Today, a selection from “Impressions of Africa,” one of the energetic longer poems of Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), a poet of the New York School, who, along with his influential school-mates Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, believed in a continual and highly personal, poet by poet renewal of the old forms and mannerisms of American poetry. Koch’s excavations and explorations in the long poem form, available in the volume On the Edge (while his shorter lyrics are found in Collected Poems), seem an ebullient answer to the question he poses at one point here: “How long does life last?”
Impressions of Africa
The back roads, if there are back roads
Have gone to sleep
Daggers have coughs on them
And quoits have cures
And doors have racking heat
The sciences have beds with fevers.
1. MADAGASCAR. SUBCONTINENT
In the Hôtel Colbert, pronounced Coal-Bear
In the bar
I saw a big, pretty girl who looked like Lisa
Behold a magazine a new life of women is about to appear
I sat at my chocolat writing
The sea-bird inviting
And the Lisa-looking girl didn’t smile or even look
At me but soon she got out of there
And she went walking
Down the sidewalk-colored street not thinking of me
Lisa-looking girl, come back!
Give me or don’t give me a little bit of ecstasy
Help me to find the answer
How long does life last?
The Académie Malgache
Wearing my new pink suit
Wishing you were there
But nothing helps me out
It helps me to see the lemurs
In the pre- and post-restaurant air
And in the time before I slide around in fear
On the floor in a nightmare
Which didn’t happen in fact
At the Hôtel Colbert.
Change my room!
Girl still a young
Flower not yet
Into the age
Of her race
And all characteristics
Mops the fields
With her hair
In long tresses are
They women, other, wear
Green and orange dresses
A man holding a rake
To duel with a rice
Paddy? or other field.
Where will it all end?
In the Market, around this bend
As I go down, my feet go down with me
People are sitting lying standing end to end.
To be exploding, like a fiddle, outside of myself
I am thinking on yellow roads of Madagascar
I have been there
Like a bird on a shell
Or like the mountain coming down over that
Sun sea shelf
And like the chair yellow and pink and red
That exists only in the head
At the side of the seashell, in Madagascar
Which is not Africa, some say,
It breaks away from Africa, just in time
To preserve the lemurs
A few hours later
The lions came down
And the apes came down
From a bend at the top of Africa
Rushed there by the climate
Knowing it can’t last
Neither did Africa, Madagascar
Left it, storm of red,
And rice paddies
And villages with stone tombs left it
With Polynesians coming to it left it
And with the stone booths
And the climatic exchange.
The Earthly Paradise—”Wait till I get there!”
Once in Antananarivo, however, it seemed too far away
(Forty kilometers by sea) and to take too long to get there.
This island, drenched by perfume fragrances, boasts many cabanas,
With paradise—where? A woman in Paris
Told me about it. Ah!
You are going to my country! there you will
Find the paradise—an island
That smells so sweetly
They have the perfume-bearing trees that it is called
Paradise, or Perfume Island.
But in Gaboon, as in Zaire, they said when you get there
Communist-government-ruined, ah you are
Going to Madagascar! I had a fine, confused state
Of mind about this subcontinental island state
An East-Berlin gray broken-up boulevard mist
Ambiance, and le paradis terrestre.
Tanarive centrale, there is a lake
So choked with waterlilies
That you would not believe
It was not planned to be that way, to take
You by the throat by its sudden beauty—unexpected, boaty,
And plain—but then you can see
It’s a little messed up and and goaty
Around the edges, after which it doesn’t look the same
When you drive by it on your way to the intersections.
In varied patterns you see them they vary
And they are patterned
Of the crops in the fields
And the clothes of the men
And the women and children
In varying colors, patterns
The automobile running
It used to be a paradise
Flesh but with unusual graces and with a “soul.”
Dixebat Julie—nom correcte? mot juste?
O Malagasy plumes! In the market so used
Sumptuousness! She said (did) words
Madagascar we feel thrown, we feel the thrown
Stone one out here in the sea (she)
(Didn’t) (say it). I thought
It, while she was going around
And around helping me to buy jewelry, it was
Getting dark, in the market. Here is a good stone,
Says she, and a good price, too, I get on this one!
So much closer to me
By big civilization compared
To walkings of Brazza
And even than the poets there!
In a certain sense.
Old hotel—of innocence.
Gare Centrale—mammary of competence.
And nerves under the hat.
Hard to get out of the restaurant
Hard to stand up from the table and pay
Hard to move quickly enough
Through the arbiters gentlemen
Unthreatening who have rather
The mild excitingness which travel
Gives to the un-noteworthy like a gun.
Read more poems from On the Edge.