On Fire (Or, Last Wishes)

by | Aug 10, 2021 | Issue Twenty Two, Poetry

There is fire on the mountain
And nobody seems to be on the run
There is fire on the mountaintop
And no one is a-running

ASA, Fire on the Mountain

I wish everyone I love
              the joy of dancing

naked. Tonight, I am

holding a piece of chicken
              from Popeyes, sliding—

towel on my shoulder—across
              the floor of my apartment—

so American, this freedom—as

Tunji Oyelana’s voice escapes
from my Mac laptop, my first…

And then, my mother calls.

Tonight, on Tobi’s 21st
              birthday, my mother

almost doesn’t sound like
              my mother. My mother

only birthed 5 but, come closer,
              let me tell you

how many things my mother
              still holds inside.


there’s a lot
i can’t tell you

here’s a plot
bury me

when i’m gone
with my mouth

sealed shut
i’m afraid of what

wild thing might
mistake my mouth

for a piece of land
i am deathly afraid

of what might grow here
when my flesh rots

pulverize my bones
i beg you i beg you




               I was a boy, passing
through & there it was:


My mother’s home-

               town—the expanse


of land Oduduwa first set


               foot on—five
                              hundred chains, five


                              chameleons, sand
               and a hen with him—

               when he, given
the mission to create land,

                              climbed down
               from heaven—in a year

I can’t recall. What remains,


               a testament to what

                              fire can do. A war


started long before
                              my mother was

               my mother, before she was

                              even a girl. & yet,


                                             the flames…

                              Fanned, still.




…I tell my mother
               I notice the heavy 

               in her voice & out


               comes the truth, overdue.

The truth is she can’t hide


how tired she is. Mothers

               inherit this heirloom


               of strength in spite

of the weight they have to carry


& how breakable they are remains

               a secret whispered,


               only heard if you press

your ears to their marrows.




I have called the first period
               the primitive Age of Fire,
and I will call the second
                              the Age of Mounds…




To wish myself a marriage- 

               less existence is to wish myself


the certainty that I won’t repeat

               history—an echo


of all the wrong notes

               in an unending song.


Did the first caveman to

               discover fire sing


               its vibrant flame to embers

and did he call it a love


song? What is the name

               for the wish for everything


to stop burning? Does the arsonist

               ever wish to one day grow up


to be a firefighter? Is it wrong to wish

               for a different origin story


for the consummation that brought

               me here? Is it wrong to wish


I was consumed in the first fire?

               I know, to wish 


this is to wish the opposite 

               of existence upon myself


               but is it wrong to wish myself

into the sun, or if not that, at least as


               the son of a different god

and goddess? In this version


               of the myth, I wish

Sango and Oya the absence

of fire. I wish them scalded

               palms the very first time


they try to pick up a hot coal.




               Heed the proverb:


Anyone who puts fire on his tail 

Will not take it anywhere else 

Except into his father’s house.




Is it not water that douses fire?

               Yes, once in a race,
water quenched flames. The prize?
                              The beautiful daughter

               of a king. And ever since

                              then, the enmity (so

the story goes) between 

               Rain and Fire…




Fire burn

Fire burn

Fire burn

Fire burn


Lord, strike

the rock




by the hands

of Moses. Lord,


water. Lord,

Asiemo’s plea:


that the fire be 





               Drought is Fire’s

bedfellow               Wake me


up if it ever rains
               I who can


               sleep through 

most things


               beg you




In the case of a fire, 

what three things

would you try to save?


  1. Everything

    I don’t want to


    forget. 2. Everything 

    I wish to. 3. Every


    poem I have

    ever written.


& if you allow me

one more thing

               I will

save   if possible  

either by sorcery

               or prayer

the ones

               I wish

               I could




               I was born

on September 12


1990 There is a photograph

of me grinning


while holding

a knife In front of me

a round frosted
cake with 10 candles


still lit & an inscription


that reads AYO IS TEN



Behind me to my left

the girl I am in love 


with I say in love but

a ten year


old boy can’t tell

the difference between


infatuation and love


or give the right name

to every fire burning


               in his chest




At the end

of 1990s,


Nigerian Government

had invested


about $3.0 billion


in irrigation


and drainage

on over 300



and reservoirs


(Mahmood, 1994)




               I was born

               in the year of Gabriel’s Fire,
on the day Pa Ogunde’s went out,

as America gathered around to watch
               Gabriel emerge out the fiery furnace,

alive, after 20 years. The ash

               of the old world, sure,
but freedom—a new world

to walk into. Do you believe
               in ghosts, son? You can’t

               bring back the dead,
so just leave them alone…




I do not remember the exact
year, but I remember, clearly,


               the skull: a child’s…

…inside a bus, turned over,
on the Lagos/Ibadan

A tanker spilled…


All you need to know:

               Petrol and heat

don’t make a great couple.




…there are mounds which only

contain burnt bodies…



I wish I wasn’t born


inside a burning bush. I

was born into a drought


that hasn’t stopped. I have

wished myself into a river,


or on other days, wished

for myself a river. I have


been practicing how to

use my voice


to seduce the fire. Wanna

go for a swim? I say. So

sultry, right? The first
woman I’ll give the name

girlfriend is teaching me

how to swim. I am still


learning the basics:

how to float. But, if


I drown, if this all ends

with me, I want you to 


know that I am fine with this.

Don’t wake me up. Please let


me sleep. Don’t pull me out 

the water, or fire. There


really isn’t that much difference.

Don’t ask me how many women


I have shared bed with. In my head,

my mother’s warning like a gong:


Don’t play with fire. I’ve had two

scares, at least… And sure, a child


isn’t the worst thing to come out

of this, but some days, I do not


wish a child for myself. Instead,

I wish for myself shriveled nuts.


And if this wish cannot be
granted, I do not wish 

for the child the burden

of rectifying the errors


of those who came

before. I do not


wish the child the burden

of questioning. The truth:

I wish to be a child again


but it is for all the wrong

reasons. There is a child


in me who thinks he can

rewrite the history

of his family, his country. 

Tell the boy he is wrong.


Tell him he can’t. 


He is as stubborn as 

the Ox’s son. He won’t


believe you. Unyoke him.


Wish him reprieve. 

Wish him well, or


wish him into a well.

Pray he drowns,


the weight
of all the things 


he cannot change 

around his neck.

Note: “I have called the first period…” and “…there are mounds which only contain burnt bodies…” are quotes from Legrand d’Aussy (as encountered in The Discovery of the Past by Alain Schnapp). “Anyone who puts fire on his tail…” is from Stories from the Ifa Oracle (as found in Alcheringa Vol. 1, No. 1, 1970).  “Is it not water that douses fire?” is from Wole Soyinka’s Cremation of a Wormy Caryatid. “Fire burn…” is from Fire Fire, a song by Daddy Showkey (John Asiemo). “At the end of 1990s,…”  is from Recurrence of Drought in Nigeria: Causes, Effects and Mitigation by Abubakar, I.U., and M.A. Yamusa. “Do you believe  in ghosts, son? You can’t bring back the dead…” is from Episode 1 of the T.V. show Gabriel’s Fire which ran on ABC from September 12, 1990 (the day I was born) to June 6, 1991.

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