In a country with 525 native languages, English is our official language, seconded by French. This is one of the after-effects of colonialism in Nigeria. While some indigenous languages move towards extinction, some are watered down with the infrequency of their use. Due to my upbringing, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Yoruba, which is my indigenous language. I once spoke the language with an accent so bad, a friend teased me for “burying it alive,”  and we laughed about it. These days I try to speak Yoruba more often. I hope to someday write a book in plain Yoruba. This poem might be another attempt at resuscitating my dialect, dying on my tongue.

In the dark warm mouth of the earth,
a language festers from disuse.
My padi jokes I bury my pulsating mother-
tongue—six-feet beneath the earth’s surface
—at every vain attempt at speech.

Bí ewé bá pẹ́ lára ọṣẹ…

I confess: my mouth is both
soiled & the soil. Between my vile dentition
a tongue recoils from rain, & runs
into ruin—from frying-pan into the fire.
O’ jeweled dialect of my mother
rattling against my molars.
Honey-dipped ancestral tongue
tugging betwixt incisors. Unforked
speech-bud dancing in its casket.
Clawing out of its grave.

Sing me a dirge sonorous enough to awaken
a mummy—to exhume a skeleton,
reincarnate a soul—without
summoning its ghost.

…á di ọṣẹ

Mint leaf sticks to a soap bar
for so long it disintegrates
into the soap. Once,
in my uncle’s garden, we buried
a peacock without a coffin.
Two harmattans after, the unmarked
grave spot thrives with lush flowers.
Oluwa, how long before
a flowery bird biodegrades into a flowerbed?

In the dark warm mouth of the earth,
a 6-foot-deep wound rescinds
into a small cut. Bones wear the flesh
again like sheathed swords.
Language, a seedling
falling on the rockside, refuses to be
planted, & still does not wither.
I render a phrase in Yoruba, &
the canary’s song does not die
in its hollow syrinx.

Muiz Ọpẹ́yẹmí Àjàyí (Frontier-XVIII) is an editor at The Nigeria Review, poetry reader for Adroit Journal, and a 2023 Poetry Translation Centre UNDERTOW cohort. Winner of the Lagos-London Poetry Competition 2022, University of Ibadan Law LDS Poetry Prize 2022, longlisted for Ake Poetry Prize, Briefly Write Poetry Prize, a Best of The Net nominee, he features in Frontier, 20.35 Africa, Tab Journal, Olongo, Lolwe, SAND Journal, Poetry Wales, Yabaleft Review, Nigerian News-Direct and elsewhere.



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