from The Shepherd


There was a man
                  a man
                  a man.


After his time
There will always be the memory
a version of that terrible legend.


There was a shepherd who shepherded
the great promise.

A shepherd who summoned
the horizon and the point of the astrolabe.

There was a shepherd and his bundle of desert.

A shepherd and his litany of falling and nothing.


The inextinguishable memory of that festival.
The cravat of dementia around the Equator.
The air blocking the pores of the houses.


Ogun did not know.
Elsewhere someone was sleeping.
Palaces were waltzing in Kampala and Alexandria.


Mouths fall from branches
- poor fruit -
and here vultures pant.

Here they fervently curve
over a carpet of dreams.

Here a diadem of gales and darkness
drips into their skulls.

Here are the ashes of the clock, the scraps of the flag.

The shepherd sows death
in the pores of his kingdom
no rage
drums smoke news
purges the harvest of its bustle.

Translation notes

We translated the first five sections of this seven-part poem.

This fascinating, powerful and ambiguous poem was a challenge (and a pleasure!) to translate. As Stefan mentions in his literal version, throughout the poem the phrase 'There was' can be heard which gives it the quality of a tale as it's very close to 'once upon a time' and the poem is clearly a fable about a fallen (in both senses) political leader.

In part II, we changed 'needle' to 'point of the astrolabe' because astrolabe's don't have needles but they do have points.

We really struggled with section III. Firstly, whether to go with 'party' or 'festival' (we settled on the latter for its sense of a public occasion). And then with the line. 'The cravat of dementia around the Equator'. We chose 'cravat' because it's unambiguously a necktie (as opposed to just using 'tie') and then we decided it needed to go around the Equator, almost like a form of suffocation, which leads into the final line.

We were puzzled why palaces were waltzing in Kampala and Alexandria: why those two particular places?

Another set of problems emerged in the final lines of section V. On reflection, I wonder whether the lines, 'no rage / drums smoke news' should be in parenthesis between the first-person singular of 'The shepherd sows death...' and 'purges the bustle of the harvest.' What do you think?

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