I wrote this poem last January for Susanne Wenger when news broke that she had passed, and sent it to a couple of friends and a few listservs. Friend Benson Eluma was one of the people who wrote a response in poetry to my offering back then. Click here to read his poem, now published in Nigeria’s NEXT newspaper. The poetic meeting of Benson and I on the campus of the Ibadan University is a long story for another day.

Here below is the final version of what I wrote back then, thanks to a few suggestions from Lola Shoneyin.

Like Chalk in the River

For Susanne, Olorisha!

They said it rained when Suzanne was buried.
It poured.
They spoke of a rumble of the heavens
as the Orisha Osun swam back, again, to her pristine source.

They talked of art.
They spoke of beauty.
They mentioned hands
That sculpted spirits.

But now when the forests have stopped dancing with the rain,
See the wind escape from that storied grove.
Look, amid the hallowed haze,
at a turning twirl of her spirit gaze.

Gone is the eye that looked out for the standing stems
When greed called for arms, and men scorned sense, and all she wove.

Today, the Spirit it was that left, again,
To return. To return: a time-bound god, or else a travelling dove.

NOTE: Susanne Wenger was the Austrian artist who lived most of her life in Osogbo Nigeria as a priestess of the river Osun. Born in Austria, she met and married the German artist Professor Ulli Beier who brought her to Nigeria in the 1949. The couple quickly assimilated in Nigeria, he as a teacher and she as an artist, but they moved from Ibadan to the nearby town of Ede in 1950 to escape what Wenger called the “artificial university compound”. In Ede, she met one of the last priests of the rapidly disappearing, ancestral-based Olorisha religion. She quickly became engrossed in his life and rituals, even though at that time she spoke no Yoruba. “Our only intercourse was the language of the trees,” she said later.

Her work in Osogbo for the many parts of her life included an enormous effort to protect the sacred grove of Osun, a forest along the banks of the Oshun river just outside Osogbo, which she turned into a sculpture garden filled with art made by her and others. The sacred groves of Osun are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites thanks in most part to her efforts. (Read more about her life here).

She died last January in Osogbo, her adopted home, at the age of 92.

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