Poem of the week: The Colour of Stones by Syl Cheney-Coker | Books

The Colour of Stones


When you arrive in this misnamed country,
come to the crooked hills; the fierce, verdant eyes
of Sierra Leone, mythic songs, its crazy history!
Named in limestone – Wilberforce, Regent,
Leicester, Gloucester and Charlotte – the old,
smoky villages of deft colonials and benefactors
are dying. Quarried with ruin now, they were once
the crown jewels of English Christian love.


Under the tamarind, the gowned-women in kabaslot
are shy, but still invite young men to their modest homes.
They dim the paraffin lamps, offer sweet fibers of ginger,
the sorrel fragrance of golden days, and move their lips,
as though under the magic of the Gambian herb, with which
the Aku women once tempted the mouths of Christian lovers.


The secrets of golden age, entombed in the old grannies’
bones, have turned gray; but they shimmer and refuse
the eternal death stamp. Fiery lianas, they twine round
the bodies of the young, philistine ploughmen, who are
reckless with adzes. Ah, those beloved grannies, eternal
and watching, as new arrogance drapes their smoking hills,
which will never die – always alive – this mountain country!

Notes: Kabaslot – gown worn by Sierra Leonean women
Aku women – Muslim women

Syl Cheney-Coker was born in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, in 1945. He completed his education in the US, and, after further travels, went on to be a visiting writer at the the University of Iowa. He returned to Sierra Leone but was later among the writers forced into exile for criticising the one-party government. These days, he spends time in both the US and Sierra Leone. “I believe my poems have always been linked by three common themes,” he writes: “the awakening of my identity; the pain of exile and a basic concern for those whose humanity is sometimes threatened by others.”

The Colour of Stones comes from Cheney-Coker’s recently revised collection, The Road to Jamaica. In an author’s note, he recounts the following story: a small publisher in the US had been interested in bringing out the book, but the young writer had hesitated. “Deeply aware of my dual identity, I felt the poems, as a whole, were immature, too Senghorian; but without his splendid beauty. Two of the poems were absorbed into Concerto for an Exile, after which I tore up the rest of the volume.”

Thirty-seven years later, an old college girlfriend sent Cheney-Coker a copy of the collection he’d forgotten once giving her. She’d written, “I think you might enjoy reading these poems after all these years.” Pleased but still cautious, he put the poems away for another four years. Finally, eight of the 20 poems, much revised, became the first part of the 2015 edition of The Road to Jamaica. Part Two contains more recent work, under the title Elegy for the Afro-Saxon, including The Colour of Stones.

Afro-Saxon” denotes a person of African descent with English or Anglo-American affiliations. Perhaps Sierra Leonean culture is particularly diverse and open to such complexity? Among the many ethnic groups, the Krio are the descendants of the freed US slaves after whom Freetown was named, and they continue to reflect western cultural influences.

There are references to Muslims and Christians in the poem, to “colonials and benefactors”, to the “beloved old grannies” and the “young, philistine ploughmen who are / reckless with adzes”. The mountainous country seems to have come through its “crazy history” to an accommodation with different people, different times.

An easy, colloquial style combines with mellow timbres. The adjective “verdant” in line two implies more than simply the colour green; it encompasses rainy lushness and ripeness, a quality audible in the rich, descriptive textures of the second stanza, in particular: “tamarind”, “paraffin lamps”, “sweet fibers of ginger”, “sorrel fragrance”. Gold, the predominant colour, suggests colonial plunder and “misnaming” but also the mythical golden age, the “golden days” of lovers, and the “secrets” of the indomitable grannies’ “golden age”. These secrets are preserved in the bones of the old women and “shimmer and refuse the eternal death stamp”. The phrase “death stamp” with its hard flat sounds suddenly recalls the bureaucratic processes of oppression, when imprisonment, death sentence or asylum refusal are inked indelibly on the official piece of paper. But it’s a passing memory.

The Colour of Stones evokes a rainbow coalition. The tone is warm, seemingly amused by transgression. In the second stanza, the Aku women have “tempted the mouths of Christian lovers” with a special herb: perhaps the aphrodisiac kola nut? All the people in the poem seem at ease with themselves and each other, and “the other”. There is no elevation of a single ethnicity or identity.

The “misnamed country” is thought, probably incorrectly, to have been given its name by the Portuguese explorer, Pedro de Sintra. “Sierra Leone” derives from Serra Lyoa (lioness mountains). Was it because of the shape of the hills? “Serra” means “a series of mountains or saw-like ridge”. The name, it’s been suggested, might allude to the lioness’s opened mouth and bared teeth.

Gently, Cheney-Coker takes back his homeland, initially reshaping the hills, very simply, as “crooked”. As he descends among “the old / smoky villages” he uncovers only ruins and those absurd, out-of-place, yet almost naturalised English place-names, denoting, once, “the crown jewels of English Christian love”. From there on, fertility, warmth and feminine energy flow through the poem’s conduits, and the speaker reclaims his soul landscape with a cry of triumph on behalf of the now industriously “smoking” hills, “which will never die – always alive – this mountain country!”

The Road to Jamaica is published by Karantha Publishing House. You can enjoy Syl Cheney-Coker reading The Colour of Stones on a BBC Radio Scotland Poetry Postcard.

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