Kweku Abimbola

“A lot of my work tries to decolonize time and tries to root it back in more indigenous West African cosmologies.”

Kweku Abimbola was one of our guests to our first Lab roundtable. For the conversation, he shared “Libation,” a poem from his debut collection, Saltwater Demands a Psalm, which was published by Graywolf in April 2023.
 Swallow spirits with me    many 
 drink    many drank    many
 drunk from this calabash 
 of palm wine I pour 
 While pouring I 

 Kwame    Kwame    come drink
 The giver of Saturday 
        receive drink

          As I pour soilward 
     some of the drink spittles
 along the hem of my lucid cloth
        Yaa    Yaa    come drink
   Thursday’s keeper and Earth’s
 here is drink for you too    today 
      today    is your lustral day 
                 I keep pouring

  When I call one of you I have called
 all  you departed spirits of the seven 
              receive this and visit: 
               water by birthright 
                  water by blood
welcome airful welcome unskinned  welcome saltskinned welcome bulletskinned 
 welcome reeking welcome pine-black ghouls 
 I come seeking days
 I refuse to stop 
 pouring because 
 I refuse to stop 
 Days sprout from haint-
 tilled soil the Days we cannot yet 
 see require the most mercy 
 the purple earth around me 
 bears weeks: 
 the incessant rain
 of my libation: 
 the floodplain 
 of my
 Drink! Drink! Drink!
 First it is only a hiss
 that rises 
 Then the deluge 
 of Days 
 coming back into time
yes Akosua yes Akwasi 
yes Ama Kwame 
 yes Kofi and Afua 
 yes Yaa Yaw 
 Akua Kweku 
 Kwabena and Abena 
 Adjoa and Kojo 
 You well-named 

 You will die only
 when days die 

 The risen sing
 back to the teeming soil; coaxing
 more to our realm uncocooned
 drink too drink—
 today be today today:
 your lustral day

 Saltwater does not 
 irrigate saltwater 
 cannot grow—

 But look! look
 what flowers 
 in Asante Eden
Iwo Ayan Agalu1
Asoro gi
Awon omo e to won ngbe o korum yi o

You Ayan Agalu
the wood that speaks
your children carry you around their necks

 Ayan you teach us 
the tribes of wood 
those warring
those at peace

And that tree bark is first 
a sponge of sound

Wood planted by waters
will carry the chords
of streams 

Wood in the midst of wind 
will whistle and wheeze 

The beat made from carved wood
is an ancestry of speech
Ayan you desire the wood
closest to human speech

So for your drums we harvest trees
from the market square 
their bark wrinkled 
in the chapters of our tongues
Ayan I planted a tree 
outside the bedchamber I share
with my lover
Its bark is ringed in the timbre of our 
exhales the hours of our laughter
the chanting of our rows 

Ayan this is the tree I have sacrificed 
and shaped into a dundun
the war has returned 
and we the drummers are driven 
to the vanguard 

Ayan what the troops
hear as a marching rhythm 
are the whispers of my lover
released to air
speech that yearns
for conversation
but receives only echo in return
1 Orisha of wood and drumming
Ayan Reprise 
Ayan Agalu we have lost the war
I am aboard a salt-stenched vessel 
my hands are silenced

Ayan Agalu it has been four nights
I am commanded 
to drum once in the morning
once in the afternoon the head 
of the drum I am given is blood-taut 
with reeking wood 

Ayan Agalu they have found 
a second drummer they do 
not know that the beat she shapes
is a hex 

Ayan Agalu this beat 
is the only tongue I can discern 

Ayan the drummers are scattered

A lot of my work tries to decolonize time and tries to root it back in more indigenous West African cosmologies. So the process of pouring libation is usually done before important ceremonies like naming ceremonies, funerals, even birthdays, right? And its purpose is to conjure the spirits of ancestors to also join in with the merriment of those who are gathered, to ensure that the ceremony is successful or to ensure that the ceremony has their blessing.  

So when I'm engaging with time in that poem, it’s this idea of black eternity. Like everyone gathered is present, right? But we're also able to conjure those who came before us. To also continue this culture, these traditions, et cetera. And it was also sparked by this idea of malleable time. Like the various portals in which we in our present worlds can conjure and also manipulate time.  

And many of the names that I mention in the poem itself, they also come from my tribe’s practice of Kradin or “soul names,” which are names given to children based on their day of birth. So like my name Kweku——it signifies that I’m born on Wednesday and every day of the week has its own deity or god. Think of it almost like star signs, right? Sagittarius, Scorpio, et cetera. But for us it's based on the day of the week.  

When I was writing the collection I’m like, okay, like what would it mean for us who come from this system of naming that is so bound in time to also be impacted by something as earth-shattering and traumatic as colonization or enslavement? If you come from a place where your children are days of the week, if you lose a child, you've lost a day of the week. And how does that then render your experience of time? Does it make your time go faster? Does it slow down your time? So those are all kind of questions that I was trying to answer through the collection as well. 

Born in the Gambia, Kweku Abimbola earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He is of Gambian, Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean, and Nigerian descent. Abimbola’s first full-length poetry collection, Saltwater Demands a Psalm, was published by Graywolf Press in April of 2023. The debut collection received the First Book Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2022. He has work published and forthcoming in Shade Literary Arts, 20.35 Africa, The Common, Obsidian, SUNU Journal, and elsewhere. Abimbola’s writing primarily investigates colonization, Black mourning, Black boyhood, gender politics, and the spiritual consequences of climate change in West Africa.