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(A little background on the poem: it is written in the form of a canzone, a type of Italian or Provencal poetry that is usually set to music.  “Debtor’s Lane” is part of the series of four canzones that Okigbo wrote between 1957-1961. An Ogene is a traditional Igbo instrument.)


A & B: THIS is debtors’ lane, this is
the new haven, where wrinkled faces
watch the wall clock strike each hour
in a dry cellar.

A: NO heavenly transports now
of youthful passion
and the endless succession
of tempers and moods
in high societies;
no blasts no buffets
of a mad generation
nor the sonorous arguments
of the hollow brass
and the copious cups
of fraudulent misses
in brothels
of a mad generation.

A & B: HERE rather let us lie in a new haven,
drinking in the air that we breathe in
until it chokes us and we die.
Here rather let us lie with wrinkled faces
watching the wall clock strike each hour
in a dry cellar.

B: THERE was the tenement
in hangman’s lane
where repose was a dream
and a knock on the door
at dawn
hushed the tenant humped
beneath the bed:
was it the postman
or the bailiff with a writ?
And if the telephone rang
alas, if the telephone rang …
Was he to hang up his life
on a rack
and answer the final call?

A & B: HERE rather let us nest in a new haven
awaiting the tap tap tap on the door
that brings in light at dawn.
Here rather let us rest with wrinkled faces
watching the wall clock strike each hour
in a dry cellar.


Originally published in Black Orpheus, Number 11, 1962.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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