Sunday, November 20, 2016

No Holding Back, Poems

Althea Romeo-Mark, Liberia 1978

Sentiments of A Time

Before I became who I am,
and journeyed to Liberia
before I had children,
at a time when Vietnam boiled and burned,
and napalm was dropped on the innocent
during another senseless war,
at a time when bereted Black Panthers
swore to defend each Black soul,
and Black was declared beautiful,
when the Nigerian Biafran War raged
and apartheid caught our attention,
and students howled against academic authority,
a friend declared it was not the moment
to bring children into a world so vile,
he would not produce any progeny.

Did he allow despair to dictate his future?
I now wonder forty odd years later.

Did he allow the world’s abominable state
to deprive him of his jewels?
Did the dividends of his sacrifice
pay off in a humane revolution?

Many today say the same.
I have learned that Man
has always been hell-bent.

The children I would not have had,
had I followed his wisdom
are now thirty-plus and
are bearing the next generation.

© Althea Romeo-Mark 08.12.15
Photo from Florida State University

Goats and Sheep 1970s

We set out to make the world right.
Our thoughts in the thrust of revolutions,
we join the cauldron of emotions.

Convinced we can change the world,
we march, are pushed along in a throng,
placards in hands, afroed and long-haired,
freshly schooled in the injustices of apartheid,
the fire that is Vietnam, the rebellion of Biafrans.

Some, empowered by the will to rein in all that is evil ,
volunteer in  communities, attempt to bring fairness
and equality to the poor, evolve into leaders.

Others overrun by the life’s demands,
bend to its will,  pass on the baton of righteousness
to the next generation.

© Althea Romeo-Mark   June 2009


First Designer

Let us be Eve
and search our groves
woods and forests
for leaves large enough
to cover us head to toe
with fronds of palm, coconut,
leaves of banana,  fig,
elephant ear and foxglove.

No need for sewing needles.
Vines are long and sturdy enough
to pass through holes,
to wrap round skirts and tops,
tie hats under chins and
hold woven palm slippers
on our feet.

We need not make patterns.
Leaves are ornamented by nature.
The endless choice of
hue, design and uniqueness,
the only cause of delay.

Adam will find us irresistible.
The Snake would admire
our inventiveness.

Jealousy though will still
seal our fate.
Temptation will lead us
 away from Eden’s Garden.

© Althea Romeo-Mark 2016 
The poem, First Designer was inspired by this photo.


We, the salt and earth of the Caribbean,
children of new world contradictions,
carry African traditions like a secret child.

They are our Moses
hidden in the basket of bones and blood,
set adrift in our memory.

Ancestral spirits keep watch
as we sail down the river of time,

Althea Romeo-Mark 2016

Rainy Season Ride

The road now a river after a flood
we are driven through uncertain terrain.

We grip the shoulders of bus seats.
We are rocked, entrails rattled.

The bus becomes a raging bull we are sitting on
in a rodeo ride of life and death.

Breath held in suspense,
it is only in the moment that we live.

The vehicle is a tired animal
climbing out of a rampaging river
dragging us into the underworld.

We do not complain
about wet shoes and clothes
after near drowning.
Some, too numb,
cannot find their voice.

We cross ourselves,
praise God for the gift of life.

© Althea Romeo-Mark 2016


The beady eyes in the preserved head

and the bushy tail had put me off at first.
They dress the collar of the classy coat.

But the dummy wears it well,
invites me to caress its finery.

I shut out visions of animals
trapped or clubbed to death,
to create the masterpiece.

Slipping it on, mustiness and mothball scent
fill my nose and I hear voices speak:
the white-gloved, old woman,
the heiress unwilling to be ambushed by PETA,*
the call-girl, with crow’s feet,
who pawned the mink to pay the rent,
the prostitute who had hocked it,
when given to her by a pimp.

The bell, announcing the arrival
of a new customer to the thrift shop
could not break the spell…

© Althea Romeo-Mark 2005

*PETA –People For the Ethical Treatment of Animal


This separation
is not an easy one.
It has been sanctioned by nature.

The running away of youth with time,
the distancing with decades tainted by folly
and growing pain, were destined.

This uncoupling.
is hard and heavy.

Restless youth estranges itself
from settled age.

There is no turning back.

© 29.04.2014 Althea Romeo-Mark

*Uncoupling-new expression for the process of separation or impending divorce was coined by Gwyneth Palthrow and her husband, Chris Martin of Coldplay in 2014

I hope you enjoyed these poetic reflections on nature's and our natural evolution or sometimes our regression.
Althea Romeo-Mark

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Romeo-Mark’s If Only the Dust Would Settle, Selected Poems: A Review

By Valerie Knowles-Combie

Althea Romeo-Mark’s collection of selected poems, If Only the Dust Would Settle, is the outgrowth of a series of poetry readings, commissioned by VITA (Verein fur Interkulturelle Treffpunkte und Anlaufstellen), an “umbrella organization that focuses on the integration of immigrants in Switzerland.” Romeo-Mark’s introduction explains that her poems are connected to a personal essay.
“A Home with Endless Space” (7), a very significant construct that reinforces the meaning of “home” and “space” to the author’s primary theme.  While her poems are divided into five sections, Romeo-Mark’s skillful allocation of each poem develops the theme while simultaneously highlighting pivotal episodes in her life, which clarify and support her message.  The five sections may be classified as periods of transportation or transition, which finally lead to transformation.  As a self-declared “immigrant”, Romeo-Mark weaves the fabric of her professional and social lives into her cultural experiences, which result in an insightful collection of poetry and prose.  Her introduction to each section describes the author’s journey from her birth in Antigua to her present status as a Swiss citizen, while the poems trace her movements and growth.
Romeo-Mark’s inclusion of a German translation of each introduction and poem makes her work more accessible to a wider group of readers, primarily those of her adopted home: Switzerland.  This bilingual collection conveys a strong message as it portrays the author’s attempted assimilation into various cultures and her ultimate Swiss acculturation and citizenship.

In the first part of the collection: “The Caribbean Scene”, Romeo-Marks autobiographical essay introduces the Caribbean and the author’s attempts at assimilation, even though she claims possession of a nomadic spirit, “which makes her conclude that she is a ‘perpetual outsider” (9).  These attempts are further described through the seven poems that follow.  First, she introduces some traditions of her Caribbean heritage.  The poem “Graveyard Sagas” (“Friedhof Sagas”) details some Antiguan/Caribbean traditions related to funerals.  Not only did “Men gather at a nearby bar; / drink straight rounds of rum/ in honor of the dead” (15), but as the funeral procession went “through the town/…each shop/ closed its door” (15).

Painting of a traditional Caribbean home in the 1950s. 
Traditions are often combined with proverbs, more commonly known as Caribbean wise sayings, such as is depicted in “West Indian Wisdom” (“Westindische Weisheit”): “Don’t ever point at a graveyard?…/ Bite you’ finger quick / before it rot and fall off” (20).  This poem rekindles memories and invites the readers to reminiscence about some of the wise sayings with which we have been raised.  The funeral proceedings have changed significantly, so that a millennial would think that the present environment surrounding the funeral has always existed.  Today, the burden of the funeral with its accompanying accoutrements is assumed by the undertaker, which removes the community involvement as had been observed during Romeo-Mark’s autobiographical essay.  Her references to traditions rekindle memories for her contemporaries, while they educate younger readers about the practices and traditions that were observed then.
Magda in the eponymous poem “Magda”, is the portrait of a typical Caribbean woman whose “life is church, / her son, Raphael,/ a collection of hats/ paraded on Sundays/ and Cuthbert, the husband she mostly hates” (26).  Her priorities are clearly defined, but the reader knows the true ranking.
Romeo-Mark imperceptibly progresses from childhood to maturity by the selection of her poems.  She also includes anecdotes of her culture, which revive images of a period in the past and a kind of usage that is slipping from the language and from people’s experiences.
Jumbie beads from the Caribbean
It is not surprising that Part II is titled “The American Scene”, which introduces us to the author’s relocation to the United States Virgin Islands and her subsequent graduate work on the US mainland.  It is significant to note that the introduction of the second section begins thus: “Escaping to the USA…” (38). This prefigures the author’s life that she describes as “nomadic,” which will later require her to escape from Liberia to her safety.  The author connected very readily with African students who became her friends.  She writes: “Although we came from different sides of the world, I felt at home with them.  We shared a common spirit, a cultural bond and were not fettered by the past.  We shared common foods, for example, cassava, plantain, yams, and Anansi stories” (38).  That bond would lead to a closer affiliation with Africa.
The descriptive poems portray an American landscape that includes the flora, fauna, and uninhibited people who openly display their affection or lust as in demonstrated in “The Kiss” (“Der Kiss”). “She sucked his lips/ lingers as if, siphoning life….We turn our heads away, / pretend haven’t seen/ their tongues tango” (44).  Her unstated embarrassment is a typical behavior, vestiges of her Caribbean heritage, which required proper decorum at all times with no public display of affection.  Is this the poet’s unstated comparison of the great disparities between the apparent modesty of the Caribbean and that of the United States?  Her use of alliteration adds a special dimension as it creates images of dancers’ gyrating bodies as they perform the tango.

In the final poem in this section, “Can I Borrow Your Smile?” (“Kann ich mir dein Lachein borgen?”), the author conveys an image that rekindles memories of Ellison’s Invisible Man.  She writes: “ I am/becoming/a ghost” (48).  Not only is she ignored, but there are serious implications that negatively affect her life.  She is not undeterred, however, as she expresses further in the poem: “I must stoke up/ my flagging spirit/ battered/ and cold/ from long journeys/ filled with/ blistering winters” (48).  The poet hints at the resilient spirit that refuses to give up in despair.  Her spirit may be “battered”; she may be chilled by the “blistering winters” she has experienced, but the indomitable spirit of her forebears buoys her on.  It is this spirit that reappears throughout the collection, a prediction of the poet’s experiences and the final outcome.

The poem ends “The American Scene,” where the poet seems to have barely survived though “battered and cold” (48).  The journey motif recurs as she talk of “long journeys” and “blistering winters” (48).  The poet juxtaposes this section between “The Caribbean Scene” of her birth, growth, and maturation and the “Liberian Scene.” Her enlightenment comes with a price she seems unable to afford, but she needs a positive flavor in her life.  Thus, she borrows a child’s smile because she does “not wish to steal” (48).  A child’s smile is unrehearsed, guileless, innocent.  The poet infers a return to her innocent childhood, a period of rebirth, which she experiences later in life.  This is an excellent way to transition to the next phase of her life.

During “The Liberian Scene.” The poet “felt at home” (50).  She saw similarities between Antigua and Liberia not only in the foods, but in the stories and traditions.  She became so entrenched in the Liberian life that she states, “although I was born in Antigua, Liberia was more of a home to me than Antigua ever was.  I lived there longer than in my birth home.  Liberia connected the past of my African ancestors to my present.  It connected a Virgin Islands past (in Wilmot Blyden) to a Liberian past. These pasts created a fascinating history, which I share.” (52)

Photo of a female Liberia soldier published in the Independent in 1990.

Unfortunately, that idyllic life soon changes with military coup followed by other coups that forced the family to seek refuge in a more stable environment.
The poems in this section register a different tone, a sinister message with revolutionary overtones.  In describing the Liberian Coup of 1989, the poet invokes the lyrics of the late Bob Marely’s song “Get up, stand up/stand up for your rights” (62), but death carnage are the results.

Family home in Liberia.

The title poem “If Only the Dust Would Settle” (“Wennnur der Staubsichlegte”) describes The Liberian Civil Ware 1989 – 2003.  The poet graphically describes the survivors’ experiences during the civil war.  As they reminisce on those times, their “laughter camouflages pain “(66) while they describe their harrowing experiences.  “They stumbled over the dead/ while fleeing to safety, marched long/across borders, battering searing sun/ and battering rain, skirted dogs/ devouring the flesh of swollen corpses” (66).  Through it all, their resilient spirits willed them on.  “Despite the horrors that drove them/ from their land, some crave home/ where they were their masters, / would surrender beautiful houses/ for huts in their villages” (67).  The settling of the dust would revive their hope, but will the dust ever settle?
Temporary home for resettling immigrants or refugees in Hammersmith, London.
At the beginning of part IV: “The British Scene,” the poet claims that “England was a temporary home” (70), which is reflected in the two poems in this section.  They also reflect the difficulties experienced by the family whose status has been reduced to that of refugees.  

Despite the change in location and status, the grief for lost friends and home, the poet realizes that she and her family are among the fortunate ones who have lost their “independence” (73), but they are still alive.  
She captures her sorrow and embarrassment cloaked in images of “soft silk memory” (76).  Here again the poet resorts to alliteration to portray an image of apparent contradiction.  And yet the journey continues.  The image of the “nomadic” life reappears, but resolutely, the family moves on.  
One of our apartments in Switzerland.

The author’s experience becomes more credible today when the news focuses on refugees, primarily those from Syria, victims of the political upheavals in their homeland.  The words stated by the immigration officer over two decades ago resonate today “Everybody’s coming to Switzerland” (78).

Basel, Switzerland.

The final section brings the author full circle, not literally, but emotionally.  She is resigned to her fate and is more accepting of Switzerland as her home.  Is her poem “Castaway” (“Verlassen”) an autobiographical reflection of her status?  Has she transitioned from a nomad to a “castaway”?

The poet summarizes her status beautifully in “The Familiarity of Strangers” (“Vertrauheitunter Fremden”) when after describing the behaviors of various people, she realizes that “People burst out of cocoons after a few beers,/ turn into butterflies, take wing in the unity of exclusion” (84).
The final poems in this anthology of selected poems present a paradigm shift in the poet’s mindset.  The light tone and the hints of a dialect in “I becoming Swiss” (“Ichwerdezur Schweizerin”) describe a contented mind basking in the cultural appendages of the Swiss and even hinting at self-deprecation.  
As I read the poems, I detected a progression that led me to Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief.  While there was no explicit statement of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance, the tone of the poems leads the reader to detect a progression beginning with her denial poet and her family are robbed of their comfortable life and even descend into refugee status.  The bargaining is followed by depression, and finally acceptance.  In the last poems, no longer does the poet unburden her sadness or depression, but she revels in her transformation.  She recounts the many way she is adapting to the Swiss lifestyle in her diet: “I find myself eating raclett and fondue” (86).  Her forms of disclosures have also changed “…and if strangers/ come up to me and want to chat friendly/ I think they batty, especially if they want/ to talk ‘bout family.  It’s too personal, you see./ I getting irritated when people not on time./ Before I never used to mind./ I don’t call out to me friends in the street/  ‘ cause it’s not discreet” (86).  
Althea Romeo-Mark, near the Rhine in Basel

Socially, her life has changed and she “can even understand a little Swiss German” (87).  This is a definite sign of her acceptance of her fate.  The dust is settling, and having experienced the earlier stages of grief, the poet experiences a transformation that is obvious even in her writing.
Althea Romeo-Mark’s book of selected poems If Only the Dust Would Settle autobiographically portrays her life through art, poetry, and prose.  Each section describes the author’s life and the poems demonstrate the author’s emotional state.  From the Caribbean to the United States, on to Africa and Europe, Romeo-Mark makes herself vulnerable as she presents the episodes of her journey while simultaneously demonstrating her resilient spirit.
Rathause (Town Hall, Basel, Switzerland)

Whether you speak English or German, you will enjoy learning about the poet’s very rich life and experiences.  Her brief historical documentation of her many homes triggers interest in learning more; thus, this book will prove to be didactic as well as entertaining.  It seems as if the dust, indeed, will settle as she and her family settle into their chosen paths.  This brief anthology will appeal to a wide cross-section of people by virtue of the author’s experiences and her adroit manner of capturing and relating them.

This book review was written by Valerie Knowles Combie, Professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands and published in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Summer-Fall, 2016. The book review was later republished in The New Liberian ( in October 2016.

Note:Edward Wilmot Blyden (3 August 1832 – 7 February 1912), the father of pan-Africanism, was an educator, writer, diplomat, and politician primarily in Liberia. Born in the West Indies, he joined the free black immigrants to the region from the United States; he also taught for five years in the British West African colony of Sierra Leone in the early 20th century. His writings on pan-Africanism were influential in both colonies, which were started during the slavery years for the resettlement of free blacks from the United States and Great Britain.Wilmot Blyden was recognised in his youth for his talents and drive; he was educated and mentored by John Knox, an American Protestant minister in St Thomas, Danish West Indies, who encouraged him to continue his education in the United States. Blyden was refused admission in 1850 to three Northern theological seminaries, including Rutgers’ Theological College in New Jersey, because of his race.[2] Knox encouraged him to go to Liberia, the colony set up for freedmen by the American Colonization Society; Blyden emigrated that year, in 1850, and made his career and life there. He married into a prominent family and soon started working as a journalist.(Wikipedia)

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Eating Snacks in a Kisii Village, Kenya

A snack is defined as a small portion of food or drink or a light meal, especially one eaten between regular meals. In our minds, the emphasis is on small. Snacks come in a variety of forms including packaged and processed foods and items made from fresh ingredients at home.
Cassava chips

In the world around us snacks can be dumplings, noodles, meatballs, fritters, omelettes, (banana, plantain, and cassava) chips, grilled meats, fish, corn, and any sweet or savory food or that satisfies between meals urges to eat.

In Europe,  instead of dumplings, we think of chocolates, biscuits and crisps. If you in Switzerland where I live, “snack” in German is translated as “imbiss”, or “Zwischenmahlzeit” which means “between meals.” Most say they eat fruit (apples, oranges, bananas) or yogurt.  

There are special occasions where other types of snacks are indulged in. See my blog:

While attending the 2014 Kistrech International Poetry Festival in Kissi, Kenya, our host, Christopher Okemwa, told us that were going to visit a Kisii village and that they had invited us for snacks.

The trip to a Kisii village was greatly anticipated.

Upon arriving in the Kisii University bus, the village women, dancing and singing, greeted and led us to their compound where they provided us chairs. 

The children were excited to see us too.

While the women were preparing the snacks, we got better acquainted with each and admired our surroundings.

Snacking was preceded by hand-washing and prayers. 

After that, the women presented us with snacks of roasted sweet potatoes and a variety of bananas in large plastic bowls.

 The snacks were accompanied by a millet drink,
 a kind of light porridge.

Dessert, in the form of sugar cane, was later placed before us. A Kisii university lecturer showed us the art of peeling and eating sugar cane. 

However, coming from the Caribbean none of the snacks were strange to me. I knew how to peel and eat sugarcane.  I felt at home.

The millet drink, however, was a new experience. The drink had a subtle, sweet pleasant taste. I was happy it was not fresh cow’s blood as I had seen in documentaries. Of course, that would have been silly. They were Kisii people; not the Massai.

After the snacks, and more entertainment led by a traditional poet, we followed the villagers along a dirt road.

We passed locals at work near their homes before we entered a nearby forest where visiting poets, university students and professors were greeted enthusiastically by villagers.

As soon as we were seated and settled, (the villagers, old and young, sat on the grass), we were introduced to a traditional beverage, a very mild alcoholic millet drink.

It was the beginning of an afternoon of recited traditional poetry,  tales and music played on local instruments.

The looks of joy as the villagers responded to the entertainment were priceless.

Here in the Kisii village, snacks were neither light, small nor some sort of processed food—the sweet potatoes, bananas were freshly harvested from the village’s fields.

Back in Your Arms Again
(tribute to Kisi villagers)

Every day you walk in dirt and dust
live on the land, live in the warmth
of earth’s bosom, smell daily
her dewy breath as you dig
into her fertile sod.

You share the joys of earth’s giving.
They are the fruit of the seed,
The fruit of the roots you planted.
They are placed before us,
strangers on your soil.

You give us all you have--
plump, roasted, sweet potatoes,
bananas, long, fat, and short,
succulent sugarcane stalks
and cups of millet porridge.

You dance and sing for us.
The joy you spread is measured
by the bounce in our walk,
the loudness of our laughter.

What we have seen, shared,
what we take with us
is more than postcard memories.

© Althea Romeo-Mark 08.08.2014

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