Moved By The Shape of Scars – A Poem and a Chapbook by Ghanaian Writer and Poet Tryphena Yeboah

Ghanaian poet Tryphena Yeboah. Photo Credit: Narrative Magazine


The day ripens on my face.
The opening of my eyes is the plucking of stars
and I want to keep the glistening thing forever
but my hands, I need them empty to carry other dreams like
pulling myself out of bed,
washing my face and carving today’s date into walls
as another triumphant exit from death, numbness—
the crashing state of absence from the here and now.
Suppose you enter a room to find me sitting across a window
looking into tomorrow,
will you touch me on the shoulder to wake me up
or bring me closer to you to feed your loneliness?
Suppose instead of turning my neck to face you
I crawl out of the window and run toward the light,
will you follow me not knowing where I am going or
will you pull me back by the arm, dragging me back to yourself?
My heart shall keep its promise of staying soft and open.
I’m versed inside a language that demands that before I speak,
I weight the words with my tongue. Must be salt. Must be water.
Everyone speaks of never returning to the places that almost drowned them.
Meanwhile, I am a girl moved by the shape of scars.
If I want to know how a wound made a home out of me,
does it mean I enjoyed the pain?
I want the joy of healing pulsing close to my skin
My body, having learned resurrection, more tender than before.
I want a tangible appreciation of life.
I stretch my hand and the day is a fruit I bite into,
a kind of sweetness I can wear without growing tired;
a cascading joy enough to keep me believing that no door is an accident.
You walk through some only to meet yourself.

Tryphena Yeboah from A Mouthful of Home from New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba), Akashic Books, 2020

I have profiled the extraordinary six-year old venture called the New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbok Box Set edited by American poets Kwame Dawes and Chris Albani in an earlier blog post. But I want to highlight a poet and her chapbook from the 2020 version called Saba – Tryphena Yeboah and her book A Mouthful of Home. And, in addition, to say, Tryphena, in late September won the prestigious Narrative Prize for a non-fiction and fiction piece published in Narrative. (An excerpt from her essay is below.)

Tryphena is a Ghanaian writer currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Nebraska. Her confidence and control in her poems, her careful pacing, is so evident from her chapbook! And the richness of her description. And how she ties her poem together with this idea of opening and openings: an opening of eyes, a opening out from one state into another, figuratively moving out of a confined space through a window or a threshold and then at the poem’s end instead of a window there is a door, another threshold, another way to go from one place to another. And the lovely last line where some doors take you back to meet yourself. And with this, an echo of Derek Walcott’s celebrated poem; Love After Love and the lines : you will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door, in your own mirror/ and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

Her eight line opening of her poem above gobsmacks me as a description of waking up! All the wonder she leaves behind (glistening thing) but in waking also the crashing state of absence from the here and now. And then I am captured by the mysterious and surreal way the poem moves us to another transition place – not specifically waking into the day but another potential wakening of a speaker who may be in trance-like state, looking out of a window for tomorrow. Then, this eerie and provocative question to an unnamed person – will you wake the speaker or keep her as a kind of sleepwalker to feed your loneliness? And then there is the possibility of the agency of the speaker. The dramatic image of the speaker wondering if she crawls out of the window towards the light, will the unnamed you follow her no matter where or capture her, pull her back?

How Tryphena creates a psychological richness in her poem. How she scribes out a sense of a speaker perhaps beginning a resurrection into a place of more autonomy. Of moving from a metaphoric state of being asleep to a psychic wakening. And then, in what feels like the third part of the poem how that wakening opens her up to remembering scars and pain and wanting the joy of healing. How she welcomes life and a sense of joy that helps her believe one day when she finds a door and walks through she will meet herself.

And here, such examples of her remarkable lines, their power:

Everyone speaks of never returning to the places that almost drowned them.
Meanwhile, I am a girl moved by the shape of scars.
If I want to know how a wound made a home out of me,
does it mean I enjoyed the pain?

This poem has haunted me for weeks now. I have carried it with me. The deeply hopeful sense in it of an awakening, a coming to terms with a destructive past way of being. A speaker wanting a tangible appreciation of life and then stretching her hand out to a day that becomes sweet fruit she can eat.

The hope in this poem becomes more specific for me when I read Tryphena’s 2021 award-winning essay in Narrative, The Ravages of an Unloved Life, which describes with unflinching candor her hatred of her body and then her acceptance. Do I hear an echo of this essay in her poem?

I stand in front of the mirror, what Ms. Sanchez [the speaker’s landlady] calls the eyes to the soul. I look at myself, finally look at myself. The woman that I am, the presence that I carry. Eyes agleam. It is a penetrating expression shooting through every weathered year of internalized self-loathing. The image that looks back at me is weary and fighting back tears. I unclench my fists, relax my shoulders. The release is unfamiliar to me. A surrender charged with what I know to be mercy.

I shall not be my own enemy. Not today. No validation in the world can make up for the grace I withhold from myself. And should I be hurled into the throes of sorrow, I hope to God it’s not one I bring on myself. I stay still. I do not erupt in tears, but I grieve the life I think I want, where the damage is just as good as what it strips from me and I know instantly what I don’t want. A life of shadows, a catastrophe lying in wait, an act of disappearance sparked by the assaults of my own hand. I take my face in, the caverns of my body, every bloated and shrinking nook, and I look on with a tenderness I’ve never offered myself before. I see me, and for the first time it is not as horrifying as I imagined it would be. Not even in the least.

Tryphena Yeboah from Narrative, an on-line Journal, Fall, 2020

There is much more I can say about the rest of Tryphena’s chapbook but that will be for another post! I know we will be reading a lot more from this gifted African writer!

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