Llyn Clague
Mali Poems




Ask at the outset:

why a passel of poems

about a trip to Mali?

Isn’t such an adventure

about there, not the underwear

I carry, and will bring back,

in my Samsonite?

Isn’t it about the grit and flower of the world,

not the acrobatics of language?

Why not an album of photographs

directly showing the bony knees of an underfed child,

a splay-toed camel slouching across the sand,

the purple robe of a man striding through an open-air market

held in the same field for a thousand years?

Or, if words you must, why not a travelogue,

a loose, easy catalogue of exotic sights?

That too; but you know, as I do,

the essence of a trip abroad

is the soft implosion at a child’s smile,

the needle-like eureka! at the why

of a strange custom, and the hollow in the belly

at how some fellow humans pass their lives –

what happens when the external world

hits us.



“The dentist is coming!  The dentist is coming!”

The cry reverberates through the village

and into the hamlets, the huts, the lean-to’s.

It is known for weeks:  “The dentist is coming.”



He arrives early Saturday morning,

the day after prayers.  He and Bocoum,

both volunteers, cobble together an office:

an old wire chair, a table wobbly on the ground.

The overhead light is the sun, plus a flashlight.

Villagers crowd around, but not only children

wish to sneak away.


“Open.  Wide.”  Ahh.

He rubs on a quick-acting anesthetic

and before the cringing patient can change his mind

yanks.   Rinse?  Mostly in the patient’s own blood.



Pulling teeth is the quickest.  Also, most villagers believe

“covering” – that is, filling – cavities “traps the sickness

inside.”  Infections sink into the bone.

In the worst cases they leak out through the skin.



Sunday evening, exhausted, with semi-sweet semi-satisfaction,

they count the take – in two days, 164 mouths, 232 teeth,

a new mouth (Next!) ten times an hour –

load the pick-up, and drive back to Bamako, with the echo

Next!  Next!  next!…

Turning Away


As the FBI guy said in the Bond movie,

“Great disguise, James.  A white face in Harlem.”

Everywhere we go –

in Bamako, Segou, Djenné,

on boulevards or back alleys,

approaching a restaurant for lunch

or a shop for fabrics, stones or statuettes 

we toubabs are like beacons in the night

to sailors on a dark sea:

Malians stream to us, thrusting their wares in our faces –

bolts of cloth, gourds, belts, bowls, blankets, trinkets, prints, masks –

“Good price!  Good price!  I love USA!...”


Insistent, inescapable, they press on us

like the close heat,

and they don’t take No for an answer.

“Just try it on!  The real thing!  Good price....”


I stiffen as I walk away,

from the cripple on the ground

holding out a bowl,

from the skinny child

with an upturned, grimy hand,

brown eyes magnified by want,

leading his grandmother (or mother?)

in rags, blind, gaunt, barefoot,

her bird-like claw on his bony shoulder:

one of dozens, of tens of thousands, with bowls, or palms,

held out.

To view additional pictures of this Mali trip,
 you may visit the following websites.

Jackson Day's Mali Trip 2002-2003

Philip McEldowney's Collection of Trip Photos:
Mali Part 1
Mali Part 2
Mali Part 3
Mali Part 4
Mali Part 5
Mali Part 6
Mali Part 7
Mali Part 8
Mali Part 9

Llyn Clague devotes his fourth book of poetry to memories of a trip to Mali. He’s carried these poetic images back with him in his heart: the fragrance of bamboo and jasmine; roads mauled by rains and baked by sun; the wide smiles of a beautiful, joyful people.

Clague accompanies the fortunate readers of this book as our poetic guide through scenes that vibrate like shimmering sunlight. The delightful giggle of a Malian child, the spinning of colorful garments and communal firing of pottery, the cacophony of open air markets, all come alive through Clague’s skillfully woven words. If you’ve never been to Mali, these poems will transport you there. 

-Review by Laurel Johnson for Midwest Book Review

Comments from Readers-

"I love the book..."
"The poems are full of word pictures ... of surprising shared experiences"
"... astounding images..."

"It expresses some of the sentiment, if not the detail, of my own short trip to Africa"