"The Starving African Girl" | Poetry Contest | Indy Week

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"The Starving African Girl"

First Place


by John D. Wagner

She is frantic in her rice bag smock
because, who knows, the flies
were just too much that day, her mother
died last Saturday, the camera steals
her soul; a thousand things. Her belly's
bloated, her hair cut short for lice;
she still sucks her thumb, that young.
Yet from the picture UNICEF sent, sad umbrage in the way she stood.

We adopted her for $1.10 a week,
made her our sister using coins
offered up, a sacrifice, alms, collected
in an egg carton mom passed around
at dinnertime. But when I asked,
Wouldn't it be best to have our sister
at home with us, here? Mom told me
the Africans were so hungry that their
bodies had forgotten food; their insides
were so knotty and dry they couldn't
pass food when they ate it. Think
of a dry riverbed. Their bodies are like that
inside all the time. They've forgotten rain
and their moms, some of them, and anything
juicy; grapes, even raisins. If she did come
here, we'd have to start her slowly
on our food, she said. A saltine cracker
at first, cups of warm water, maybe some
applesauce after a week.

Then I envisioned us all at dinner,
our new African sister among us finally,
all of us not wanting to be impolite, as we
nibbled our crackers, sipped warm water,
and dreamed of the promised applesauce.
But in this vision, when she'd gone to bed,
when we ate huge platefuls of our real food,
I always imagine she starts downstairs to find us
at that table eating without her. Unexpectedly,
she appears to me alone, a visage. She is
wholly her bloated belly, but with eyes
where I see her soul is missing; she wears
her rag smock, and stands on the landing.
I see her before me now in the dim light cast
From atop our baby grand piano, and always
I must go to tell her that we are only eating
without her because it is the politest thing to do.
You've forgotten rain, I tell her, and your mom, and
your insides, they're knotty and dry,
like a river with no water. Then I plead with her
not to leave, not because of me, not this, not us.

John D. Wagner lives in Chapel Hill

"The Starving African Girl" takes us through a series of images, both actual and imagined, that weave between the acclamation and condemnation of the stereotypical. In the end, a photograph most concede to a vision and distant privilege must concede to intimate revelation. The poem captures the artificial disposition toward appearances and the shallow disregard to be self-reflexive about it. It also indicts false charity given from afar that lacks the courage for empathy and genuine engagement. The African girl becomes a stick-doll of cliches for the poor, the African, and the foreign. But, the truth surfaces like most truths do, in a dream. False charity breaks open and the girl becomes real through the compelling truth of imagination and vision. Inside this vision, the girl is now agent and judge. She is willful in her rejection, and it is her judgment that turns, in a profound reversal, the gaze back against superficialities that now plead for her approval. Underlying the innocent voice of the speaker--contemplating what he is told about the poor--is a willing curiosity and an uneasy discomfort to believe in the surface of appearances. With the compelling drama of a good storyteller, the poet surprises us in a clever and substantive reversal.

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