Three Elegies by Helon Habila


In  three elegies as daring as they are poignant, winner of the Windhamn-Campbell Prize, Helon Habila pokes at loss and hope….




This is how the world ends:

First, all beauty will die –

All that is green and pure, all

That inspires, elevates; all talent, for beauty,

Like yours, child, is a great talent.


Then all courage will die – all hope,

All that keep the fires burning,

All that won’t be bowed, cowed – like

You, child, who smiled and smiled to the end.


After beauty, and laughter, and courage,

After the fishes in the sea,

After the leaves are variegated, and

The flowers blighted, when

All songs have ended, then the

World’s roof will cave in, because

When you left, dear child,

The world’s pillar also crumbled.

2. In Memoriam

(For Gabriel)


The sleepers rise with me at dawn

To gaze at the hills and the color splattered plains,

Green, red, brown—patterns in a magic mat

To fly home the wandering pilgrims

Traversers, conquerors, farmers, hunters, and women lighting the fires at dawn,

Setting free the smoke haze over kitchen thatch roofs,

Burnt offerings to spirits awaking, and birds chirping

And clouds stirring over the hilltops


They lock step with me, eager for one final adventure,

Feet a-clacking through living hallways, over byways, through back-ways

Of our happy days before the sun dimmed on the mirth-filled houses,

And foolishness and youthfulness and bygone days before dead days


Ghosts of lovers, come walk with me beneath weeping arcades of mahogany,

Down vanishing tracks of youth, and tamarind trees and superstitious shadows of

Childhood folly, and long nights carousing

And long walks to hours frittered away


Let the drums raise up the dead to talk again, to answer the phone-call, thrill to

Birdcall and the call of the hoary harmattan, to change with the seasons

And grow with the corn and the sorghum in the fields,

Proud saplings nourished by savannah rainfalls


The dead

Sleepless shadows on my wall,

Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins,

In waking dreams I reach out to lovers beyond reach, to shades of friends forgotten,

Figures dripping on my wall, weighing heavy on my rest –


I dream the dead,

Could rise again, talk again, laugh again…

And the hunters could hunt again, and the prey re-vive, and the grass in the plains

Re-sap, and hope re-new, and dreams re-fruitify;

The dead re-animated to walk with me again.


 3. Elegy for an Old Woman


The last time I saw you

Time had you twisted and trussed up in bondage

And on your face lines marked the painful geography of your recent path

Beneath you, your limbs all tangled and useless

I remember, in the corner life and youth stood wordless

Vanquished, as they always must, by time


Time triumphant with news of your passing

The young men will bear your coffin up the hill

To commit your tired corpse to the worms and decay

Mourners will mourn, the sun will rise, the rain will fall

Over your tomb the grass will grow and dry and die,

And you will be forgotten


But today I remember you erect and strong in the field,

The sun over your shoulder as you broke earth and rock

Tireless, your hoe pneumatic precise,

And in the evenings I see your daughters around you—

Their features a reflection of what you once were:

Young and strong and beautiful, a maiden

Shy and coy and happy, waiting in the inner room for her groom


I remember every laughter we laughed—

The echoes etched in stone, never to be erased by time

And although mourners will mourn, the sun did shine behind you

Like a flash in a camera recording, as proof to posterity

Those days in the field, when you stood strong and erect

And who will say you never lived, and loved, and laughed in time’s face

Even as it encroached nearer every day?


Helon Habila was born in Nigeria. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University in Virginia. His novels include,Waiting for an Angel (2002), Measuring Time (2007), and Oil on Water (2010). He is the editor of the Granta Book of African Short Story (2011). Habila’s novels, poems, and short stories have won many honors and awards, including the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel (Africa Section), the Caine Prize, the Virginia Library Foundation Award for Fiction, and most recently the Windham-Campbell Prize. Habila is a regular contributor to the UK Guardian, and he has been a contributing editor to the VQR since 2004.

His most current book is a nonfiction account of the 2014 kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria titled, The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria. Habila lives in Virginia with his family.