May Ayim is a poet-scholar whose diasporic vision I have always been inspired by. In her short life, she was also a foundational figure in the burgeoning Afro-German movements of the time. Her poetics are inflected with a distinctive blues, a borderless expanse of histories, connections and affiliations. She addressed questions of hybridity and transnationalism with a rhythmic flair, always deeply rooted in an ethos of love for the communities she answered to. I look to her as a poet who wrote, and organised, against the debilitating effects of isolation on a people and their sense of worth.
By Momtaza Mehri
After May Ayim
Leave the city like an estranged daughter. Believing in its solitary promises is a full-time job no one can hope to keep. A glittering mask I wear around its devotees. Replace it with another, with whatever pulls you willingly into its orbit. Can you ever outrun what is always carried with you? We begin with the cruelty of the rhetorical question. The torture of the open-ended embrace. The East is a good enough place to start. I felt the rain dry on my face without an agenda. I walked the long way, from Dresdener Strasse, past the Jewish Museum’s concrete chasms. The guards were still there. I wondered if they had ever left. An uncle once left the coast for medical school here, in the hazy days of Lenin-emblazoned textbooks and fevered postcolonial dreams. He never returned. Forgive me for outgrowing the innocence of flags, For my shameless lack of allegiances. I give no more than I am given, Take less than what I need. I call this a life, or a half-echo of one. Take my autumnal excuses. There are plenty of them to share. Yes, I left my umbrella on the U-Bahn, again. Somewhere between the rattle of metal gratings and the chatter of schoolchildren.
Outside, the air was crisp. No one knew me by name, by affiliation, by misplaced denial or cowardly disavowal. I bathed in mystery. I had the luxury of disappearing. They say the lake is deeper than it looks. Like me, the lake is a symbol. Like me, the lake did not choose to be described. I am no one special. And as such, there is nothing special, nothing precious about my pain. I tend to it like a gardener, trimming its wild edges. Pruning its particularities. My hands are bloodied. The thickets, they sting. Our shoes are muddied. Being a stranger is a kind of freedom. Each dusky local, a backdrop to my every flush of reinvention. My comfort is your cage. My loose-lipped thrills a duck-feather pillow to stifle the flailing regularity of your days. Amidst the evidence of your loss, I come to your home to lose myself. Be my witness, my accomplice, my ever-loyal sisterhood of seasonal drifters. To speak for you, I would have to find my own voice. I would first have to hear you.
Meet me at Viktoriapark, by the monument to Europe’s liberators, the young men who invaded Napoleon's nightmares, these martyrs of fitful young nations. Congealed like blood clots into the mythology of the republic. Become history. Became worlding. Became picnic spot. Let’s tumble down the hill, like freshwater. Acquainted by the knot of circumstance, the tension of kin, the twist of gut. Avoiders of the same alleyways and detours. Children of hyphenated horrors. Our footfall has never been our own. We tally our mutual claims. Everywhere, there are remnants of forgiveness, withheld or honoured, Breath traced on the misted window of a taxi. A mistranslated poem. A corrected pronunciation. The long 20th century is a lurking apparition, its tendrils dragged from our nostrils. I blow a plume in the shape of my mistakes. Here, at the cafe we occupy, we encircle. Hug the table with our thighs. A year ago, they shot the youth at a place much like this. Midnight was its name. The lounge, I think. You do not remember, try to forget what punctures. Follow the common language of smoke and cardamom. A man from Latakia rotates each coal. Each smouldering nugget of blended heat. We drown in the gruff laughter of men who have lost the beaches of their Mediterranean childhoods. Blunted by their beginnings, they know the song of which we speak, but not the shape of its vowels.
Sometimes, you write your poems here. Peel yourself back like the skin of a grape. There is no audience, so your body is yours. Consumption awaits you at the bus stop. You embalm the moment, unshroud the mystification of our scattering. Gather the us, the we, on your yellowing pages. A poem can reveal so little of cross-legged encounters, creaking living rooms, the weight of a head resting on a lap. Still, you try, stretch the tongue to accommodate the contorted, the confined, the lapping wind of ambitious design. I dream you louder than the city, its quaking sorrow, its shrill of car alarms and sirens. To outrun you is to disinherit ourselves, to be dulled by the whetstone of separation. This bridge is for the choosing. The choosing is ours.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and independent researcher. Her work has appeared in the likes of Granta, BOMB Magazine, Real Life Mag and The Poetry Review. She is the former Young People’s Laureate for London. Her latest pamphlet, Doing the Most with the Least, was published by Goldsmiths Press.
This creative response was commissioned as part of Momtaza Mehri's 'resurrection' of May Ayim, for a séance on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour in 2019-21. This séance was planned to happen at Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle, but due to the coronavirus pandemic took place online on 11 April 2021. Read Hannah Hodgson's responses to Julia Darling from the same séance here. Be the first to hear about our upcoming events by signing up to our free and fun mailing list.
This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.