CBC Literary Prizes

The Autobiography of Water by Bola Opaleke

Bola Opaleke has made the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist for The Autobiography of Water.

2018 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist

Bola Opaleke is a poet based in Winnipeg. (Esther Opaleke)

Bola Opaleke made the 2018 CBC Poetry Prize shortlist for The Autobiography of Water.

He will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and will have his work published on CBC Books.

The 2018 CBC Poetry Prize winner was Natalie Lim for Arrhythmia.

You can read The Autobiography of Water below.

The Autobiography of Water

& this is how the story goes —

our ancestors dissolved & become lilies
& become water in the belly of the sea.
we squandered every comma in our sentences
to make room for children to be squeezed
into that family photo hung on the wall of its flowing


as the family portrait changes
slowly      like a civilized truth
     like a hand buried under
the skin of lady Justice decaying
into worms to eat its eyes
& then its ears as its blood
ferments. as the light
at the bottom of the ocean dims


the river on the eastern side
of our country (folded
into a burning cigarette stick)
touches our lips by mistake
     it apologized & returned
to being solid tears


     unflowing like the furious Atlantic
beckoning to us      oblivious
of our return journey from searching
for folks locked behind its very doors.
we hid our tears & caressed the orchids
on its belly the way the eyes caress
a wound the body despised


painfully. before death arrived
     we met a god that is not Catholic
he says he's from a country
not known to the atlas on our palms.
he would eat our confessions     later
like the same god      drawn
on our kindergarten workbook
 — wearing white beards.


weren't we told a song does not
have to walk when it can fly? to us
     only a requiem & dirges
have wings like vulture's
     only they can hover over our grief
like a shark over its meat.


this ferocious crocodile inside
the black gold inside the Delta mangroves
turned to an epidemic      chased us up north
to the lonely villages — to Chibok & Dapchi​
     where young girls that embraced
morning sunshine at night deliquesced
into dusty lamentation     into regrets
too heavy on our aching shoulders.


like them      we      too     have no tongues
of our own. when they brought us
white dolls      asked that we point
where the pain forces itself in
we said these dolls looked
nothing like us & we knew not
where to point      knew not
what pain means to an ordinary toy.


though       our toy-skeleton has its own
language       it speaks in metaphors hidden
underneath the red tongue
of our black skin


     of our black bodies. we knew
we have always been an open field
     we knew different scouts stake
different flags on us
like a conquered territory


rudely governed. on the mouth
of the Niger river
     on the brink of our night
of disappearance
     the ghost of Democracy
re-appeared to us wearing
colorful shroud      its melting bones
made of in-audible whispers


of echoes. lost      like a prom night
that doesn't last      the flowers
that started growing atop
our breasts soon withered
in the name of resistance
     we tied the hands of words
that once fondled our nascent nipples
to the back      chained them
to the dingy corners
of our strangled voices.


& that is the history of water.
from generation to generation
     small wars waged against us
become big battles
     they claim our bodies first
then our mind. they bound us
to a spot like a tree. & though
     we roam everywhere
     still       like the sun
that gives no heed to a broken foot


we become
the snapshots of the Congo River —
a widowed blood that died & becomes water —
buoyant but lifeless but helpless
     flowing to who knows where.

Read the other finalists

About Bola Opaleke

Bola is a Best Of The Net and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in a few journals like Frontier Poetry, Rising Phoenix Review, Writers Resist, Rattle, Cleaver, One, Nottingham Review, The Puritan, Literary Review of Canada, Sierra Nevada Review, Dissident Voice, Poetry Quarterly, The Indianapolis Review, Canadian Literature, Empty Mirror, Poetry Pacific, Drunk Monkeys, Temz Review and others. He holds a degree in city planning and lives in Winnipeg.


CBC Poetry Prize shortlisted poet Bola Opaleke reads from his poem "The Autobiography of Water" and discusses its inspirations on CBC Manitoba's Up to Speed with guest host Laurie Hoogstraten 10:44
Poet Bola Opaleke on CBC Manitoba's InfoRad with Marcy Markusa. 6:17


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