A Sestina for a Cannibal

Jeffrey Greene

after Friday in Robinson Crusoe & Coetzee’s Foe

How do you teach a cannibal
to speak when he has no tongue?
Draw a picture first—a house or a ship—
and then guide his fingers
to form the letters
and slowly pronounce the word.

Then erase the picture, then the word
so that the cannibal
will see in his mind the letters
that cannot touch his tongue
but only his fingers
led three times over the word ship.

Then teach him Africa where the ship
came for him and the word
meant home, where men’s fingers
pried the mouth of the cannibal,
a boy being shorn of his tongue.
Africa is only letters.

But somehow in the act of forming letters
—Africa, home, and ship—
the meaning transcends the tongue,
movements in place of words,
like dance for the cannibal
or the flute between his fingers.

Whoever maimed him left his fingers
to slave, and what good are seven letters?
Better know your needs if you are a cannibal,
that the hand is a vessel like a ship.
Freedom is not a word
if you’re left without a tongue.

Even though he has no tongue
the petals cast from his fingers
mean more than words,
like so many white letters
floating on water over a ship,
sunken with a cargo of cannibals.

Take the cannibal without a tongue
to a ship bound for Africa, and in his fingers
place letters saying he cannot read a word.

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