Suzanne Ondrus is a poet and literary scholar whose work explores cultural exchange and understanding, intimacy, oppression, and history. Her poetry book Passion Seeds, about love and longing long distance between an American woman and a Burkina Faso man, won the 2013 Vernice Quebodeaux Prize from Little Red Tree Publishing. Suzanne has taught writing and literary theory in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Russia, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Italy, and Germany, and was a 2018-2020 Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso in West Africa.
Her new collection, Death of an Unvirtuous Woman, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in September 2022 and will be available for pre-order in May. It is a true story of female resistance to domestic violence involving an 1881 Ohio-German immigrant couple. Read three poems from this book in the feminist journal S/tick.
Suzanne kindly shares these poems from Passion Seeds.
Let’s Go Green
Dante had Beatrice blazing blond before him
guiding him from the ice of hell to heaven’s
Beatrice burned forever in his heart.
Her hands filled with air
and her smile shouldered the world.
From afar he would watch,
happy for a view of her on Sunday.
In the Duomo, his heart arched over
the bridge his eyes made to her,
My black angel, you are afar.
How shall I say you burn for me?
My love for you glows like coal or
you are my black angel of coal glow?
But you are not coal, licorice, chocolate,
tar, oil, rubber, sod, tires, or asphalt.
You are seed in my heart,
the green promise.
I want to be the seed of your heart;
I believe I am the seed of your heart.
Please water me with your tears
and bring your heart to the light
so our seeds can grow and glow green.
White through fire circles,
mud houses, lingering handshakes
white through indigo, slit goats’ necks
and the dolo-filled calabash.
A congregation so large,
piled high up to the sky
for only one step to his throne,
to finally come home.
Missionaries pleaded, cajoled
for their congregation to reach that throne!
They even stole boys to enroll
promising parents future rewards.
Their heads were shaved
and their mother tongues shamed,
with the antelope skull worn at least
once by all.
Cultural carving beyond bones,
on top Awa’s whisper
to the river
and Yalle’s hope risen.
The red soil with its orange puddles
held this pain,
so full from
what the whites called religious school.
They tried to stitch boys against the hum
of their ancestors in the wind,
and with white cloth, bread and wine
wind their minds for Christendom and
the French curriculum.
But whispers of songs
sung in the field,
compounds with family
and thatched roofs commanded feet
home, through thorned brush
stealthy under the moon,
back close to Mother’s womb
from where solid like the baobab
they did first bloom.
Author Note: This poem was inspired by Burkinabe shaman Malidome Patrice Somé’s autobiography, Of Water and Spirit. Somé was kidnapped as a young child by missionaries and taken to missionary school; he escaped in his late teens, returning to his village. In the 1950s children were punished if they spoke their native languages at school; French was the language of instruction in Burkina Faso. Dolo is homemade grain alcohol. Calabash is a gourd. Calabash are dried and used as bowls, among other things. Wearing an antelope skull signifies shame, akin to wearing a dunce cap. Narelwindé, Awa and Yalle are Burkinabe first names. Baobab is a tree of utmost significance to West Africa, signifying strength and groundedness.
Thanks for sharing some of the spirits you have encountered, Jendi. My world is the wider and more profound from having read them.