The Italian coastguard rescues two refugees after a 2013 shipwreck kills 366 Africans attempting to reach Lampedusa. / UNHCF

Josué Guébo is an Ivorian poet and the author of five poetry collections. His most recent collection, Songe à Lampedusa, won the 2014 Tchicaya U Tam'si Prize for African Poetry. The following poems are excerpted from Songe à Lampedusa (Think of Lampedusa), translated from the French. The collection circles around the 2013 shipwreck that killed 366 Africans attempting to reach Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, and addresses the migration crisis that is spilling across the Mediterranean. The disaster at Lampedusa initiated the Italian government’s response to the migration and focused the European Union’s attention on the tens of thousands (now hundreds of thousands) of people departing from the North African coast.

Think of Lampedusa is a book-length serial poem. The discreet lyrics, which are untitled, stretch into identifiable sequences, even if the sequences overlap from one to the next. Guébo makes no formal divisions. The sun, the winds, the waves, the oil spilled, the flames, life itself—they perform in allegorical dramas throughout. Guébo only occasionally uses punctuation, and never periods, avoiding full stops. The lines themselves float, spin forward and back: “calling other pieces into confidence / each word grabs the shoulder strap / of the word to come.” The loosely tethered lines and lyric fragments move with a rhythm like the pulse of the sea, Guébo says. “It is a navigation, and shouldn’t be stopped by periods, because there is nothing out at sea that stops you.” Such is this Mediterranean voyage. Such is the middle passage of the contemporary stateless—many burn their identification papers.

As with his previous collection, Mon pays, ce soir (My country, tonight), which engaged the 2010–11 Ivorian civil war, Guébo has responded to a tragic social and political event immediately—both collections were published within a year of the event that they address. His surrealist bent, with a kind of absurdism or dark humor borrowed from French surrealists and their precursors, the French symbolists, creates an alluring documentary form. Images of the sea wreckage are extended or concealed or distorted by language that insists on the inhuman reality of the migration crisis—this distortion must be portrayed, along with the facts and statistics, because this is the reality these voyagers face. 

–Todd Fredson

excerpts from Think of Lampedusa

The oil spill would advance
eating whole pieces of white bread
Teeth rotten the spill swallows
three quarters of the bread
and the crumbs loosen
like a knot of intestine
The tide would slide  
its slum water and sea weed
across the water’s white body
Without a visa the blackened tide
is not even recognized by the sky
Convinced by the shushing waves
that all will be saved
the spill throws itself across the sea
But the bread does not like the nibbling at its torso
does not want its sides to be grazed like this
The bread begins shouting out
that it opposes such a race of teeth
Blacks on this tide have a laugh
are fed up with being fed to the sea
have a laugh as lines are disappeared from the rainbow
laugh at the puddle of drool on the white body
of the white bread

The spill would approach
baited by that last quarter of bread
unraveling aimlessly
the part of the bread that would sop up the oil
The black water would soon vomit that meal
Fifteen minutes
until the spill hurls in volcanic bellows
the white-bread sea
that the spill’s teeth would have pulled in
The sea detests the oil
its ill-flavored bubbles
more murderous than piranhas
And the sea
And the sea
ecologically minded
And the sea
reasonably burdened
aims at the bread
and pulls the trigger of its indignation
And the black sea
would go evaporating dissolving
returning to the white bread its three
stolen quarter-lengths

The white bread resumes its pose in the front window
staple upon which to contemplate
not for chewing
To be consumed in the one sense but not in the other
It is a blessed bread not one sliced into
It is served according to the age-old rule
he who doesn’t get a look at the menu
ends up paying the bill
The bread is served according to a plan
that has been charted by square and compass
We do not taste the darkened edges
We would not eat without precautionary speech
Burping farting pissing
Aboard the raft you wouldn’t
not with your rotten teeth
It isn’t baked for laymen
This good bread
whole bread from the city

They would have needed just a sign
puff of smoke in the sky
for someone to read
alert in the eyes of the sea
panicked cries
The passengers needed just a flare
to shuttle those cries
beyond the men and women
And the voice that ricocheted
off the oil hung itself
fattened the lobe of every ear
and gradually closed up the city gates
In the resonance of my dream
nationality has been distributed universally
awarded in alphabetical order
but there are three hundred and sixty-six
who have not heard their names

Then, on a drop of the bitter sea
I’d demand that life itself
explain its proportions
Life would come and confess
in a voice that is tranquil
tone unimaginably calm
words softened by regret
nothing shouted
Everything is spoken from the heart
Ellipses fragments strands
available to the wind
Words unwound and returning like a tune
its rustle reveals the speechlessness of grief
Life bends its knee
Its voice climbs up the slopes
It sifts through the Venetian blinds
Life speaks a language square to itself
And the words would commit
in the kind of round
held by the hands
refusing to break the circle of confession

Life’s sentences hold themselves
like words linked
calling other pieces into confidence
each word grabs the shoulder strap
of the word to come
A dance initiates
torn from the soil
taking themselves by the hair
the sentences gather
into that coherent bouquet
always calmly in spite of the difficulty
And then this allusion to the wave
marine monster
worn on the tip of a penitent tongue
But the voice is too reedy
the word too transparent
to correspond with the field that has been provoked

Life would speak of the deaths
that could’ve gone another way
of this feeling in the people
who could’ve remained tethered
Existence’s portrait in well-mixed colors
without this red too lively for those killed in war
without this sky too gray for the women still out in the waves
without this disingenuous pearl
of fortunes squeezed from those entering thirsty
The city’s avenues run straight as the ocean’s horizon
no possibility to swerve
Any markings are there just to attire the way

Its own wrongs wouldn’t be enough anymore
Life would also admit to those of the fates
It would lift cobbles on the roads that have been off-limits
descend into misbalanced accounts
and torch the self-serving etiquette
of those keeping order over these Confessional States
Life would encamp amidst those living in the reserved anger
of fate’s heavy hand:
orphans born blind
AIDS babies
albinos discarded at birth
teenagers holding meaningless diplomas
adolescents dying in childbirth
women poisoned by cancer
The cathedral begins to crumble over
at that other end of the world

But a cathedral all the same
with its altar and its organ
stained glass and icons
It clears its throat and shuts down
fate’s random interludes
Life wouldn’t have cried out but
would have something in its tone
like insolence or perhaps