James Cousins


James Cousins

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In this place of cattle songs and bridal bartering,

There is blood in the air and conflict between the clods

Of sun-dried equatorial earth.

It may not yet run red, but give it days.

This place, barren, flat and empty, is marked by dichotomy,

Binary seasons and sudden shifts in message and intent.

Our pronouncements and activity plans fall short.

We fill collapsed latrines with the evidence of spent efforts,

Expired chemicals whose dates ring out a chorus of our failure,

A procession of missed targets,

A cavalcade with hubris at its head.

We skirt around the periphery of it all, oblivious,

The inheritors of far flung fancy and colonial folly –

The cattle lands and peace-stick prophets give us short shrift.

We do but meddle.

We sit each evening behind iron fences

Oxidising to the echo of battered calf skin.

‘Mobilisation’ has rarely carried such ominous portents –

We hear the beating as villages empty.

This is the rush before the run of red.


In the hurried breath that precedes the storm

Iron sheets grate against uprights,

The wind a diaphragm whose movements conduct

A chorus pitched as a choir of women in labour

Ushering forth something terrible and new with their strains and tearings.

This evening tukuls will collapse under the weight of bad weather,

Fence posts will snap in the face of it all

And nature’s theatrics will be accompanied by an entirely human counterpoint

As cattle raiders and neighbouring tribes sneak in beneath the cover of the rolling skies.

These are not my people, and perhaps I should never have come,

But this evening will find me sheltering alongside strangers,

Lying between a circle of concrete six feet below the earth

And watching tracers pass overhead

As automatic writing fills the skies

No, these days the nights are never still.

Even for a dark-dweller as myself, the mornings come as welcome relief.

Maale, Murle – hold off another day.

The unspoken rules of war have dissolved over decades

Leaving innocents at the heart

Of a cycle of revenge and revenge

And staked through wombless women.

Please, Lord, give us days.

And so we wait, filling backpacks with essentials and the keys to flee –

We hold onto our own days here,

And we guard them jealously.


In the aftershock of the storm

My mud hut swells and creaks.

The plastic sheeting hung over the wire mesh windows

Drift and press against in the breathing out,

Rhythmic and redolent of the ocean.

I am all at sea.

James Cousins

James Cousins is a humanitarian aid worker, English graduate and Irishman. Having grown up in Dublin he moved to South Africa, where he became interested in aid work and injustice, before studying in England at the University of York. Having worked in South Sudan and Sudan his writing is shaped by his experience of conflict, violence and displacement, and he examines home, rootlessness and loss through poetry that is as influenced by Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith as Eliot, Hughes or Heaney.