Letter: Soldotna Creek Park, poetry, and Central Africa

Soldotna Creek Park, poetry, and Central Africa

In the Winter of 2016, I was fortunate enough to have small poem, ‘two hills’, published in Cirque, an Alaska-based literary journal. This October I received an email from journal’s editor, Sandra Kleven, informing me that ‘two hills’ was included in a public art installation at Soldotna Creek Park. I was thrilled. A few days later, Sandra forwarded photos, and I studied them with great interest: Fall’s yellow leaves sprinkled across the grass field and the gravel path, the angled panels in the sun, looking out on the pavilion and a broad turn of the Kenai River.

‘two hills’ is about Burundi. In November of 2009, before wife, kids, and increased career demands, I travelled through Central Africa with three friends. On our second day in Burundi, we accompanied local aid workers to a hilltop village a few miles outside the market town of Kyanza. We arrived mid-morning, and stopped our silver trucks on a hard, red patch of earth, rivered into a thousand little ruts from the last heavy rainfall. I climbed out of the truck, and before I had time to put on my hat we were surrounded by children. They stayed about six feet away, and examined us with quiet, watchful eyes.

From the trucks we pulled two bucking little goats, brought as part of an ongoing food security program. The villagers had built an enclosure out of fallen branches, and some women and elderly people waited for us beside it. I saw no adult males in the village: some were in the fields, but AIDS, a long civil war, and the search for work in larger cities had stripped many from the rural population.

As we placed the goats in the enclosure, the children ranged themselves under an Acacia tree and started to sing, a choir of rags and distended tummies. My chest tightened and I had a hard time getting air past the top of my throat. I drifted a towards a thin stand of trees, felt rain drops on my neck, and realized, belatedly, that someone was following me. To quote from the poem:

And beside me, a boy—filthy

blue sweatshirt full of holes, pointed

low slung stomach pregnant out over knobby

knees, and a placid gaze which followed mine

but could not see as far.

After we climbed back into our trucks, I was silent for a long time. I sat in the back seat with my hands folded in my lap, and stared at the patchwork cultivation that ran from from the edge of the road up and over every inch of the countryside.

I think about that village every day. I realize that my thoughts, the words I’ve written, the small amounts of money I’ve sent back—these are shabby offerings to a place flooded with starved children. And it has always bothered me that I learn that little boy’s name. But now I find some hope in the fact that he has a testament: just off the Sterling Highway, on the banks of the Kenai River, his poem reposes, as Fall flows into Winter at Soldotna Creek Park.

Jonathan Cooper

Vancouver, B.C.