national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Hunger Flew With Me from Africa

Old Neighborhood Dog, Johanna Polk

I wept at the littoral airport in Douala,
said goodbye to my friends, felt them fade away
at takeoff, as the lumpish green of rain forest
was consumed by ivory clouds. I sifted through


tiny packages of yogurt, pudding, and cheese,
curious for something, a familiar taste;
wondered if this would be the food of my new life:
too sweet, too soft, too weak in flavor. Stowed in the belly


of the plane, my edible luggage sent comfort to me
like clean air through the vents—my spices,
my culinary companions culled for
my student days in White-Man Country. I inhaled


the cold air at O’Hare, tried hard to exhale
the floral scent of Americans, as the
customs officer stamped my passport and said,
Welcome to the United States!

I rode in a box, a narrow lift, up four floors
to sleep off my jet lag in an apartment I could not leave
because my brother said,
You might get shot if you do.


I opened my searched luggage right away
to find that my Cameroonian food was gone,
bent over and into my bags, my face
a dusky African mask with gaping mouth, stuck my nose


into the tailored clothes I’d brought, trying to breathe in
the dizzying dust of crayfish and country-onions,
balmy odor of smoked fish and bitter-leaf, singular incense
folded into the African prints my friends had packed for me,


combed through the gifts and keepsakes—
cowhide purses, woven goods, woodcarvings—
all acrid, angry-scented like fermented cassava,
sniffed for nutty traces of the njangsa


my aunt had ground for pepper soup,
licked the flakes of embargoed spices
from the creases in my bags,
carried them on my tongue.