College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Windham-Campbell Prize Winner shares his poetry

Helon Habila is an associate professor of creative writing at George Mason University. He worked in Lagos as a journalist before moving to England in 2002. His novels include Waiting for an Angel (2002), Measuring Time (2007), and Oil on Water (2010). In 2006 he co-edited the British Council’s anthology, New Writing 14. He also edited of The Granta Book of African Short Story (2011).

Habila’s novels, poems, and short stories have won many honors and awards. In 2003 he was awarded the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel (Africa Section). In 2005–06 Habila was the first Chinua Achebe Fellow at Bard College, New York. His second novel won the Virginia Library Foundation’s fiction award in 2008. In the same year Habila’s short story, “The Hotel Malogo” won the Emily Balch Prize. Oil on Water, which deals with environmental pollution in the oil-rich Niger Delta, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (2011) and the Orion Book Award (2012). It was also a runner up for the PEN/Open Book Award (2012). Habila has been a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review since 2004, and he is a regular reviewer for The Guardian, UK. From July 2013 to June 2014, Habila was a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) fellow in Berlin.  Helon Habila lives in Virginia with his wife and three children.

Habila is a 2015 Windham-Campbell Prize winner for fiction.


In ancient Rome, in the age of empire
And decadence, a house was incomplete
Without a vomitorium. Houses then were
Large and sprawling, covering multiple acres
There were vast terraces, pools and gardens,
Marble columns towered in rows like sentinels

The interiors were mostly baroque: vases,
Busts and idols—Jupiter and Juno in a niche,
Cupid and Venus, in the buff, customarily
Formed the centrepiece; tendrils on window ledges,
Imitation hanging gardens, frolicking pigs and
Peacocks (the decadent seek, often, to overreach
Its possibilities)

In decadent Rome vomitoriums were practical
Necessities; for, say you were an ancient Roman,
Someone of high estate, a tribune, or a senator,
And tonight you entertain. Expected are the
Empress, the Emperor, the great Cicero, and other
Notables. What would you do but inform your
Cook: ‘Tonight, go the whole hog!’

Say you were the Emperor (hoary, soon to die
And become a deity), faced with such tempting variety,
And you so used to having it all, which would you
Eat, which ignore; fish, flesh, or fowl? And
So they built vomitoriums.

Now, a vomitorium is a tiny adjunct, like a vestigial
Appendage, fixed to the hall. It could be square or
Circular, based on the builder’s bent, enclosed or open-air,
But never large, just standing room for one. (There was
At times, a gilded chair within.) a towel hung from an
Ivory stand; a washing bowl rested on a marble ledge.
Finally another bowl, of polished silver, stood as
Receptacle for the rich Roman vomit. It had a trigger
Bottom that parted at the merest touch, and beneath
A conduit pipe quietly, efficiently, sucked away the
Mucilaginous mush.

The Emperor, or Cicero, or some other notable,
Fed to surfeit, would waddle across the smooth marble
Floor, sweating mildly, farting softly, to the vomitorium.

Back at the table, the portly, bald-headed citizen wouldn’t
Directly fall to. He must first control his still heaving
Belly, and recondition his sour mouth with some wine …
But not all Romans had vomitoriums, not every
Roman was rich and portly. Majority were poor,
Pressed into ugly shapes by taxes; some were slaves
From Britain, Gaul, and Africa. And there were the
Christians who lived chiefly on fish, themselves fodder
For Coliseum lions.


I don’t know much about birds.
These ones look tiny, like day old chicks,
Only sharper. Robins, perhaps, or sparrows.
The female is dun, unremarkable beside
The male’s black and green gaudiness.
Certainly not canaries.

But who has a God’s patience to note how
Exactly a bird looks, where or when a sparrow falls?

What impresses is the determination in each hop,
Each pause; the eagerness to make a home in
The fold of my window curtain—
But as the sun ascends I detect method in their frenzy:
One always stands guard as the other flies into the
Horizon to procure brick. And always that
Air of qui vive in the revolving gaze;
A warning whistle at the slightest motion of my hand,
Or a page fluttering on my desk.

One needs such winged alertness to build a home,
A world, to deal with obstacles: rivals, lies,
And sometimes, waning passion. Heavy furniture
That often stand between brick and mortar. And trust
That she would return each time she goes out
To get straw.

2.30. The winged masons, acclimatised to the
Weather in here, my riffling motions and gaze,
The contrast in light outside and within, have grown bolder,
Painting the ledge bird-shit grey, chasing straw onto
The filing-cabinet, sometimes disappearing for brief breaks –
Two, three, hops on the concrete runway before lift-off.

3.30. They are past mid-way.

But most homes never reach roof level.
Most homes are razed down by mysterious fires,
Or flood, demolition balls swung as if by celestial hands.

4.30. Soon I have to go.
I admire the dream home unfolded in a single day:
The intricate interweave of straw with straw, the air-spaces,
The tricky, aesthetic curve at each angle—

5.30. I stand up and pull down the curtain,
Bringing down to earth a bird’s dream of home
And happiness at lintel level.

Poems by Helon Habila

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