By Yourself Boy… (1988 – 2007)



The basketball games I used to watch were 

taped from a scrambled channel, had no sound 

to speak of. I used to replay them in my head, 

lend my own fillip to the images, splice them 


into details: a hand like the arc of a mother’s  

belly awaiting the return of a ball sent down 

to concrete; a half-raised foot – pre-fake and swivel; 

a fall, fluid and dramatic, alive with the sweat 


of exertion. For me, the moves had no names 

but there were patterns in the chaos; determination 

flexed hard on five faces usually muscled a win. 





Those games had a silent energy that hung over 

me, left clouds in my head that school could not 

disperse. Walking past the main court for my piano 

lessons, I would stop, listen to the older boys bragging, 


belittling each other as they contorted their bodies 

into screens of guile. I only went four times before 

I skipped my first lesson – enough time for me to learn 

scales, how to hold my hand above the keys, curved 


like a basketball, but not enough to play anything 

but do  re  mi and the bass lines of hit songs I’d heard 

at the time. It seemed like music had lost the battle. 






I learnt the language of the court: how to bow 

low to breeze beyond the barriers of the zone, 

crack my opponents by calling them names, advising 

them to go home, spend some time alone learning 


the rudiments of the game. This became my music – 

the trash talk notated with polyrhythms of bounce, 

the oohs and ahhs, the slick refrain of a swish shot. 

I saw no connection between my new world and the one 


I had deserted – the high post of the piano’s back 

the timed tap of feet, the bounce of hammers responding 

to fingers and wires – until nineteen years later. 





Nat King Cole’s on the TV staring hard at his audience, 

his hands setting up plays while he sings. Ray Charles 

said he sang so damn well people forgot how good he was 

on keys, and I see it now: his right hand stuffs a melody 


down the grand piano’s throat – that’s the fake – he dribbles 

the sound down to low notes until you expect the left hand 

to come in lower. That’s when he breaks mould, hustles 

his left hand over the right, throws high notes into your ear 


– crossover, up, swish. Now the trash talk it’s better to be 

by yourself boy…He smiles like the silent men on my tapes 

and, suddenly, every move has a name, a sound, a history. 

from The Geez (Peepal Tree, 2020), © Nii Ayikwei Parkes 2020, used by permission of the author

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Nii Ayikwei Parkes grew up in Ghana but was born in the UK where he later returned for further study, where with the friendship and ...