When he finally brought the hammer down
One half-inch from my mother’s face

The hole in the wall
Wide as a silver dollar

I was close enough
Huddled there

In the folds of her lap
Her arms wet with sweat and crossed

Against my back
And since from the room

All sound had gone
I was clear enough to see

Inside the cracked plaster:
A river delta, fractured,

Branching off and becoming
The sea. . . Or, a tiny moon

On a shore of white sand,
The tide lapping it in foam and tugging—No,

Twelve dead presidents perched there
Each with the face of my father—

Tight-lipped, vacant-eyed—
Scanning the field for a body to mark

Then locking in on her knee-bent dread—
Ordinary, mammary—

A yellow suckling heavy on her tit. . . No,
I think it was her one good eye

Refusing to blink,
Scaling the bare-white wall

At the core of the mind
(not measuring its height)

Then circling a waterless well
In a desert without sand,

Unnumbered sisters before her
Caught in the belly of the boats—

Where there was too much sound to hear,
Though only one voice, one cry—

Their dark arms like trellised vines
Crossed and reaching.


Copyright © 2016 by Charif Shanahan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 1, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

 “When I started writing this poem, I fell quickly—from the scene of domestic violence that occasioned it—into history. The center of the poem became the hammer’s impression in the wall—history’s imprint on the present, or a kind of portal between the two, a membrane so thin, at times, as to appear invisible, or nonexistent altogether. The poem also performs the speaker’s own negotiations with the histories implicated by this one portion of his family story: How do we identify trauma in a language that is true and complete enough to contain it? How do we reconcile a trauma that is ancient, that was already here waiting for us?”
—Charif Shanahan