Poem Full of Worry Ending with My Birth

I worry that my friends 
will misunderstand my silence

as a lack of love, or interest, instead
of a tent city built for my own mind,  

I worry I can no longer pretend 
enough to get through another

year of pretending I know 
that I understand time, though 

I can see my own hands; sometimes, 
I worry over how to dress in a world 

where a white woman wearing 
a scarf over her head is assumed 

to be cold, whereas with my head 
cloaked, I am an immediate symbol 

of a war folks have been fighting 
eons-deep before I was born, a meteor.  

The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief

Sister, I waste time. I play
              and replay the voices of these
hurt women flowering

             like marigolds or thistles.
Something lost, forgotten—
             that picture of you, violin

sewn fast to your shoulder,
             bow in one hand poised
eternal. Again, the power's

             gone out—tell me, what is
it to say I miss you? Because
             you won't grow breasts, never

feel desire rippling across you
             like bolts of silk these many
lithe men unshelf daily

             for my choosing. Because you
can't reassure me I have
             the right to ask anything

of women whose bodies won't
              ever again be their own. You
can't blot away this utter, sooted

              darkness. You don't hesitate
when another birangona asks you,
              Do you have any siblings?

For decades, you've been
              so small: a child tapping
on opaque windows. Now,

              through the veranda's black
iron bars, I see you, dark
              silhouette hurrying past,

a bagged red box dangling
              from one slender arm—gift
for a lover or mother. Again,

               the generator shudders me back
into light. Isn't this, Sister,
               what I always said I wanted?

Your Own Palm

O, my daughter, once I was a poor boy
folding peppers into my sarong 
to walk three miles to sell, but what
can you tell me of sorrow, 
or of the courage it takes to buy
a clock instead of a palmful 
of rice to go with the goat 
we can’t afford to slaughter?
Look at the lines Allah etched
on your own palm: you have
a big brain and a good heart, 
still, you don’t use either enough! 
Once, I walked through a war 
beside my brother parallel 
to a gray river. Why do you care
about the few damp bills
I didn’t give to our mother?
Or the clock I bought to take apart? Well, 
I left that country with a palmful 
of seeds I’ve thrown across
this dry, hard Texas. Allah
has blessed me with this vine
that coils upward. I care
so little for what others say, ask 
your mother. That nose ring
doesn’t suit you, by the way. 
Once, you were small enough 
to cradle. There was a coil 
in that clock made of metal . . . O, 
that something so small can matter . . . 
                        No daughter, I 
don’t need a glass of water. Look, 
this will grow into maatir neeche aloo. 
In the spring, you see, its purple leaves
will be the size of your own palm. 
In the village, there is a saying: 
“Dhuniya dhari, kochu pathar paani.”
I don’t know where the clock is 
or how much it’s worth! There was 
not enough for kerosene . . . why 
do you always ask what can’t be answered?
 

100 Bells

My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
The softness of my belly, how it could
double over. It was puckered, like children,
ugly when we cry. My sister died
and was revived. Her brain burst
into blood. Father was driving. He fell
asleep. They beat me. I didn’t flinch. I did.
It was the only dance I knew.
It was the kathak. My ankles sang
with 100 bells. The stranger
raped me on the fitted sheet.
I didn’t scream. I did not know
better. I knew better. I did not
live. My father said, I will go to jail
tonight because I will kill you. I said,
She died. It was the kathakali. Only men
were allowed to dance it. I threw
a chair at my mother. I ran from her.
The kitchen. The flyswatter was
a whip. The flyswatter was a flyswatter.
I was thrown into a fire ant bed. I wanted to be
a man. It was summer in Texas and dry.
I burned. It was a snake dance.
He said, Now I’ve seen a Muslim girl
naked. I held him to my chest. I held her
because I didn’t know it would be
the last time. I threw no
punches. I threw a glass box into a wall.
Somebody is always singing. Songs
were not allowed. Mother said,
Dance and the bells will sing with you.
I slithered. Glass beneath my feet. I
locked the door. I did not die. I did
not die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
Until the doorknob went silent.

Related Poems

Against Pleasure

Worry stole the kayaks and soured the milk.
Now, it’s jellyfish for the rest of the summer
and the ozone layer full of holes.
Worry beats me to the phone.
Worry beats me to the kitchen,
and all the food is sorry. Worry calcifies
my ears against music; it stoppers my nose
against barbecue. All films end badly.
Paintings taunt with their smug convictions.
In the dark, Worry wraps her long legs
around me, promises to be mine forever.

Thugs hijacked all the good parking spaces.
There’s never a good time for lunch.
And why, my mother asks, must you track
beach sand into the apartment?
No, don’t bother with books,
not reading much these days.
And who wants to walk the boardwalk anyway,
with scam artists who steal your home and savings?
Watch out for talk that sounds too good to be true.
You, she says pointing at me,
don’t worry so much.