Reciprocity is a Two-Way Street

“It isn’t right to despise one’s country
I don’t deserve to be loved and left.”
—Faysal Cumar Mushteeg

Say you are reading Barthes, or rereading Barthes, 
two acts which are hardly independent of each other.  
Say it’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, and you are all aflush,  
your finger tracing the outline of flight, Either woe or well-being, he writes,  
Sometimes I have a craving to be engulfed.  
And even though this could mean anything, you think you know what it means 
to shiver with well-practiced yearning.   
Not for provincial beginnings, nor Moroccan boys,  
but for lip-shaped crescent moons left on teacups. 
An oil splash of a man with scarred hands.  
In this poem, he doesn’t have a name.  
Your own dumb luck pools around your ankles. We skirt around it, a kindness.  
It disgusts you, the depth of this need,  
like the slick walls of a well.   
Your bones ache most when held. 
Eventually, you’ll have to stop impersonating a skimmed stone.  
There are other ways of parting. 
You annotate Barthes annotating Keats, half in love with easeful death. 
Over-identify until you are light-headed, until you remember a hot, loud classroom.  
Breathless bluetooth blues, a free school meal in your belly, 
the easy cruelty of teachers at under-performing schools,  
so unlike their counterparts in the movies,  
those loose-tied English teachers who promise you 
a world so much bigger than this. So much easier than this. 
Chipped neon nail polish competing against your prized set of highlighters,  
you mistake a poem for a blueprint. First the odes, then the Jane Campion film.  
That night, you dreamt of lavender fields, bruised eyelids,  
the shape of Rome’s dying sunlight on a poet’s grave.  

                    Here lies one whose name was writ in water 

No name. No date. This was all Keats wanted. Convinced they knew better,  
his friends contextualised their grief, added the rest.  
This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET,  
who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart,  
at the Malicious Power of his enemies,  
desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone.  

You think of how casually our bodies are overruled by kin, by blood,  
by heartaches disguised as homelands.  
How you can count the years you have lived for yourself on one hand.  
History is the hammer. You are the nail. 
In another dream, your mother is barefoot and young,  
wearing a scarf the colour of a wound. By Fontana del Moro, a Moor adrift  
on a conch shell leans over her shoulder,  
as she unpeels her wet dress from her legs.  
Unmoored, she laughs at this new country calling itself an old one.  
These fictions she tosses like loose coins.  
We don’t dare dip our hands further than they can reach.  
Her gold bracelets slide down the silk flags of her wrists.  
Nightly, you strive to write a loose translation of this. 
Arterial blood is theatrical, like the desire for a time before your time.  
The world will not stop when you do, or even before.  
Yes, being the one who survived, the one who made it to this side,  
is a full-time job.  
But no-one asked you to take it.  
Diaspora is witnessing a murder without getting blood on your shirt.  
Your body is the evidence of its absence.  
Of course, there are other definitions.  
Namely, a freshly scraped scalp, dome of your rock,  
the inevitability of fajr and late-night texts,  
each lie about how good the exchange rate was.  
That time he cried telling you the story of why his family had left Sweden,  
the image of a younger brother held underwater by wild-eyed classmates.  
Definitions, like flags, lay claim to what has always existed.  
For now, these will do. You can’t speak for the future.  
It barely speaks for you.  
Pick a mask and ask me to wear it. You only know love like this,  
an interpretation you can’t outrun.  
A footnote to haunt the page.  

Copyright © 2021 by Momtaza Mehri. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 22, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.