We, Made of Bone

These days, I refuse to let you see me
the way I see myself.

I wake up in the morning not knowing
whether I will make it through the day;

reminding myself of the small, small things
I’ve forgotten to marvel in;

these trees, blood-free and bone-dry
have come to rescue me more than once,

but my saving often requires hiding
yet they stand so tall, so slim and gluttonous

refusing to contain me; even baobab trees
will split open at my command, and

carve out fleshless wombs to welcome me.
I must fall out of love of the world

without me in it, but my loves have
long gone, and left me in a foreign land

where once I was made of bone,
now water, now nothing.

More by Mahtem Shiferraw

Nomenclatures of Invisibility

My ancestors are made with water—
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;

when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.

Our mothers burn with a fire
that does not let them be;

they whisper our names
nomenclatures of invisibility
honey-dewed faces, eyes sewn shut,
how to tell them
the sorrow that splits us in half
the longing for a land not our own
the constant moving and shifting of things,
within, without—

which words describe
the clenching in our stomachs
the fear lodged deeply into our bones
churning us from within,

and the loss that follows us everywhere:
behind mountains, past oceans, into
the heads of trees, how to swallow
a tongue that speaks with too many accents—

when white faces sprout
we are told to set ourselves ablaze
and this smell of smoke we know—
water or fire, or both,

because we have drowned many at a time
and left our bodies burning, or swollen, or bleeding
and purple—this kind of language we know,
naming new things into our invisibility
and this, we too, call home.
 

Beginnings

This is not how it begins
but how you understand it.
 
I walk many kilometers and
find myself to be the same—
 
the same moon hovering over
the same, bleached sky,
 
and when the officer calls me
it is a name I do not recognize,
a self I do not recognize.
 
We are asked to kneel, or
stand still, depending on which land
we embroider our feet with—
 
this one is copious with black blood
or so I am told.
 
Someone calls me by the skin
I did not know I had
and to this I think—language,
 
there must be a language
that contains us all
that contains all of this.
 
How to disassemble
the sorrow of beginnings,
 
how to let go, and not,
how to crouch beneath other bodies
how to stop breathing, how not to.
 
Our fathers are not elders here;
they are long-bearded men
shoving taxi cabs and sprawled
in small valet parking lots—
 
at their sight, my body dims its light
(a desiccated grape)
and murmur, Igziabher Yistilign—
our pride, raw-purple again.
 
We begin like this: all of us
walking in solitude
walking a desert earth and
unforgiving bodies. We cross lines
we dare not speak of; we learn and
unlearn things quickly, or intentionally slow
(because, that, we can control)
and give ourselves new names
because these selves must be new
to forget the old blue.
 
But, sometimes, we also begin like this:
on a cold, cold night
memorizing escape routes
kissing the foreheads of small children
hiding accat in our pockets,
a rosary for safekeeping.
 
Or, married off to men thirty years our elders
big house, big job, big, striking hands.
 
Or, thinking of the mouths to feed.
 
At times
we begin in silence;
 
water making its way into our bodies—
rain, or tears, or black and red seas
until we are ripe with longing.

Related Poems

[You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior]

You ask me to talk
               about the interior

it was all roadside flowers & grasses
               growing over the cities

was made of wilderness & sky
               with God washed out of it

was the foreign prayer-word
               it was a list of missing persons

was the solid bronze charging
               bull on the famous street

was like the Roman method for making bees

was its taken-down carcass
               & its bed of apple-branches & thyme

was a new anatomy      a beaten hide
               a skeleton sweetening to glowing fluids

& the bee born out & the grist of them born
               glistening as coins

it was anthem
               was the listening

the way a searchlight listens over a lake
               it was the prayer-word out of your mouth

your thousand-noun request
               it goes up up to the florescent weather

was hurdle & burn      burning through
               the infinite      your overbright comet

was made of stones      made of berries & plastic & boxtops & eggshells
               it was like the word having reached the ear

& the words pollinated the dark      there was darkness there
                             like the afterhours inside a library

Talking to His Reflection in a Shallow Pond

For Yasunari Kawabata

Chrysanthemum and nightshade:
I live on them,
though air is what I need.
I wish I could breathe like you,
asleep, or even awake,
just resting your head
on the pillow wrapped in black crepe
that I brought you from Sweden.
I hoped you’d die,
your mouth open, lips dry and split,
and red like pomegranate seeds.
But now, I only want you to suffer.
I drop a stone in the pond
and it sinks through you.
Japan isn’t sliding into the Pacific
this cool April morning, you are.
Yasunari Kawabata, I’m talking to you;
just drop like that stone
through your own reflection.
You stretch your lean hands toward me
and I take them.
Water covers my face, my whole head,
as I inhale myself:
cold, very cold.

Suddenly, I pull back.
For a while, I watch you struggle,
then I start walking back to my studio.
But something is wrong.
There’s water everywhere
and you’re standing above me.
I stare up at you from the still, clear water.
You open your mouth and I open mine.
We both speak slowly.
Brother, you deserve to suffer,
You deserve the best:
this moment, death without end.

Evergreen

I whisper to the tree, the tree,
the murmuring Tree
“I might take action”

Is romantic
Snow sun melts into streams increasing in volume
I control with my lips

Around History. Our eyes meet. White ancient
Roar I hear stream-
Side, my invisible dress threatening

A slow death. The rest I want to carry
So I listen
For the tree, and its never quite obsolete magic.