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Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.Elhillo is the recipient of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and SPACE on Ryder Farm. She lives in Washington, D.C.

By This Poet

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my roommate one year in college
would say of my smallness 
that any man who found me attractive
had a trace of the pedophilic  


& i would shrink                    newly girled
twenty-one with my eyebrows
plucked to grownup arches             sprouting
back every three weeks  
in sharp little shoots             already men         
have tried to steal me


in their taxis   corral me into alleyways
of the new city            already
the demand  for my name              though
no one ever asks how old i am


though no one ever did      i feel creaking
& ancient in the repetition
of it all   i feel my girlhood gone for
generations    my entire
line of blood crowded with exhausted
women            their unlined faces 


frozen in time            with only a thickness
about the waist          a small shoot
of gray to belie the years


i make up names to hand
to strangers at parties  
i trim years from my age & share without
being asked    that i am
fifteen              seventeen      & no one blinks  
no one             stops wanting       


i am disappeared      like all the girls
before me    around me 
all the girls to come             


everyone thinks
i am a little girl & still
they hunt me               still they show their teeth        
i am so tired i am
one thousand  years old          one thousand
years older when touched

Transport

sour heat of the taxicab                   my thighs stuck by sweat to the leather
in the aperture of the sunless hours                         i sit scarved in the quiet
that i think will protect me                    i’ve spent days inside & untouched
by human noise                            & i forget the lesson in the old hurts
that mark my kneaded body                   & sometimes i do not even register
the hands that steer the vehicle                       the man from which they protrude

until his eyes in the mirror hook the light     & i see his want thrusting
into the backseat                   a leer scraping like a fingernail along my skin
dumb prey shut in the cage with its wolf                    while his looking catalogs
my edible parts             gleaming in stripes by the streetlights & hushed
in brief sanctuary by the dark                    & the silence i’ve gathered will throb
when he asks is this where you live & i work to keep my face unchanged

& maybe sometime in the dimming past                       i was still unmarked
my girlhood body unoccupied by warning      its curiosity still free to extend
to a strange or recognized hand                       engineering an unfamiliar ache
before my shame became my native tongue        became the sovereign of my flesh
i had my milkteeth    smiled green as a seedling in photographs      in their silence
i was pure & cloistered      & i did not yet need to take inventory

for my body to feel like mine       the driver’s eyes displace me & leave behind a list
of ways i can be hurt            of all the places i am a door                 its use unaltered
by my yes or no     outside the streetlights change to a bridge’s trusses & i say nothing
the car points into a borough not my own                while i watch the distance swell
between my watching   & the slab of girl fastened to the backseat     useless little carcass
so faraway in her smallness    & already going missing   already bored by pain

& sometimes even those whose touch i choose      who mean me only tenderness
will with their smell or voice or a trick of the light      or the faintest touch of an index
finger    trip the latch that lets me out to the space      above my peeled & emptied rind
when i return i tell this to my lover       who braids himself to me & makes me new
who takes into his mouth my broken name       & in an exhale of smoke it emerges
weathered but complete & still mine             until i remake myself from stillness

& drape myself in the life of a different girl      rupture smoothed over like the noiseless
surface of a lake             & in the taxi i look out to the evening’s copper bruising
i give directions                   i push away his looking & feel my body reinflate
i dial my lover’s voice     the car points homeward & my old panic melts back into its archive
when he fills the backseat with sound                   & maybe i can be reborn
as a girl who does not go missing     a girl someone will look for    no longer the decorative husk

men make me with their want               the quiet shrinks & i come unstuck from the leather
i come unstuck from my hurts           pay my fare & debark the car untouched
my home protrudes like a lighthouse from the night        i settle the body      mine to register

how to say

in the divorce i separate to two piles                 books: english      love songs: arabic
my angers   my schooling    my long repeating name       english    english     arabic

i am someone’s daughter but i am american born        it shows in my short memory
my ahistoric glamour     my clumsy tongue when i forget the word for [   ] in arabic

i sleep         unbroken dark hours on airplanes home           & dream i’ve missed my
connecting flight      i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic

i dream my alternate selves               each with a face borrowed from photographs of
the girl who became my grandmother   brows & body rounded & cursive like arabic

but wake to the usual borderlands     i crowd shining slivers of english to my mouth
iris    crocus   inlet   heron         how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic

& what even is translation       is immigration        without irony         safia
means pure           all my life it’s been true           even in my clouded arabic