Olive Amdur

Still Life 3: The Suburbs


A child in a car seat through the car window
Long Island, NY

Interior of a silver Volvo wagon, back door pockets stuffed with Candy Ring wrappers, pencils, and rocks; I am looking in the rear-view mirror or over my right shoulder into the backseat, my left hand on the wheel, right hand on the seat back next to me. Two small boys, both with eyes the exact color as my own, stare back at me, pleading or explaining or demanding or questioning or laughing or crying or sulking or fighting or trying to hide. The car smells vaguely Cheerio-like. No matter the music, the soundtrack is chatter and the rhythmic kicking of a seat back. They also like punching each other’s seat warmer buttons with their feet to be annoying.

Still Life 3: The Suburbs

The Library

Translated from the Arabic by NASHWA NASRELDIN

When my friends and I left the homeland, my second departure from Kuwait, there were five of us and ten suitcases. I knew exactly what was in each bag, just as I knew the pain and angst of the five travelers heading toward the unknown. The suitcases were packed with clothes, kitchenware, Indian spices, and various items we didn’t think we’d be able to find abroad. I could only bring four books with me from my vast library back home: Al-Mutannabi, in two parts; the collected works of Mahmoud Darwish; and just one of the volumes of The Unique Necklace. These would constitute the entire library I would survive on, for however long I ended up living in estrangement. Once we’d settled into our accommodation in a small house on Norris Drive in Ottawa, I arranged the books on the sleek wooden flooring, the place being still unfurnished. Then I sat back and simply gazed at them.

The Library

Aphorism 57: You Cannot Fail at Being You


We cherish ourselves even to the bones
which like some mother’s rigid hangers
hold us to our lacquered shapes in the smug 
dialetheia of am and briefly was until 
we come to our raveled ends       everyone 
just taking up space until space takes us back
one washed-out moment at a time        like tea 
leaves steeping in a cup until we’re ready 
for someone to bow in close and take
a quick ceremonial sip       then turn the cup
       wipe clean the rim and hand it carefully 
to yet another honored guest who       mindful 
of what we might let go to waste       will not 
leave until every drop is drunk.

Aphorism 57: You Cannot Fail at Being You

Jack Benny


John Ashbery called me after he died
So you can imagine my excitement
When in his droll hyper-nasalated
Timbre quite undiminished by death
He chatted on about the bowls of
Pitted cherries provided as snack-food
In the upper worlds and of afternoons
Climbing trees with Edna Millay to read
Comic books with her in the branches.
Then his voice dropped two octaves
And he spoke solemnly of Jack Benny:
‘You can say funny things or say things
Funny but silence was the punchline
For Jack Benny.’ And he was gone.

Jack Benny

Car Wash, Key Largo


2 Samuel 14:14

The soapy drench is physics drawn to river
toward me, 15 feet away in my flimsy
chair. At first its body fans to deliver
brims to concrete sinks I had not glimpsed,
then narrows to speed unveiling dips and bellies,
then courses on to a hole with a remnant pool
anchored by a cigar butt. A halt belies
its reaches. A lump has pushed the grey drool
around the promised lake in delta featherings
while another drive has passed beneath my seat
to rest in my colossal shadow, clearing
its slate of suds. The flow now ponds in the heat
and readies its ghost mirror to catch me, gray
in noon’s appraisals, the reaper of the day. 

Car Wash, Key Largo



Whatever you believe, know this: Teodoro Ramirez’s dog could see into the spirit world. Teddy, as he was called by everyone in barrio La Zavala, never shared this with anyone. Of course, the only people he could have shared this with would have been his co-workers or his tíos and tías, who only came by his house occasionally now that his mother, Josefina, had died, que en paz descanse. He probably could have told la Señora Izquierdo, the nice old lady who lived alone next door and brought him tamales every year when it was close to Christmas. She may not have believed him, but she would have listened.

Teddy believed lots of things his mother, Josefina, had told him and sometimes heard her voice even now that she was gone from this earth, the diabetes she’d had trouble controlling taking her too soon, que en paz descanse. Like if you went outside and got either your head or your feet wet, but not the rest of your body, you would catch a cold. If you ate hot flán or cake, your stomach would get sick. “Mi hijo,” she would say, “don’t eat that or you’ll get empachado.” If you pointed at a rainbow and then touched yourself without washing your hands, you would get pimples wherever you had touched yourself. But the one thing that helped Teddy comprehend how his dog was different was Josefina’s teachings about spirits. She had often said that any place—a house, a church, even a whole barrio—was imbued by either good or bad spirits that had influenced the events there. Teddy had even accompanied his mother on several limpias of homes, where she and the comadres from church anointed doorways with oil, waved bundles of burning sabio in hallways to clear the home of bad memories or mal espíritus that had plagued the families therein. 


Dear Customer

Translated from the Arabic by SAWAD HUSSAIN

Even not-happily-ever-after endings are preceded by a certain amount of speculation about what is to come. As a matter of course, all the important changes in organizational structure and relevant administrative decisions take place on the last Thursday of each month, ushered in by a few days heavy with anticipation and flare-ups among the employees.

Sabah sits in front of the computer screen, Americano in hand, trying to concisely respond to customer queries.

Dear Customer

Matryoshka in Odessa


When I started out, it was mostly about the adventure, 
following Ivan and the firebird, heading into history
across the Black Sea, climbing the Odessa steps
through the resistance, then the suppression
which fed yet another resistance, following 
Pushkin through the tangle of fairy tales 

Matryoshka in Odessa

The Human Revealed Unto Himself

Translated from the Arabic by NASHWA NASRELDIN

The cold stings your skin as you walk out of the hotel. It’s your first visit to Europe. You’re with a cultured friend who knows these countries well and, most importantly, is an art enthusiast. He immediately suggests, with a friendly and zealous shake of the head: “How about a museum?” And you think it’s a great idea. Restaurants, cafés, streets, tourists, crowded squares… they’re the same everywhere. But if you go to a museum, you’ll be able to show off about it to your co-workers. And it’ll be a conversation starter with Sarah, the woman you can’t stop staring at, who has an odd-looking painting in her office and who once told you that it was by someone called Dalí, although you’ve already forgotten the rest of the name.

The Human Revealed Unto Himself