This month The Common offers a selection of poems from the anthology Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by and for Refugees, forthcoming in November from Olive Branch Press, an imprint of Interlink Publishing Group.
A POETRY ANTHOLOGY THAT ILLUMINATES EXILE AND DISPLACEMENT
Making Mirrors began on two continents, envisioned by Palestinian poet and aid worker, Jehan Bseiso, and Becky Thompson, a US-based poet changed by months of greeting refugees after their perilous journey across the Aegean Sea.
This anthology uses mirrors to reflect imagistic connections that allow us to see ourselves in each other, those on rafts and those standing on the shore, those waiting/writing in detention and those writing from places of relative safety, those who lift their children to the sky and those whose bodies are at the bottom of the sea.
Making Mirrors offers a poetics of belonging—to the earth, family, and memories packed into backpacks. The poems go beyond refugee/citizen binaries and illuminate exile as a forced/creative space.
As the refugee crisis fades from the front page of newspapers, this collection is a plea against historical amnesia and inertia; the poems are an antidote that reaches beyond despair to renewed action.
Sholeh Wolpé | “The World Grows Blackthorn Walls”
Nathalie Handal | “Beit”
Abbas Sheikhi | “In the Belly of the Sea”
Sharif S. Elmusa | “I Want My House to Stand”
Adele Ne Jame | “A Chouf Lament”
Gbenga Adesina | “What She Says”
Zeina Azzam | “Leaving My Childhood Home”
The World Grows Blackthorn Walls
Tall, stiff and spiny.
Try to make it to the other side
and risk savage thorns.
We who left home in our teens,
children who crossed boundaries and were torn
by its thousand serrated tongues,
who have we become?
We who bear scars that bloom and bloom
beneath healed skins,
where are we going?
I ask myself
is home my ghost?
Does it wear my underwear
folded neatly in the antique chest
of drawers I bought twenty years ago?
Or nest inside my blouse that hangs
from a metal hanger I’ve been meaning to discard?
Is it lost between the lines of books
shelved alphabetical in a language
I was not born to? Or here on the lip
of this chipped cup left behind
by a lover long gone?
Why do they call us alien,
as if we come from other planets?
I carry seeds in my mouth, plant
turmeric, cardamom, and tiny
aromatic cucumbers in this garden,
water them with rain I wring
from my grandmother’s songs.
They will grow, I know, against
these blackthorn walls. They are magic.
They can push through anything,
I left home at thirteen.
I hadn’t lived enough to know how
not to love.
Home was the Caspian Sea, the busy bazaars,
the aroma of kebab and rice, friday
lunches, picnics by mountain streams.
I never meant to stay away.
But they said come back
and you will die.
Exile is a suitcase full of meanings. I fill up
a hundred notebooks with scribbles.
And when I am done I throw them into fire
and begin to write again; this time
tattooing the words on my forehead.
This time, writing only not to forget.
Complacency is communicable
like the common cold.
I swim upstream to lay my purple eggs.
Spirits urge and spirits go,
But I write postcards only to the future.
What is a transplanted tree
But a time being
Who has adapted to adoption?
They say draw sustenance from this land,
but look how my fruits hang in spirals
and smell of old notebooks and lace.
Perhaps it’s only in exile that spirits arrive.
They weep and wail at the door of the temple
where I sit at the edge of an abyss.
But even this is an illusion.
I dream of a house where the ghosts are quiet
where their shape is like a sound in black,
well-defined and formless,
where I will invite everyone I know
and those I haven’t met yet—
Will they come?
I will tell them to take a branch
from a tree and sit around the table—
in each leaf, an ancient pattern
from the Canaanites or the Greeks—
Strange are the lights that insist
on holding the walls together
but they do—don’t they?
Will they come?
Will they move silently
in all directions of one room
and tell me the only story I want to hear—
that of a house in a country intact
with a grotto that gives hope
all the shapes of the universe?
In the Belly of the SEa
We were in a boat
we were afraid of the darkness
the waves sent us to the sky
and the sky cried for us
women were crying
and men were praying
I prayed but didn’t cry
because of my small daughter
our son in my wife’s belly
whispered to us, don’t worry
the sea calmed down
God’s eye saw us.
SHARIF S. ELMUSA
I Want My House to Stand
I see. The houses are rubble,
twisted bars, stunned ghosts.
This is my shelter.
Many sleep and wake under the same roof.
Meals and stories from the same containers.
I hear. I lost my wife.
My daughter ran toward me:
Dad, I’m not afraid.
My son sits in the corner:
I don’t like my mom,
she doesn’t want to come back.
I lost nine members of my family.
Nine chairs are left empty.
I hear. I see. Sorrow mingles with the bread,
dust with the cold tea.
Sorrow piles up. Piles up:
The severed limbs of many loves,
the kids who will remain on holiday.
Time is slow, time flows into an icebox.
I hear. Why do they do this to us? Why?
A sport? To make us succumb?
I hear. The good helpers are unable to comfort.
The shelter does not shelter.
I want my house to stand.
I want the walls back
To weep alone
To hang pictures.
ADELE NE JAME
A Chouf Lament
celebrate your land’s spring
and set yourself a flame like its flowers
after M. Darwish
You wonder what will you do without
the cedars—the winding road up the mountain,
even the vegetable stand on the side of it
with the young boy piling okra and
green beans into his baskets to sell
there. His whole Chouf life
ahead of him—at least you’d like to think.
What will you do without the almond tree
and the mulberry in the March sun—.
And the mountain wind
shaking everything here alive.
The red earth, red clouds moving
over the village terraced
into the side of mountain. The sun—
insatiable. The hoopoe that flutters
her way up through the red clouds
to the snowy cedars. The blasted roses
in the rock gardens that are gathered by
villagers and distilled into perfumed
water to wash the bodies of the dead.
This is what you find in the high places:
the flourish of spring and the violence that
hangs in the red air.
The windblown cedars not far above
the abandoned stone houses,
Arabic script on a rotting window sill.
Homage to the ones marched into a snowy field,
their names inscribed on the wall in
St Michel’s—where William rang the bells
beautifully one morning
so that we might forget
for a moment how, like the fields of
the wild red anemone, we are waving
our songs in the air before night falls.
Note: The Chouf refers to a high area of villages in Mount Lebanon, where one of the two last stands of the cedars of Lebanon referred to as” the cedars of the lord” remain at about 6,000 feet.
What She Says
I touch my belly
And say to him die
Wither, river out, do not
Become a thing.
I say to him
Stay as night. You are night.
No dawn, no dawn.
* Translated from what a girl of 13 who had been kidnapped, raped and
became pregnant by a Boko Haram fighter said she would say to her
belly in the mornings
Leaving My Childhood Home
On our last day in Beirut
with my ten years packed in a suitcase,
my best friend asked for a keepsake.
I found a little tin box
to give her, emptied of lemon drops,
that would hold memories of our childhood:
us swinging in the dusty school yard,
rooftop hide and seek,
wispy-sweet jasmine, kilos
of summertime figs, King
of Falafel’s tahini-bathed sandwiches,
our pastel autograph books.
All those remembrances
crammed in that box,
tiny storytellers waiting to speak.
Later her family would uproot too,
transplant like surly Palestinian weeds
pulled every few years.
We all knew about this,
even the kids.
I never saw her again
but know that she also
learned to travel lightly,
hauling empty boxes
pulsing with kilos
Copyright © individual poets; reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Gbenga Adesina, a young Nigerian poet, is a Starworks Poetry Fellow at New York University where he teaches undergraduate creative writing. His work has been published in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere.
Zeina Azzam is a Palestinian American writer, editor, poet, and activist. She volunteers for organizations that promote Palestinian human rights and civil rights of vulnerable communities in Alexandria, Virginia, where she lives. Zeina holds an M.A. in Arabic literature.
Sharif S. Elmusa. A widely-published poet, scholar and translator, he is the author of the poetry collection Flawed Landscape and co-editor with Greg Orfalea of Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab America. Elmusa grew up in the refugee camp of al-Nuway’mah, near the ancient town of Jericho, Palestine.
Nathalie Handal’s most recent book, the flash collection The Republics, is the winner of the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and the Arab American Book Award. Nathalie is a professor at Columbia University and writes the literary travel column The City and the Writer for Words without Borders.
Adele Ne Jame teaches poetry at Hawaii Pacific University. She has published four books of poems including The Southwind (2011) and has received numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts in Poetry, an Elliot Cades Award for Literature and a Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for poetry.
Abbas Sheikhi, is an Iranian poet who traveled by raft with his daughter and pregnant wife to Lesvos, Greece. He and his wife studied English and volunteered at Khora, a refugee center in Athens, as a Farsi interpreter with Lawyers without Borders. They now live in Munich. “Here spring comes/green grasses/cover ground/colorful flowers/come out of the grass/ dew sits on their calyxes/and wash their faces/the birds sing songs/say life is beautiful/and just one time/l say to myself/ I don’t miss it/yes everything/ is beautiful/ but here, is not my home.”
Sholeh Wolpé was born in Iran. The inaugural 2018 Writer-in-Residence at UCLA, her literary work to date numbers over 12 collections of poetry, translations, and anthologies, as well as several plays.