A poem-in Arabic, no less

February 13, 2014

I wrote this ages ago. My Arabic is epically bad and remains where it was, at a 4th grade level. With thanks to my friend Sultan and, of course, the great Mahmoud Darwish, one of the finest poets of all time.

صور ثابتة من منزل في أطلال

الأطفال لن يتوقفوا عن الصياح حتى ترسل الشمس خيوطها , و هم مقّيدون
الى الجذور الخضراء لأغنيتنا الخجولة .. نادهم الى جنبك , أماه ! , حيث تهويداتك
تكمن جنبا الى جنب مع ذكرياتهم , مع الأنهار في عيونهم اليائسة .. و لتسلمي سقف
في بتلات ابتسامة .. أماه ! , هل ستعيديهم الى الرحم حيث هم مجهولي الهوّية ؟
هل ستسرقين من عيونهم هذا المنفى و تطيينه في كل الأماكن الصحيحة , حتى هو يكون
محض قصائد ؟
لقد فقدنا مدن قريبة جدا من الأرض ,, حتى في هذه الأنقاض
يجب أن تكون هناك أغنية ….

أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة من شبابك , ليست هذه , تلك الأخرى عندما
كلاكما تمرحان تحت الزيتون , أنت و هو , معسّل الأطراف تتشابك عادة , و العشاّق يهبطون
الى الأرض لجرة الذاكرة الحافظة .. أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة , مخبأة
فقط في فضيات فظيعة لأمك , لا النشوة نفسها , لا القمة مطلب , لا عظام , في كل مكان , لا غضروف .
تعال , غن لنا من الأشياء العتيقة , ابن بيت للذاكرة مع خيوط من شعرك ..
يجب على أطفالنا أن لا يتوقفوا عن البكاء حتى الفجر ,
عندما يجبرون من قبل فرق نارية للملائكة العليا على التخلي عن أنشودتهم ..
ملائكة , تعالوا الى جانبنا , حيث أشعتهم تتحد مع ضوء السماء .
أخبرهم أن أجسادهم هي وحوش , أخبرهم أن حوافرهم تنمو ,
أن ظهورهم تزهر مع عبء الحقيقة ..
أخبرهم أن جرس كبيرة معّلقة تحت ذقونهم
أخبرهم أن يمشون من دون صوت

This is an edited excerpt from my first ever attempt at a novel, from about five-six years ago. I don’t know why I’m busting this out now.

Sitting on her sparse chair in the corner of the yard under the shade of an old tree that no one had ever classified on account of its substantial foliage, she decided to name the world Luis.

The yard had not seen much rain the last year. The vegetable crop had withered in chunks of roughage to her right, and if she had the patience to water it, she was sure it would at least be grateful for the nourishment. Luisa didn’t, however. She never did. She liked to sit out in the yard on sunny days and imagine the world outside her walls and ever so often, she would think of a man, Luis, who was just like her, only an older gentleman, dressed in a breezy cotton shirt with lapels the color of their eyes and he was smiling and she was too and all was well between them and the world and thus she had no choice but to name the entire world Luis.

The entrance to the yard was a dark metal gate of fauns and satyrs and the trellis was bare beside. She imagined the dark gates creaking open the way they did for the milkman who made his rounds every morning. She heard the patter of a child’s feet, stumbling uneasily into the yard. She saw herself preparing for the long winter standing in her grey housecoat and in her ear, she heard Luis whisper in tongues and every fourth word was querida. And by the time he had reached the two sixteenth word, Luis’ tongue had already made her shudder and she’d forgotten where she lived and why it was lucky that it had not rained.

The air was weak and smelling of disease. The last month alone had seen fifty-seven people take to the beds of The Hospice of Our Lady of Civil Tongue. Half of them had sores and boils on their lower back-arse-and thighs. Nothing much could be done about them. They lay in the smells of their own refuse. Her friend Hanna brought up the topic every day, the poor dear. Hanna was a nurse. Luisa thought of Hanna’s plain starched uniform and how she’d reacted when she told her she’d named all Hanna’s patients Luis. They lived in her world after all. This was Luis’ world and all the people in it were him also. Mad Luis, giggling hysterically as he poked his fingers in his refuse; cynical Luis, resigned and apathetic, the only sane person in the sardine-can; crazy Luis, sniffing his fingers and sucking them questioningly; even tired Luis who was really a girl and photographer Luis who scrawled his socialist beliefs on the wall in his own blood in a slanted scrawl. The clock indoors struck four. The telephone, prompt as ever, rang dully four times without a response and before it could stop, little Simon climbed over the garden wall and hurried towards Luisa’s chair.

“Mama needed to go to the ferry and here’s your food, Luisa,” he said, setting a steel tub of food on the bench. “I’m supposed to stay with you tonight.”
“Yes, yes,” she replied. “But you must promise not to make any noise. A gentleman’s coming to visit your Aunty Luisa. Be a mouse, will you?”
“Okay,” said the boy and was gone into the house, which like her, had turned fifty the previous year. He would return with a deck of cards like he usually did. But for now, she was alone in the yard with a container of black beans and rice on her lap and she began thinking of Luis, who hadn’t returned to her in so long.

She blamed Luis’s absence on the moon and all those girls from the big towns who surely he hated for their easy virtue. She said a prayer for Luis, counting off beads on her rosary that was allegedly blessed by His Holiness. Luis’ tongue was fire when he swore to return to her and she knew from looking at him that there was love in his eyes and that she’d forgive anything. In her mind’s eye, she knew this was exactly how the apostles had won the world over, with fiery tongue and a rumbling, misguided love. A trespass would do her good, she mused. Her last had swollen her belly and knocked the wind out of her and two teeth but she whistled when she spoke and no one could take away her joy at hearing her new magical whistle. Like a child, her breath came out of her in gasps. Ever so often, her breath would coalesce into a little-girl sigh through the partition in her incisors. Luis had done this, also. The gap in her teeth was rather endearing, her friends had said, and there was no need to get it fixed, they asserted, and she knew what they weren’t telling her was that the only dentist was also named Luis.

She laughed, a melodic whistle-laugh, and thought to herself, how is it that I may think of myself when I have named everything Luis and at once, a dried-up leaf alighted upon her belly-button.

Zarabanda (short story)

March 26, 2011

This is my first attempt at fiction in a very long time. So pardon the morbidness.

At the funeral, the priest, Fr. Benedict, thrust two Polaroids of Elicia Castellanos into my hands. I recognized them instantly, I had to say, even though Elicia’s body, by then lowered, covered, bore no resemblance to the pictures Fr. Benedict presented me, shot through with the ugly sepia of an early summer. I studied the pictures with a hungry eye. I pored over them, aware of my hatred for myself growing steadily. Hatred, most of all, for the unfortunate circumstance of Elicia’s death. As you can imagine, all of this was happening against my will.

I knew I was fated to never see Elicia Castellanos again, and yet, there I was, presented with her leavings. By a priest, no less. Such finality! Surely, you understand why I would be distressed by the discomfort I saw coursing through the translucent patchwork of Elicia’s veins. Her unease, hammering at the crow’s feet of her eyes. Are you all right? the priest asked me. I shook my head. I’ll be fine, Father. I thanked him for his time and asked his permission to look away.

The mourners collected their sorrows and moved single-file into the black transports of their lives.

Free at last, I gave myself a moment to collect my thoughts. I set myself down at the foot of an ancient oak tree. I was out of breath. Why had this incident distressed me so? I did not know. She was gone. I had pictures. Plenty of pictures. There was nothing special about these Polaroids. This much was fact. I loosened my tie and sat very still in the afternoon’s glare, half of my face shadowed by leaves. Surely, I said aloud, I had been with Elicia through every day of her long march into illness. God and I, her constant companions, she had always said. Then it struck me. The answer. What upset me was my own absence in these last reckonings. What I did not see in the picture, after all, was my body. Where was I? I had lived with her all her adult life. Where was I? Who had taken the picture? Was it me or was it someone else? In her final leavings, what space did I occupy?

Elicia Castellanos’ favourite song was a piece of furniture by Erik Satie. Zarabanda. Our first dance. Oh Elicia, that it were not my favorite also! I could hear it looped in the background of the pictures Fr. Benedict had thrust into my hands. Our cat, on her lap, asleep in some nightmare, its claws digging into the soft flesh of her thigh. The crucifix wrapped tightly around Elicia’s left wrist. Curious, I thought, how curious, and in a moment of rashness, found myself leaping up and running towards the cavernous cemetery gate.

There, at the threshold, I found the priest and retrieved the pictures from his jacket. I must know, I said, there is something further still.

My gaze returned to Elicia, poor, gaunt Elicia in the oppressive summer of our youth. I watched her grow steadily sicker the longer I gazed at her picture. Oh my poor attempts at medicine! Squinting, I could make out ten pinpricks in the soft material of her dress. nothing further could be ascertained with any degree of certainty.

The second picture was taken after the California earthquake of ’89. I could tell she hadn’t cleaned up because the pots were still overturned and our zinnias were leaking from them, crushed under the heavy clay.

I asked Fr. Benedict why he had chosen this moment to show me the Polaroids. These are obscene, I told him. He laughed. The Zarabanda was considered an erotic dance when it was first performed in Spain, he replied, clapping me on the back, humming to himself.

My dear friend Sultan Al-Shaaibi translated one of my poems for me. You probably can’t read it but I hope you think it’s cool 🙂 I can though I’ve forgotten most of the meanings of words. However, I like the sound of the words when I read it out loud a lot.

صور ثابتة من منزل في أطلال

الأطفال لن يتوقفوا عن الصياح حتى ترسل الشمس خيوطها , و هم مقّيدون
الى الجذور الخضراء لأغنيتنا الخجولة .. نادهم الى جنبك , أماه ! , حيث تهويداتك
تكمن جنبا الى جنب مع ذكرياتهم , مع الأنهار في عيونهم اليائسة .. و لتسلمي سقف
في بتلات ابتسامة .. أماه ! , هل ستعيديهم الى الرحم حيث هم مجهولي الهوّية ؟
هل ستسرقين من عيونهم هذا المنفى و تطيينه في كل الأماكن الصحيحة , حتى هو يكون
محض قصائد ؟
لقد فقدنا مدن قريبة جدا من الأرض ,, حتى في هذه الأنقاض
يجب أن تكون هناك أغنية ….

أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة من شبابك , ليست هذه , تلك الأخرى عندما
كلاكما تمرحان تحت الزيتون , أنت و هو , معسّل الأطراف تتشابك عادة , و العشاّق يهبطون
الى الأرض لجرة الذاكرة الحافظة .. أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة , مخبأة
فقط في فضيات فظيعة لأمك , لا النشوة نفسها , لا القمة مطلب , لا عظام , في كل مكان , لا غضروف .
تعال , غن لنا من الأشياء العتيقة , ابن بيت للذاكرة مع خيوط من شعرك ..

يجب على أطفالنا أن لا يتوقفوا عن البكاء حتى الفجر ,
عندما يجبرون من قبل فرق نارية للملائكة العليا على التخلي عن أنشودتهم ..
ملائكة , تعالوا الى جانبنا , حيث أشعتهم تتحد مع ضوء السماء .
أخبرهم أن أجسادهم هي وحوش , أخبرهم أن حوافرهم تنمو ,
أن ظهورهم تزهر مع عبء الحقيقة ..
أخبرهم أن جرس كبيرة معّلقة تحت ذقونهم
أخبرهم أن يمشون من دون صوت

Chrysanthemum: a tanka

August 21, 2010

She is afraid of
her surname capitalized
sashimi tickled pink
but mostly her uterus
her steady undoing flesh

From the archives: Poem

February 21, 2009

Kevin Kilroy was kind enough to edit one of my old poems about war, written around the time of Katrina (three years of poetry workshop and I still don’t know how to linebreak, thanks UBC!) and I like it now. Thanks, Kevin. Also, Betsy for being awesome.

Still pictures from a House in Ruins

The children will not stop crying until it is dawn
and they are tethered to the green roots
of our timid song. Call them to your side, Mother,
so your lullabies shall lie alongside memories,
long-dead homes inside predators’ claws,
rivers in hopeless eyes, and surrender a roof
in the petals of their smile. Mother, will you
return them to the womb where they are faceless?
Will you steal from their eyes this exile and fold it
in all the right places, until it is composed only of poems?
We have lost cities where once there was earth
and in this rubble, there has to be song.