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“still life with my mother’s hijab” & poem –Safia Elhillo

on September 12 | in Poetry | by | with No Comments

on a beach in france a veiled woman
is         in keeping with the law
stripped      & expected to say thank you
for freeing me 
        the photograph
circles a world that agrees it is time
to liberate these women those
people          you people         so backwards
with your cloth         your refugees & your
        today i am at the mall with my mother
& she wears a hat instead         to cover her hennaed hair
small reprieve from the eyes that soak themselves
daily into her body         we see another woman at the food court
in the same scarfless hijab
each curl tucked carefully away
the nape of her neck red & blinking
from its first day in the sun

maghrib, new york city
the day ends       & i kneel crookedly in the half-
light       wiping black kohl from my eyelids
i snake my hair to little braids       slick with oil
& more oil to kiss away the red caked onto my mouth
i gleam into the bathroom mirror       cool water
in my hands              outside it is dark & i want to say his name
a woman died to give me mine       without her what could i name
myself       which do i know in all my half-
languages         my parallel life lived back across the water
he too was this way         world broken by oceans an island
remapped         the quiet parts where language fails in the mouth
i was a darkness in his bed         sunless shining like oil
forgive the way i know the world to be         broken by oceans & oil
forgive the way i crowd my quieter hurts & give them all his name
he’d go silent gathering smoke         burning village in his mouth
what sort of country could we have been         combining our half-
homes our shared forgetting         a life spent mostly behind eyelids
(the plants he brought would die         it was dark         i would drink all the water)
& what of the illness we didn’t share             the blood thin as water
sliding around inside my body                 i lived alone in fever’s sweat & oil
turning the bedsheets a blacker blue              my better selves pressed against my eyelids
& waited their turn to love him                  practiced the smoke taste of his name
he wasn’t mine & i belonged             only to my silence                      to my half-
sleep             i wake in the dark craving fruit             taut skin pressed to my cracked mouth
if i wake a different girl          would he know me by my mouth
or at all          would he learn my new body          alive like boiling water
the loud & fluent language that in my dreams i always have
i’d make a new heart          fresh in butcher paper          fried in onions & bright oil
& what if i had a country          then what would be my name
(& the plants would stay alive                   the spearmint                   the violets)
safia-enhillo-headshot-nn-by-ahmed-aladdin-abushakeema-img_1152Safia Elhillo’s first full-length collection, The January Children, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, she received an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. In addition to appearing in several journals and anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, her work has been translated into Arabic and Greek.

(Photo Credit: Ahmed Aladdin Abushakeema)

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