poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

Recorded for Poem-a-Day, May 16, 2018.
About this Poem 

“It is difficult to contain the plights of the nomads, the immigrants, in a language. It is filled with displacement, disarray, a thick grief. It is lonely. It is humbling. It breaks us, slowly, slowly. But we can talk about it in bits and pieces. And part of being an immigrant is having to start over again, having to begin in a new land, a new life, without forgetting the old one. Having a new identity, a new name, a new self. To begin—without a home, walking in solitude; to begin in silence. This poem is an attempt to give space to that.”
—Mahtem Shiferraw

Beginnings

This is not how it begins
but how you understand it.
 
I walk many kilometers and
find myself to be the same—
 
the same moon hovering over
the same, bleached sky,
 
and when the officer calls me
it is a name I do not recognize,
a self I do not recognize.
 
We are asked to kneel, or
stand still, depending on which land
we embroider our feet with—
 
this one is copious with black blood
or so I am told.
 
Someone calls me by the skin
I did not know I had
and to this I think—language,
 
there must be a language
that contains us all
that contains all of this.
 
How to disassemble
the sorrow of beginnings,
 
how to let go, and not,
how to crouch beneath other bodies
how to stop breathing, how not to.
 
Our fathers are not elders here;
they are long-bearded men
shoving taxi cabs and sprawled
in small valet parking lots—
 
at their sight, my body dims its light
(a desiccated grape)
and murmur, Igziabher Yistilign—
our pride, raw-purple again.
 
We begin like this: all of us
walking in solitude
walking a desert earth and
unforgiving bodies. We cross lines
we dare not speak of; we learn and
unlearn things quickly, or intentionally slow
(because, that, we can control)
and give ourselves new names
because these selves must be new
to forget the old blue.
 
But, sometimes, we also begin like this:
on a cold, cold night
memorizing escape routes
kissing the foreheads of small children
hiding accat in our pockets,
a rosary for safekeeping.
 
Or, married off to men thirty years our elders
big house, big job, big, striking hands.
 
Or, thinking of the mouths to feed.
 
At times
we begin in silence;
 
water making its way into our bodies—
rain, or tears, or black and red seas
until we are ripe with longing.

Copyright © 2018 by Mahtem Shiferraw. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 16, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets

Copyright © 2018 by Mahtem Shiferraw. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 16, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets

Mahtem Shifferaw

Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw is the author of Fuchsia (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

by this poet

poem

My ancestors are made with water—
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;

when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.

Our mothers burn with a fire
that does not let them be;

they whisper our names
nomenclatures of invisibility
honey-dewed faces

2