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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, June 13, 2017.
About this Poem 

“This poem is the first time I’ve put down in writing the scary thought that I may no longer be fluent in Arabic, my first language and mother tongue. And while it is a space to mourn, it is a space to also take ownership of my hyphens, of the hybrid worlds and languages I live in. I chose the ghazal as its form for its ancientness and lineage, a reminder that I came from somewhere as I strike out into new worlds.”
—Safia Elhillo

how to say

in the divorce i separate to two piles                 books: english      love songs: arabic
my angers   my schooling    my long repeating name       english    english     arabic

i am someone’s daughter but i am american born        it shows in my short memory
my ahistoric glamour     my clumsy tongue when i forget the word for [   ] in arabic

i sleep         unbroken dark hours on airplanes home           & dream i’ve missed my
connecting flight      i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic

i dream my alternate selves               each with a face borrowed from photographs of
the girl who became my grandmother   brows & body rounded & cursive like arabic

but wake to the usual borderlands     i crowd shining slivers of english to my mouth
iris    crocus   inlet   heron         how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic

& what even is translation       is immigration        without irony         safia
means pure           all my life it’s been true           even in my clouded arabic

 

Copyright © 2017 by Safia Elhillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2017 by Safia Elhillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). 

by this poet

poem
sour heat of the taxicab                   my thighs stuck by sweat to the leather
in the aperture of the sunless hours                         i sit scarved in the quiet
that i think will protect me                    i’ve