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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, March 16, 2017.
About this Poem 

“This poem attempts to capture in brief moments the depth of our invisibilities as we move and shift from one place to another. Our sense of place is not only lost, but constantly questioned, probed—and this kind of incessant interrogation lets us to believe there is no sense of dignity in our places of origin, in our names. And even though what the world is doing to us is not new, it breaks us every time.”
—Mahtem Shiferraw

Nomenclatures of Invisibility

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, eyes sewn shut,
how to tell them
the sorrow that splits us in half
the longing for a land not our own
the constant moving and shifting of things,
within, without—

which words describe
the clenching in our stomachs
the fear lodged deeply into our bones
churning us from within,

and the loss that follows us everywhere:
behind mountains, past oceans, into
the heads of trees, how to swallow
a tongue that speaks with too many accents—

when white faces sprout
we are told to set ourselves ablaze
and this smell of smoke we know—
water or fire, or both,

because we have drowned many at a time
and left our bodies burning, or swollen, or bleeding
and purple—this kind of language we know,
naming new things into our invisibility
and this, we too, call home.
 

Copyright © 2017 by Mahtem Shiferraw. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 16, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2017 by Mahtem Shiferraw. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 16, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Mahtem Shifferaw

Mahtem Shiferraw

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