For My Friends, in Reply to a Question by Safia Elhillo
For My Friends, in Reply to a Question
but I go through the motions. I wake up
to the alarm’s howl, even when the word
in my body is no. I dress in livid colors.
I blacken the hairs of each eyebrow. I bake
& braise & pickle. I write & read & lose
hours to the blur of the television. I sit
for hours in the bath, my skin puckering.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go home again.
I don’t know who I’ve seen for the last time.
The Arabic comes back to me in streaks
of paint, verb forms & vocabularies
I may never again have occasion to use.
My days smudge into one another & it’s not
that I am afraid. It’s as if I am watching it
all happen below, & I am somewhere above
the room, wondering if the rice is burning.
I am somewhere above the room, watching
my new aches, watching the news as if
I am reading it in a novel. I look up
the names of people I knew in childhood,
learn their new & angular faces, their
faraway lives. My grandfather pixelates
into a smile & I work my creaking muscles
to replicate it, I do not ask if we will ever
meet again, I do not ask him to read to me,
or for anything that will make me long.
I dull it with sugar & oil, with cooking shows,
with sleep. I sleep twelve hours each night
& in my dreams I am fleeing a war, in my dreams
I am touching the faces of my friends, we are
each one of us touching, & even in the dream
we are afraid.
It’s funny sometimes, the duality with which we live our lives. And by that I mean: the internal conflict that exists between presenting an outward façade of normalcy and grappling with genuine, underlying distress.
I have held on to my daily rituals as my way to cope, distract, or anchor myself amid internal chaos. When I make my coffee in the morning, I know I will get down to business and be at my desk shortly. When there are dirty dishes in my sink a few days old, I know my life has gone awry.
Have you felt it, the estrangement from all the harm you were able to leave behind?
It took a long time before I could say I really was okay. And by that I mean: safe.
What would life be without each one of us being able to touch.
This poem appeared in Girls That Never Die: Poems by Safia Elhillo, published by One World, 2022. Shared here with profound gratitude.
“In Girls That Never Die, award-winning poet Safia Elhillo reinvents the epic to explore Muslim girlhood and shame, the dangers of being a woman, and the myriad violences enacted and imagined against women’s bodies. Drawing from her own life and family histories, as well as cultural myths and news stories about honor killings and genital mutilation, she interlaces the everyday traumas of growing up a girl under patriarchy with magical realist imaginings of rebellion, autonomy, and power. Elhillo writes a new world: women escape their stonings by birds that carry the rocks away; slain girls grow into two, like the hydra of lore, sprouting too numerous to ever be eradicated; circles of women are deemed holy, protected. Ultimately, Girls That Never Die is about wrestling ourselves from the threats of violence that constrain our lives, and instead looking to freedom and questioning:
[what if i will not die]
[what will govern me then]“
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