Four poems by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Dhayaa

In my language
the word for loss is a wide open cry,
a gaping endless possibility.
In English loss sounds to me like one shuddering blow to the heart,
all sorrow and absence hemmed in,
falling into a neatly rounded hole,
such tidy finality.

In my language
the word for loss is a long vowel stretched
taut and anchored between behemoth consonants, reverberating—
a dervish word
whirling on itself
in infinite emptiness
the widening gyre,
the eternal motion of grief.

Eating the Earth

And to the flour
add water, only
a thin stream whispering gathered
rains of a reticent winter.

And to the flour add oil, only
a glistening thread snaking through
ridges and ravines of what
sifts through your fingers,
what sinks, moist and burdened
between your palms.

And in the kneading
hinge forward, let the weight
of what you carry on your shoulders,
the luster of your language, shade
of your story press into the dough.

And to the dough bring
the signature of your fingertips, stretch
the canvas before you, summer linen
of wheat and autumn velvet of olive oil,
smooth like a map
of silence and fragrance,
of invisible terrains of memory.

And on the dough let the green leaves
fall, drenched
sumac stars flickering among them
shards of onion in their midst.

Scatter them as the wind would
or gather them in the center of this earth
and fold them into the tender embrace
of the dough, cool and soft beneath their bodies.

And make a parcel of the dough,
filled with foraged souvenirs,
fold them in, and then again,
let their silhouettes gaze back at you.
Recall found treasures of hillside
wandering; flint, thorn
blossom and a hoopoe
feather carried home in your skirt.

And to the flames surrender
the bread, gift of your hands.
Grasp its tender edges and turn it
as the heat strafes and chars
this landscape you have caressed.
Some grandmothers sing as they bake,
others speak prayers.

And let the edges bristle to the color
of earth, let the skin of the bread scar.
The song of zaatar simmering
in its native oil rises up
and time evaporates. You are young
again, it is spring
in the greening valley.

*zaatar – wild thyme native to the Levant

Intifada Portrait
for Ramzi

I have a Palestinian friend
who drinks coffee with me once in a while
and tells me stories of the Intifada.

“Who can erase those days from the memory of time?
The land will never forget our footsteps
pounding against bullets and tear gas.
My skin remembers it.”

I grew up watching it on the news,
the nightly accounting of young broken bones,
the women in sensible skirts
and the boys in kuffiyehs
who all woke up one morning and had enough.

I have a Palestinian friend
who lived that rainy winter
stone to stone
who swayed over the hairpin edge of death
who shouldn’t even be here today
to talk about it.

I have a Palestinian friend
whose eyes are like two pools of olive
oil about to ignite.
They swarm with stars as he tells me
about his Intifada portrait.

“The Israeli soldiers showed it to me in jail.
They have cameras that can get a close up
of every pore in your skin!
Shit! Is that really me?
I was flying
above the black smoke
from the burning tires…”

He leans over his coffee cup,
“…a stone in my clenched fist,
ready to strike!”

His eyes narrow now,
his voice drops to a low rumble.
“Who is going to erase that
from their memory?”

Gone to Feed the Roses

“More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

Unseasonably warm today, and green
pierces through January earth saturated,
earth that shifts like a lover, wrestling silent
nightmares deep into darkness.

Four years ago we embraced, sleep-
walking through the moonlit square,
four years ago our slogans were winter
coats and our throats were bonfires.
How our words dissolve in tear gas,
how the thorn of who our neighbors are
pierces without warning. What
happens next is only human.

Unseasonably light today, no clouds to obscure
glass eye of the sun staring at us
docile winter-worn wanting
for anything that tastes of spring —
we’ll sip poison if it’s served in pretty teacups.

What is that poem? Something about roses,
I can’t recall but I know a woman wrote it.
I know it as a mother
knows in her bone marrow
that a child who has gone missing from the street
hasn’t just turned the corner to chase after a stray ball
but has been taken,
knows in her bone marrow,
with the dirty fingernails grip of certainty,
that the child will
not return breathing.

I can’t remember the poem
about roses and witness,
the delirium of all that perfume
ornamental blades of thorns
petals like mouths writhing muted
for the fallen as they scatter,
trampled underfoot.

I know she was a woman,
that poet who wrote of roses,
just as a woman marched to the edge
of memory, four years after
a dream soured into nightmare
with a wreath of roses,
her words trickling out of her head
a rose-red poem spilling on the streets of her city.

in memory of poet Shaymaa Sabbagh, poet of Alexandria, killed on the 4th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.