Prayer

Everything I like is like that man who first thought to take that picture of that starving black child waited for by that black vulture in that Sudan. I like what I write. I am hurting myself by liking things. My words are maybe taking pictures of myself starving me. I tell myself stories in order to clutch my throat. My throat is clutched. Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die. I want to sleep now. I know I am holding this so tightly with sleep. I know I am screaming towards this with my sleeping. What should we ask of in a world whose only word is “Work”? People are not asking of us because they are busy. I am not asking of us because I am simulating being busy. This is the best deal. This is the unasked-for gift. If I saw a starving black child my first thought would not be to take this picture of myself. Or wake. Everyone is dying. There are such pretty words for this.

Photograph by Michelle Agins, “James Baldwin in Chicago”, 1983

Planting M&Ms

To make up for the lack of peacocks in Peacock Grocery below my apartment building, me and my Cousin Anan would buy mini M&Ms to cheer ourselves up, before our Ammas took us to walk in and out the little streets between the buildings and villas of Passport Road, Abu Dhabi. Don’t worry, Amma laughs, we have the passport to walk this street. On the way, me and Anan would pour M&Ms into each other’s hands, offerings of our cousinhood, like communion bread we were not old enough to partake in yet at St. Joseph’s church.

One day, a red M&M falls into the patch of empty sand between my apartment building and the sidewalk. It’s like a seed, maybe it will grow. Anan smiles wide-eyed as he plants his favourite green M&M next to the red and I drop a yellow one a few steps away because my science textbook says roots need space. Everytime we walked by that sand patch since, we’d watch for trees dripping in rainbow M&Ms, pigeons and mynas nesting upon its branches and dream of plucking a new yellow or green or blue or red M&M off to bite into its chocolate insides.

But the harsh heat of the Gulf is not for M&Ms and so the trees did not grow. With childhood persistence, we kept dropping them into the sand patch, hoping that like the M&Ms, we too could take root in the Gulf we called home.

Artwork by Helen Levitt, “Cops and Robbers.”

Kadalamma speaks to me

Everytime I meet the sea I call Kadalamma at the Corniche, it calls me her kadal-kutti, her sea child, floating inbetween the gaps of land. Kadalamma says I will come back to her. Kadalamma came to me through my Ammuma’s flowing voice, the malayali folklore of a sea mother who is as mothers are: benevolence and rampage all in one. My hair’s waves are not the only way I am water, she speaks through the moonlit breeze combing my hair. My Amma is the storm of which I am the eye. My ancestral mothers bled seas before they bled life. Kadalamma carries the women whose clothes she soaks to protect their children from the fires of this funeral pyre earth. Kadalamma says we forgot we have come from her. We forget no fire we have learned to make, no earth we break, no air we poison, will destroy Kadalamma. We forget these borders we burn on the edges of the earth cannot hold her fury.

Image by Nada Al Mosa, “It’s Raining”

incessant

my head’s not in the clouds it’s in second hand smoke rumbling the remains of a mute blast of a bomb i do not recall when or where going off when or where what went wrong rattling my hardened stone block of brain which was once the color and vigor of blush pink turned into onyx black ink bleeding through hazy eyes the asphalt rattles the cage of my skull ringing the impact is null nothing hits me shifts me i’m at the bottom of the ocean sitting with my legs before me like a rag doll crane my heavy head to look up a hint of sun twinkling through the far surface there’s no one there was no thud i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor

Artwork by Mona Hatoum, Image courtesy of The National

Montrouge

photo

A gash in the ground. Ladder encased in litter, time, tendrils of DNA superimposed upon DNA, loose hair, change, chapstick, tickets. Braved by my lipstick – a weaponry, a scarlet-studded arsenal. Heels puckered, flesh agape. Fingers damp in coat pockets, matted bangs, compression, people-to-people, somehow carnal. We fit into shuttered glass boxes, all of that pocked, reddened, crusty skin, all of those skittish wide-framed bones packed into each other. Moving parts, all of us. A messenger called the Metro ferries us along, saying: There is no Paris without blisters. There is no Paris without suffocation. Out of our festering cocoon, into the pulse of leaf-stickied sidewalks, night-ice, open streets, city eclipses passenger, we hold onto ourselves only, we empty our heads of each other’s cologne, bad breath, whatever tangled perfume each person mists our way. Outside, breathing through our own lungs again, but anointed by the flight of our brackish underground.

 

 

Photograph, titled “Midday”, courtesy of the author.

Out of the corner of my eyes

Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the end of man’s dignity. It was something very simple: a deft rejection; a missed telephone call; a piece of shrapnel lodged in the soul of man; a waiter who slips and falls in lobster juice spilled from the plate he was carrying; an otherwise beautiful woman on the bus who glances impatiently at her wristwatch so many times in the same minute that you feel this rather just urge to glue her eyes to that very same watch.

In front of me was a larger-than-life sculpture of a warrior I could not recognize. His head and only his head had been carved from stone, and the rest of his body, it seemed, from bronze. How had the sculptor attached to the bronze that stone head?, I wondered, and then moving closer under the sculpture to see the seams right where the head joined the body to form a neck I concluded that the sculptor had been an equally accomplished sartor who, perhaps upon realizing his mistake, had sewed the head and body together. This composite nature of the sculpture revealed many things about this unnamed renaissance artist who had combined his intellect with the practical nature of his work, and weighed neither craft nor subject heavier than the other. After touring the sculpture several times and failing to locate any description of this artwork, nor the date of its composition, I sat in a café nearby which had nothing but a good view of this sculpture to boast for, and thus attempted to deduce the time period in which this artist had been active, a further study of which I imagined would illuminate me as to the true purpose of its composition, as well as the artist’s intentions. I spent perhaps 5 hours in that café, much to the owner’s dismay who,it must have been midnight, knocked on my table rather uninvitingly and invited me to pay the bill and clear the table. I grudgingly obliged, although my exploration of this artwork had not yet ended. I quickly paid an amount to the owner, looked him deep in the eye as to suggest to him that he would not be seeing me soon in his rotten café, and then took off.

I then found a wooden, moldy bench; after a thorough examination I discovered one good part of the bench wide enough to house my behind, I sat down and then turned to this behemoth of a sculpture yet once again, and at that point, kept from my regular schedule of sleep and growing increasingly impatient at this impenetrable statue, began to imagine thus.

This statue is that of a Mughal emperor, one whose absence from all history books is strange but not entirely unexpected, for this emperor had died in a fire that had threatened to burn his entire kingdom, which stretched a proper length of a river as long as the Nile, and which must have been as wide as the sky; in other words, this kingdom must have been impossible, and the fire that threatened to kill it, too, then must have been impossible. But contending, still, that most of his kingdom had been obliterated by this monstrous fire, this artist who had sculpted the handsome king must have been one of the few survivors of the fire; having survived the ordeal, the artist must have considered it his duty to build a work that reflected the immensity of his former residence, the great, unknown Mughal empire that had been destroyed beyond history. Thus forming this story in my head, I went to examine this sculpture in detail again, and now noticed, to my own surprise, that where I had earlier noticed clear seams joining the bronze body and the stone head, I now saw dirty, jagged ends of the bronze melted into the stone by a strong and capricious fire.

Satisfied with this story, I all but turned to go home when, at the foot of this statue, I noticed a small woman whose beauty, I thought, was unparalleled by any other woman that I had ever seen before this day. She seemed to be singing, or wanting to sing; her body was struck in a suspended pose, recalling to mind the suspended gait of a crotchet on a music sheet. Yet although her body wanted to sing, something in her poise told me that her voice could not. I felt at that moment that something was just not right; a certain foreboding something screamed at me, to not approach this beautiful woman, who at this time of the night in the streets could not possibly be good news. Going against all instinct and good judgment, I approached her; as I walked closer to her, the woman seemed further and further away from my reach. I gathered that I had simply misjudged the proportions of this immense sculpture, under which the woman, although she looked close to me, was simply just as immense of a lady and therefore further away from me despite her misleading proximity. And with each step towards this statue, the woman began moving away – in the beginning as though she was still in that musical suspension – but later it became more and more apparent to me that the woman was running away from me. She must have been scared by my curiosity, coupled with my lack of sleep, which had led to poor judgment. I pursued her without end.

After what seemed like many miles – I had lost track of time now – I realized that the woman was simply mirroring my movements. She was not running away from me: she never had been. For when I paused to catch my breath, I noticed that the woman stopped, too. She was not simply running away from me; she only ran when I ran, and she moved only when I moved. Looking around me, I saw that in my pursuit of this beautiful yet ungraspable phantom of a woman, my vision of the world outside had been diminished. I searched in my memory, too, and memory too failed me.

I did not know where I had reached. Covered in sweat, having run an indiscernible distance, I had perhaps reached the heart of the sculpture that I had previously chosen as the object of my study. Around me, all markers of reality failed. There was no sun or moon to inform me of the time of day; this woman, who had lured me into what I think must have been this sculpture’s trap, was both close to me and far away, all at once: if I wanted her, she was ungraspable, and when I chose not to grasp her, she was right there, a centimeter away from the tip of my tender finger; over me, I saw that sculpture still, in all its grandiosity, and in its arrogance the sculpture now towered over me, its subject the warrior still unrecognizable, the style of its artist still beyond my little knowledge of the art. I must shut my eyes to the sight of this woman, to the seductive call of interpretation.

*

Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the end of man’s dignity. It may have been the end of the universe, too; it was something very simple. A missed telephone call, a man who had ventured off into a painting a long time ago and never found his way home, that man in the otherwise still painting who wriggles his way through the thick scratches of oil painted on canvas. It was precisely that, and nothing more.

In front of me was the sculpture of a warrior I did not recognize, his head carved from stone and the rest of his body from bronze, the two joined together by the pointy end of a sword sticking out of the inside of his torso. Having examined this sculpture without any end for a long time now, my impatient intellect led me to imagine thus.

This sculpture depicts an unnamed Roman army general who had been instrumental in the conquest of Britain in the early days of our calendar. All through the conquest, this General had driven his men to fight beyond their animal instinct for sleep, rest, fatigue, to fight for empire, to fight for the right to conquer; this General had single-handedly slaughtered his enemy on one fine morning – more than a hundred thousand of those Brits; and of course they weren’t Brits then, but this extraordinary Roman General, who in his childhood had been blessed with great foresight, called them Brits, filthy, hungry Brits, all of whom had been fed the General’s sword. But a horrible plague, which in those days were quite common, had wiped this General’s army out, and by some strange miracle that plague had refused to kill the General. The poor General, heartbroken, upon returning to his native Rome, instead of being welcomed as a hero and the sole survivor of genocidal Nature, was shunned – for in those days, the people were ignorant, illiterate. They must have assumed that the General, in fact, was the cause of the plague; and thus being the cause of the plague he had himself survived it, for one cannot be the cause for oneself. The Roman, exiled, had then chanced upon these abandoned lands, where he had taken to the art of carving, and first carving from stone and bronze his own saddened body and head, he then took his tool, his sword, and made it part of his art. By propping his own head straight on his own sword, the General had thus wanted to express the overwhelming sensation of grief: the grief of exile, the unflattering feeling of surviving genocide, and the exhilarating desire to escape exile through death.

At that moment, as I turned to go home, I saw, out of the corner of my eyes, the sculpture fall into a million pieces, and each of these pieces grew limbs, and from these limbs scurried out tiny words that like pleas climbed into my ears and begged for forgiveness and I, with my tiny hands and my tiny eyes in front of this once-giant sculpture that had towered over me and refused me the sweet satisfaction of interpretation, did nothing but fall down to my own two knees and, with these little voices, wept until the end of time.

*

Suddenly, I saw the real picture. It was clear as day; the sculpture, which could be viewed only one part at a time due to its enormous scale, and which had towered over me until now, was in fact framed in a small painting that I, upon waking each morning, had the pleasure of viewing from my bed. My short-sightedness, I understood, led to the distortion of several of the painting’s salient features, and this vision of the painting, mixed with my actual picture of this wondrous work when I did have on my glasses, had captured in my attention a very awe-inspiring but ultimately misleading idea of the immensity of this otherwise small, contained, and harmless painting.

But it was not the painting itself that had troubled me so, but that image of the painting that I had previously dreamt in my sleep. In my sleep, the various characters in this image of the painting had haunted me; and now, in my conscious state, I could not for the life of me find this woman who had evaded me in my dream. She was nowhere in the painting, and yet I had no reason to believe that she had not been in this painting. She must have been real; or else I could not have imagined her; or she must have been imagined, for otherwise, she must be real. I concluded that the unknown painter who had first completed this work of art and left it hanging by my bedside must have used his brush to conjure the idea of a woman more beautiful than any other woman without actually sketching the outlines of this woman’s body, which, I imagined the painter’s thinking, would have reduced the idea of this woman to her mere body, thus diminishing, too, her beauty. Here commending the power of the astounding intellect behind this painter’s simple craft of brush and canvas, I went back to sleep.

 

Painting by Chaïm Soutine, “The Village”

It Comes in Pieces

soil.

 

My mother told me I could never let go of a baby pink comb. An aeroplane skimming over a cloud, soft as the foam of milk. The feeling of his cheek against yours. Truth is nothing but fodder for an argument. A Senegalese accent is a truffle rolling on the tongue. I hated the sound of a violin but I was in love with a violinist. Poetry is glass. He used to play me songs on the guitar and I was taught to believe in magic. Should love feel like an itchy sweater? I’ll forget 16. The sound of a heart breaking is always silent. Sometimes I heard music and wanted to collect its notes in a sealed jar, like storing butterflies. When we met, I started to write. He left. My father made warm omelettes on weekends. I left, and that in itself was a kind of power. Libraries are meant to be quiet but we were not. Poetry speaks where eyes and mouths don’t.

bloom.

 

I can only remember the laughter when it hurt. They still talk about how we danced. Blame it on the Chinese tea. David Bowie will always and never sound the same. You’re having the most fun when the moment’s too blurry for Instagram. It took six years. Marginalia, paraphernalia. I used to dream of this, just like the lights and the car rides in indie films. Those 250 words were an exercise in bonding. Did you want me to…? There was one month left but facts get lost in the wind when you’re running across the field, air ruddy on your face and coat flying out behind you. Jealousy is a corrosive substance. We got in an accident and felt more afraid of the metaphor than the chipped paint. All it took was a tango. Something aches and we’ve all got our hands on each other’s hurt. This is my fight song. I’ll remember 17. ‘Us’ is a beautiful word.

dew.

 

You collected the shiniest shells on the beach. Nothing is lonelier than reading a textbook at night. Solitude by the sea, solitude in a snow globe. My mother told me to think of those below you. Tears are salt are ocean are wombs. The girls said you were bossy and you learned to twist your mouth like theirs. That seagull was like a scrap of paper. I write about being jagged but do not accept it. The colour blue, is it cold or warm? My mother fed me honey and cinnamon when I was sick, hot and sticky on a steel spoon. I didn’t know friendship was an acidic substance. How many followers do you have? The wine looked like blood and tasted worse. She was Ariel and you understood. You are startled by the sky every summer, it is honey blue. She cut her indigo braids then went to write her SATs. Depression is dyeing your lungs the same shade as the evening and she looked at you and nodded. Landlocked countries make us caged birds that do not sing.

 

stem.

 

My mother snatched books away from me in the car. Both comfortable and uncomfortable with loneliness. Have you ever tried writing while you’re drunk? Novels are alternate universes.  The word ‘introvert’ is branded like a red hot poker on a cow. Talk to us, please. I have gazed up at the stars and tried to catch them in my palms like beads. Let’s make a necklace. Noose. You got in a conversation with poetry and it never seems to end. We keep asking each other what love even is. Crying on the telephone. Why are friendships like strings and how could she do this to me? I’m a kid. How mean, so mean. You wore your silence like an ugly fashion accessory that one feels obliged to wear because a great-aunt gave it as a parting gift and it was too impolite to say no. God, no.

 

leaves.

 

My skin was always too tight. The better the chocolate, the more bitter the aftertaste. I am ashamed by inches. He said you were soft and he was not expecting it. No one has been able to touch you. 15 is full of holes and now you will fill them with sugar. Clinics reminded me of the imperfections. I romanticized my own fault lines but at least I was not an earthquake. I imagined him saying that a curved spine is more interesting than a straight one but he did not exist. Can’t breathe when it’s happening. Once you had three slices of cake, you’ve been looking back ever since. He asks me if I need a goddamn sonnet proclaiming my beauty. To be naked is to be free is to be unseen. I scrolled through Facebook pictures and wept. Yes, I need proof, but I do not say it. Fashion is a masquerade. Poetry is a glass. A girl is a price and you are paying it.

 

thorns.

 

My mother kept buying jeans in different colours, only now you wonder what this meant. Speak. You can and will never finish those letters. What if she had done it? A scarf could be the culprit. It burns to feel like this, it burns, that’s how you know. A family trip to the mall can prevent divorce. The top shelf of her cupboard will always be dark. You couldn’t sleep at night, strained to hear noises, you thought she’d do it and dawn would be an ending. Nobody to ask so you ask all the questions on Google. Your mother laughed the most. We played Monopoly on the bedroom carpet. I don’t want him to hate me. You screamed music, then poems, you screamed your own name. Silence is heavy not loud. Love is Paris and he saw it in you while I saw it on an atlas. I once wondered what a language made from the sounds of rain would be like. Eyes are only taps that need plumbing.

 

petals.

 

He wrote that hell was brown-eyed. She liked books about solitude. I hugged them both, thinking that what we had was like a precious gem in the desert, like a rose in the middle of Cairo. We dreamed of Paris together. Do you remember eating straight out of the sugar packets in the café with the bad crème brulee and French music? I have kept the Polaroids safe. Tu me manques. You can find triads in jazz; we are a triad too. The unholy trinity. One point in London, one point in Abu Dhabi, one point in Gaborone. Three is my lucky number. Will you let me wring the pain out like zest from a lemon? You know I only function in metaphors. I don’t want to be 19 without you. I’m so sorry that it hurts, take all the music you want. Flushed with wine but more from being together. Can we talk about Sylvia Plath though?

 

honey.

 

So this is how it feels to be bathed by the stage. Blinded, I can see the light. The poetry comes through the cracks. Applause. Thank God tears can’t be heard. I did it, I did it, I did it. The notes are streaming, painting, streaking across the air and it is all for me. Jazz is a palette of colours. Love me. They have said that music can transport the soul and shake off skin. If you are a musician, you must be an alchemist. I hear paintings, I see songs. Mortal to immortal. What is your aspiration in life? Devenir immortel puis mourir. I pin and find my dreams in Google images. 18 will always be radical. I am afraid to say that one of my goals in life is simply to love and be loved.

 

Painting by Trina Teele, “Edge of Adolescence”