Monday, September 18, 2023

Mahtem Shiferraw, Nomenclatures of Invisibility: Poems


The Eucalyptus Tree I
            after Susan Hahn

I long for it on quiet nights and call it
home. It stands tall and muscular
above the mountains. It sees me
but does not flinch. It feeds me
honey and wild winds. It calls me
child, though I do not hear.
Its leaves, a balm for blistering skin;
what comes after a cry, or bleeding?
Its aroma, like autumn, like rain,
stands green, translucent thing,
between my father and I, and the ghosts
of Gojam. It sees us: bleeding.
We carve wombs throughout its roots
and rest our little bodies. We bear
children the size of seeds and fold
them into our branch arms. The rings
of fire that embrace us are blue with fear.
Everywhere we go, we smell of death
and something sweet.

The third full-length collection by Mahtem Shiferraw, “a writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea,” is Nomenclatures of Invisibility: Poems (Rochester NY: BOA Editions, 2023), following Your Body Is War (University of Nebraska Press, 2018) and Fuchsia (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), which won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. There is such a clarity, a concreteness and precision, in Shiferraw’s lyrics. I admire the scaffolding of her poems, one that allows a variety of gestures, whether a hand in the air, or a story, a picture, all of which holds firmly together in a solidly constructed space. “We are made with the same thing,” she writes, as part of the poem “Sawdust,” “and / we hum quietly. He is a fish too, telling / his daughters stories of men with lurking eyes. / We swim elsewhere and find him staring / into the open skies. He asks, what are we / doing here? He asks, are we really here alone?” She writes of grandmothers, historical truths, colonialism and cultural arrogance; she writes of cultural truths, inheritances and children. “To be able to set across the ocean, / across unnamed seas and other waters,” she writes, as part of “Wuchalle,” “and / lands, and suddenly, having arrived at the // coastal states, suddenly not noticing / the existing communities, and instead, / deciding to take ownership—like that, / like that.” She writes what is seen and known and not known in searing lyric, offering a clear through-line reflecting and meditating on language, the self and the body in a cultural, communal and familial space. “The seeds we plant are may, but / many more of us grow—,” she writes, to close the poem “Crackling Blue,” continuing:

these ones erect and unapologetic
small conquerors of old worlds—
though, they too, must carry the
weight of distraught ancestors
like heavy rocks, sinking into their bones
deeper and deeper
until their crackling turns blue.


No comments: