Two Poems

Journey with Dante

In the earliest of days
I stand with Dante; he wants to
take me to the forest, but I am la lupa,
and he does not know.

When I open my jaws
a river flows away slowly
translucent clouds on battered ground
and somewhere a monk is howling
and I become a boat, rocking
I Promessi Sposi to land, and the
pen that writes us does not see me.

Dante wants to know
what’s a little black girl doing
learning the first syllables of Latin,

and I want to say, Ms. Angelou,
but I have not found eloquence
in words yet.

We climb a tall mountain
and there, spread like wild flowers,
are the letters of Abelardo & Eloisa
and I want to kiss their handwriting–

but alas young Werther awaits, and he
is impatient and folle, and wants to know

what am I doing there
following the trail of long bearded men
into solitude.

But I am too diligent
to think of such things;

besides, Shakespeare in Italian
is Shakespeare in love

and I know a little about love
though I am only fifteen, I know because
Petrarca has engraved his sonnets in my heart
and I am convinced they were written for me
though I am neither-fair skinned nor gray-eyed
though I am not like the youngsters in Decameron
though I am only in love with small, small poems
I can unpack quickly and hide beneath my tongue

but I let them all come in
one after the other
their words like mighty swords,

Saba in his Vanitá,
Calvino & his mistress moon
and I let them all in
especially Leopardi

I let him build small sculptures all over my arms
and in my torso, and my legs, and he wants to take me
with him, in this naufragar, yes, my naufragar,
but he is too late.

Pavese has already embalmed my body
and earth & mud is all that is left
and earth & mud we eat, earth & mud
until Levi descends, and then, what are we?

We are not human.

They already know
how I write poems in small booklets
& math worksheets,

they know how I will give
my poems to anyone
even to G., who will be enchanted by those words
so enchanted she thinks of them as her own,
so enchanted she sends them to editors
and when I see this poem, published with her name,
it is not mine
because my poems are not mine
my words not mine

and they already know
how it starts then,
how I am never where I am supposed to be
how I will burn my stories
in the backyard, when father is away for the day,
how I refuse to write poems
but they still bleed out of me
and how I am always running
running & running

and there to catch me
Montale, Quasimodo, Pascoli, Libertá–

and when I look up
the sun is setting again
& everything is quiet again
but a thousand soldiers’ feet
erupting the earth into a crude awakening
their ships already sailed, already armed;

is that Virgilio? Could I be present
among these men, could I be
on the island of Ulysses, eternally
waiting for his return, could it
be me on the shoulders of Enea
on his way to Rome?

Dante smiles; we are in the land of poets, in
the land of language

but when I open my mouth
when my pen spits
words come out half broken, pencil sharp

and they are in Italian
though I think of them as colors
though I think of them in Amharic
though I shape them with dreams

they still come out in Italian
glazed in chocolate & music

glazed in this language that
kept my people prisoners and
renamed the cities of Eritrea
in this language of love & fascism
this language that built barricades
between the black African & white European
this language that cleaned itself squeaky
from my people’s history, my people’s culture,
this language that calls us

barbari, ignoranti, negri, immigranti

this same language
that rocks us to sleep
and forces down our throats
the history of its people
the history of the only people who matter
the Greeks, the Romans, the Westerners,

this language that shaves off
centuries of our kingdoms and our kings
this language that takes credit
for our cities’ architecture, our roads
that sheepishly thrusts itself
into our own language,

macchina, forchetta, ospedale

this language that sleeps with our women
and breeds brown babies, and outcastes them quickly

meticci, mulatti

this language of poetry
this language of sorrow

and I want to tell Dante
I was scorned for not knowing
how to speak my language

Amharic, Tigrinya

because I was the girl
with neck bent, eyes squinted,
learning the language of a foreign land
the language of General Graziani
the language of Mussolini
learning to assimilate quickly
learning to smile and not dissent
even as I hear teachers say

she cannot be this good
she is not Italian

but what they mean is

she is not white

and even though Dante is so proud
a B is an F for a diligent student
and I carry it with me everywhere
when I hear strangers say

pasticceria, pizza, amore mio
when we visit Gonder, & Bahr Dar
and we visit the sights of massacres
and through Arba Minch
seeing the caves of monks burned alive
bare skulls adorning the sprawling feet of trees

I carry it with me to Asmara
when I hear my grandmother say
how they used to drink from different faucets
and kicked away from the white man’s bathroom
and how they were forbidden
from the streets of their own city

because that language is too white,
too clean to wipe itself off
from our dirty, black skin;

but when I turn around
we have reached a place
I do not know–


A mother says
there is light in your hands

but she means
there is light in your eyes

but the daughter does not know

because the light
is also fire

she must learn to muster.

There is so much sadness
in yellow

so much
I cannot contain myself

and it drools out slowly

and it is honey, and the smell
of wax is overwhelming,

but it is also beehives, and bees
from the feet of a new mountain
lured with the promise
of a sea of adey abeba

it is also the swelling
of half of your face
(the burning from within)
and the hands of your father
holding a dying bee
lulling to its last breath


there is so much to be measured
in gold

twenty-four carats pure, from the river beds
hand-crafted, carved and shining

and you do not forget
the way yellow came back
into your mother’s eyes
and swirling into her throat too
when she begs the headmistress
to let her children in.

Who begs for school, in such a
yellow voice?

A mother determined
to set her children free;

and the way it comes back
when she is denied, or accepted, or ignored,
having to scramble through a crowd
of unassuming politeness
that has already labeled her, labeled us,
people like us

because our first names
are not God-given

because the only names that matter
are the ones burned through our foreheads
like a curse, like a third eye waiting to be blinded,

the name we grow accustomed to

which means split in half
which we are, but how do we show
such breaking, without being broken

a yellow sorrow
from yellow people
of yellow trees

and we let them in
because what else can we do

and years later
we find ourselves tracing
bits of blue-yellow in our names

when we are asked

what is your name
where are you from
who told you to stand so tall
traces we cannot get rid of

so when we are given new names
our ears are closed shut
alien, immigrant,
it was as if they said,
sunflower, sunflower,

why, yes I am,
and I bloom at my pleasing
my face titled only towards the sun,
towards the sunlight, towards the light

why argue with darkness
when it is made of light
when it is made of people with fire
when it made of fire
when it is fire

why change your name
to three-letter monosyllabic hues
for a stranger’s sake

why not shave off
the yellow, the amber in you–

Mahtem Shiferraw is a writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her work has been published in various literary magazines. Her poetry collection, Fuchsia, won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets.


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