My Love for You is Like My Love for Dhall Bananas:
I could always count on you
for my trustworthy source of midday fulfillment
until last Friday.
My Love for You is Like My Love for Dhall Bananas:
I could always count on you
for my trustworthy source of midday fulfillment
until last Friday.
Some words disappear into history like the buffalo: her name for home, her name
her chatter weaving through the grasses and the hides
the way my friend screamed when i scraped my knee in her driveway
If only she’d kept a diary; not this one on display
made in her wake, nor the one made by the two men she led
she’ll remain undocumented, remains unoccupied story unknowable
only the consequences of her choices disrupt these days
Author’s Note: At the beginning of Fall semester, I heard about this upperclassman who writes a lot of poetry. One night after reading his publication “pretty like kids” I said to myself, “You know what would be meta? Writing a poem about a poet.”
Thus, in the words of Genesis 1:7: “And it was so.”
leo, his name is. was. the sigil of the sahara comes
whisper-quiet through ink-grass. not a roar: this is no
battle for territory, these words he’s vomited out into
the atmosphere. at least not against the rest of us.
he’s fighting for himself, perhaps.
i don’t feel like acknowledging the struggle curtailed
behind carefully crafted witticisms so i stick to the surface
too afraid of running aground on the reef.
( “stay where it’s pretty or your own scars will rub loose.” )
a shitty philosophy, but at least it’s mine.
the only lion in the room is also mine – a pride in collective apathy.
leo’s words are mine as well. but he already knew that.
he’s a poet, after all.
The black dress
like saran wrap
over her mature
The dress has large white flowers on it
And I love
and the sexy tan
beaches of the Caribbean. I sit
at a gray
and black desk
in a white button-up
(with blue stripes)
thinking about gambling
and nude women
This is the second of a series of poems by Leo Abbe.
He gets up in front of everyone with his beard
that hasn’t been shaved in 6 months and explains
that he’s—personally—more biased in favor of British theatre.
A blonde girl in the front row laughs,
even though there’s no way
anything he just said could possibly be considered funny.
And then he goes off and talks
about Chekhov and naturalism
for 45 minutes
and the blonde girl in the front row
keeps laughing at him
like she’s going to blow him during our ten minute break
and the visiting playwright wears a navy blue t-shirt
with a vest and a scarf over it
while he is spewing all of these priceless thoughts,
until the scarf starts to slip off of his shoulder on one side
very slowly, while using terms like “powerful” and “heartbreaker”
to describe the character Blanche from the play Streetcar Named Desire.
This is the first of a series of poems by Leo Abbe.
The night before I first left for America my grandmother pressed my face between her palms and demanded that I do not fall in love with any place but home. As if this was a place people went to get lost in.
Four years later and she is right. It is 2am on that slanting veranda in central Iowa and I am wrestling with the same Hindi that squeezes out from the other end of the phone-line. Angry and embarrassed, I run back to my apartment, slam the door shut, and push my pillow so far into mouth that I can no longer speak.
We are so heartbroken and dizzy from belonging to all these places.
The feeling doesn’t restrict itself to language – it colonizes our day-to-day. The displacement has no replacement; this is the reality of diaspora. Of leaving, really. We have been thrown into this strange miasma where the water refuses to adjust to the skin. Someone has stepped into the living room of our soul, while we were asleep, and rearranged the furniture. The question then becomes – how do we deal with this disownership?
Tarfia Faizullah – in her commentary on Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 – offers a relevant but piercing image:
Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald
inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between
us still irreparable –
It seems that we are equally close and distant from ourselves. The “us” is both the speaker and the subject, and it is in these seams that we are able to articulate our two-ness. Tarfia’s book, titled Seam, is interested in how we communicate these distances – through love, anger, and above all, memory.
Why call any of it back?
She asks. The question pushes against direct representation, but still manages to flood the imagination. What is the use of this remembering, of constructing such context, of inducing this kind of heartbreak with the world? This, you imagine, is a thing we simply must do to continue existing in our multiplicities. The boy that skins pistachios in his grandmother’s backyard is still remembered by the boy that now raps to Biggie in his jagged Angrezi. Tarfia speaks to this as well:
It is possible to live without
memory Nietzsche said but
is it possible to live with it?
This is exactly what the book – and we – struggle with, the painful and unfamiliar awakeness that comes from being contextualized. Paraphrasing the sentiments of Rushdie, I too have never forgiven America for not being Delhi. My memory of home will not let this happen. But what is there to forgive? Nothing.
Now, my imagination synthesizes a home between memory and body. It accommodates me as a participant in its defining process – a home that is constantly built upon itself, not replaced. Stuart Hall calls this “production,” an exercise with no foreseeable edges, always in the process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. This is precisely what Tarfia does with Seam – her poems produce identity through memory. It is, then, in thinking and writing about home that we can truly exercise self-articulation.
Tarfia’s home is in Texas, but her body, it seems, belongs to so many other places. It is this feeling: of being ten years old and sitting in the isle seat of an unnamed flight, waiting for the stewardess to walk by so you can ask her the same question. Where are we going and how long till we get there? Soon, always very soon.
I reread the book three times before finally putting it down. When I did, it was seven in the morning and the sun’s saffroned light had lined the edges of my window. I opened my computer and immediately began typing the only words that came to mind at the time. I began typing to her. I knew if I waited any longer, the feeling would pass and my words would seem jagged and angular, even to myself.
I started, in large, unspaced letters – thankyouthankyouthankyou. It was only days later that I received an email response. Again, as you can imagine, it was nighttime (the only time when things like these happen.)
Varun, it started.
I want you to know how moved I am by your email. It means so much–speechlessly–to know that the work is especially reaching and resonating with other South Asians.
For there is a loneliness in that negotiation you spoke of: Iowa/Delhi/all the in-betweens. It’s a loneliness that we don’t always know how to voice. The connection we can forge between us through poetry is a light that, at least for a moment, annihilates that loneliness, makes room for the brave, if frightened, interior voice.
Thank you. For who you are and all that you do.
Yours in common pursuit,
More than anything else, what Seam demonstrates is the ability of the mind to imagine, beyond itself, boundaries that correspond to a home (both the body’s and the mind’s). Towards the end of her collection, Tarfia vocalizes an almost beautifully selfish idea:
But what else is mine, if not all
this strange beauty?
She is jumping off the page and grabbing my throat, with equal parts love and anger, saying here! Here is your complex, frustrating, multiplicitous, language-less, language-full world. I am giving to you what has already been for so long yours.
By: Elliott Maya
Joy comes in sallow light, lemon tinted and tart on the tongue. The air is hot on my damp skin; I rise from the waves, slow and sleepy as Atlas beneath the weight of the world. Heavy. Bogged down in the material. Black on white. My skin is an arrowhead against powder fresh sheets.
I rise with Degas’ Laundresses.
I rise with Osun.
Base and unfiltered in lemonade light, sweet in the silence dried against khemetian flesh, nudity is a rarity in this graveyard home, but this does not make it any less precious.
A shift: my chest swells with the blinking pump of my million-eyed blood. Stuccoed eyes are drawn to my round belly, the pert dark nipples, the dark curve of limb and thigh and sex. This body, vehicle of grief beneath my everyman’s clothing, becomes statuesque in the space between reality and musty sheets. Homely – a flesh and blood recreation of the sculptures done of the first women, glorifying wide hips and heavy breasts and open, attentive mouths. This is the body gifted to me in God’s inattentive creative sweep, and though I can never love it, in the bastard child of dawn and day, I struggle to understand it.
Those arms, whose are they? Mine. They are mine.
Those legs, so thick and sturdy! Are they Oak’s? No, no. Still they are mine, gnarled as they are.
That face! Round and squashed, surely it is the forgotten creation of a cruel pot maker? Maybe so, but it’s mine.
Appling cheeks and lips the color of rosedusk, skin hard and brown – born from coal, ground into being deep beneath the red earth of a motherland remembered only in my bubbling blood. All these are mine and only mine and forever mine and always mine.
A vessel. A bottomless vase meant for the filling up of that airy lifeblood called memory. It is not a loverly thing, but in deprecatory acknowledgment I find ownership and possession. This body is me. It will never be anyone else’s. These fingers that curve and stroke; these, too, obey only two letters.
In the morning tartness I am a cat lapping cream. I am an arrowhead of pleasure arching across rumpled sheets, black and bittersweet, at the delicate ministrations of mind’s eye. I am misting between earth and shore.
I am a revelation the angels would have gnashed their teeth to have trumpeted before The Lord.
I am, forever and always, mine.
I make references in the second separated stanza, Degas’ Laundresses is two references in one. The Laundresses is a famous portrait by an artist named Edgar Degas. Degas would paint women in these natural settings, like women at work in the laundry washing clothes, he would draw women dancing ballet, stuff like that. The issue with The Laundresses is that he is painting the women under a male gaze, and actually in the portrait there are illusions to male figures in there.
So not only is there this phallic symbolism in the portrait but there are these imprinted male faces in there, eyes watching the women. Even when they are in this feminine activity where they should feel comfortable instead there is always this sense of patriarchal dominance. Degas’ Laundresses is a poem by an Irish Poet Eavan Boland who addressed this issue of Degas who basically painted women into these roles in order to reinforce them.
And that tied into the topic of my poem because a big issue with body love in general is that there are overarching male dominant narratives in America that say, “here is what you should look like as a woman, here is this typical female body, and you need to achieve this. And if you don’t? Well then you are ugly, you are worthless, you need to achieve this no matter how much it hurts, no matter what it costs you.” This is something that, especially when I was younger, I really struggled with, because I’m a big girl, I got big bones. I’m not skinny! All my life it’s been really hard when I have had all these friends that have been stereotypically beautiful. I felt like the odd one out.
But I guess an impetus behind writing this poem was that Grinnell’s own cultural narrative was that people here purposefully go against that expectation that, “you are a girl you should look like this” or “you are a boy you should look like this.” People here seem to be more like, “I am a person, I am going to do what to do what I want to do.” This is something I haven’t really had the chance to consider before coming to Grinnell. So when I got here and was repeated confronted with this idea of doing whatever I want and feeling however I want about myself it was, it sounds cliché, but it was mind-blowing.
Mind-blowing, wow, how so?
I see people around campus who blatantly flout the expectations of their body types. I am like, “yes! Do what you want, wear what’s comfortable and what makes you happy!” I see people like that and I realize I can do it too, it might be scary but…I can do it. And that is kind of where I was coming from in this piece. I am very much a long way off from being one of those people who can comfortably do whatever they want with themselves, but I guess this is the first step in that process. I am addressing issues with myself but I am also claiming them. I am saying, “do I assign myself as ‘beautiful?’ No! But I belong to myself.” I am slowly accepting that fact, and maybe in time I can grow to love what I see and what I am, but I have to own it first.
Yeah, and that is the way the poem moves. At first you see a narrator that is unsure about their body but by the end the narrator is owning it.
Yes, and with the repetition of “mine, mine mine, this body belongs to me.” But in the beginning the poem is more airy, it is flowy, it’s insubstantial because I don’t really know where I’m at, at this point. But as I become more awakened, more concrete in my writing later in the poem, so does my opinion and my ownership and possession of accepting my body.
Yeah, and it is funny because body love with big girls, big booties, that is a recent thing in the media. It is just now becoming “mainstream.” But of course it has been happening for a long time…
The policing of the bodies of women of color is so intense. It is saying, you can’t do this until it is normal, and I guess until it is white beauty. If it’s not white beauty we don’t want it. And now it is like, “oh Iggy Azalea is rockin’ a big booty! We have discovered big booties are sexy!” Stop columbusing! You can’t columbus a whole body type. It’s been a thing, you just were out of it.
Do you want to talk about the references to Egyptian folklore in this poem?
Sure! I make references both to Egyptian folklore and African folklore. So this figure of Osun I reference is an Orisha of the Yoruba culture, she is a deity or goddess. Osun is a figure of beauty, wealth, and fertility. But she is also known for having a terrible temper, but she is patient up until then. So I guess it is almost like a slow lighting candle, something beautiful to be admired but beautiful in the way a wildfire can be beautiful, from a distance. If you get too close you are going to hurt yourself. I just really wanted to pick this power figure, because so often as a default in our culture we reference Aphrodite, or these Greek, Western, pale-skinned figures. And I am like, “no, no, no, that is not me.” That is not the site I am trying to own. Like okay, Aphrodite? Beautiful. But with Osun I’m taking it back to culture, taking it back to roots, I’m trying to own every part of myself.
I also make an explicit reference to “khemetian flesh” in this poem. “Khemet” is an old term for ancient Egypt and the Nile, so it means like dark, like dark soil and dark skin. So I am playing into these ideas of fertility, and darkness, and finding it as something beautiful and against the normalization of light-skinned beauty. Even in the media we try to say, “oh the Egyptians were white!” No, no, no, they were dark. Let’s own that, let’s own every part of it. There is nothing wrong with owning it.
Yeah I only hear references to ancient Roman or Greek cultures and languages, it’s like, let’s get outside of this Eurocentric lens.
But anyways, in this poem you also make a reference to nudity being a “rarity” in “this graveyard home.” Talk to me about those lines.
Basically, on a less metaphorical sense, I am literally talking about myself laying in my dorm room here. I am referencing having a moment of quiet time in the morning, waking up, being naked, and owning it. Seeing myself and saying, “this is okay.” I say my home is a “graveyard” because being nude is not really something you can do in college. College seems like an opening up of opportunities, but there are still certain constraints, and I think a dorm room is one of them. Especially when you are struggling with body positivity, where else are you going to own yourself and say, “these arms these are me! Kinda flabby? Yeah, those are mine.” I referred to nudity here as “rare” because I don’t get that time a lot, but the time I do get is precious and beautiful. I am lucky to have a roommate that is okay with this kind of stuff and is undergoing her own body positivity journey, so we are kind of doing together. We are both experiencing what it is like to be comfortable with ourselves in a private space and be able to take that empowerment out into the public sphere. Because it starts inside, not only inside of your being and inside of your head but inside of these places that are intimately and solely yours. If I can’t own myself in my bed, where I sleep every night, then where can I?
In your poem when I read, “obey only two letters,” I sensed somewhat of a clever double meaning going on. Care to explain?
Sure! Okay so the two letters are “m” and “e,” “me” like mine, but my name is Maya Elliott so my initials are also M.E. So it isn’t just to the word “me,” but it is to myself, in both these cases I am learning to understanding that I don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules about anything about myself. I can make my own rules and my own guidelines, and it starts with me. Literally, M.E.
If you ever start a self-empowerment movement you could name it “M.E.” That is not funny.
Okay, moving on to a new topic, when did you start taking yourself seriously as a poet?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think ever. It is so easy for me to write something and be like, “This is trash!” And I think it still stems from this whole self-esteem thing, I don’t think I can make something that is worth-while yet. But I also don’t think I’ve had the experience of taking myself seriously. And I actually do much better when I don’t! I had a period of time when I was like, “I have to be a serious artist, a serious poet and writer,” but the things I produced felt stilted. I didn’t feel like I was growing as a writer.
The most important facet of writing, for myself, is that I am growing along with what is happening on the paper. It is a kind of transfer. When I learn, my writing evolves, and when my writing evolves, I evolve with it. It is an evolution of self and of my product. In that way, I guess I am my own product, my writing. When I’ve written things not very personal to me I haven’t wanted to share it with anyone, I’ve been too scared. But with something like this poem, which is really personal, I am surprised because this is the most comfortable I am sharing something.
Let’s talk about creative flow, or how poems come to you. Do you have to actively brainstorm or does it come naturally?
It is a mishmash, a mixed bag kind of thing. There are times where I am in the zone and I wake up and I am like I need to write this write now! There are other times when I sink into what I always call the “mental fog,” where I am seeing things and actively participating in things around me but I am not all the way involved, because some part of me is off creating something. I don’t quite know it until it is halfway done. I keep thinking of a phrase and I realize, there is something on the tip of my tongue that I need to get out. I try to figure out how it is important to what I have been seeing and doing, and I find a point of interest, like, “Okay I want to write about this girl right here and what she is doing.” And I transfer that into a body of work.
You sound like a professional poet right now, damn.
Okay, well to wrap things up, is there anything you would like to say about body positivity to all the readers out there?
Just own it. I am 18 years old, I am still a kid in 95% of the word. I am a child! I am still trying to figure out what everything means to me. But don’t keep putting it off, like saying, “When I lose that next ten pounds I will love myself!” Love yourself now. There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight or whatever, but it is better to love yourself now than to keep putting it off. Because you get to a point where you are so comfortable with this self-hatred that it becomes a rut that is hard to get out of. And people say, “You are beautiful,” but it is hard to take it sincerely because people throw that word around without really understanding it. But just…accept where the sentiment comes from. And even if you don’t believe you are beautiful, just believe that you are valuable.