Death is repetitive, and so are its effects, but we clean up to show up for our elders. One draft is my messy room as I tear through clothes looking for the right thing to wear. The final draft is the portable compartment I've built to hold my feelings during the funeral. Thinking about my aunt made me think about the small but dense country my family hails from, Bangladesh, and what else is going on there at the present moment: a refugee crisis little known here in the West. Thankfully, others before me have grappled with how to do this living thing too -- I am thankful for the tradition of the ghazal. It gave me a pre-established form in which to pour feelings that verge on hysterical. It helped me to show up in a way that feels respectful, while reminding me that I'm not alone.
This poem was originally published in Poetry magazine.
< draft >
even now comes back the itch-crawl
a tree of bites or a snarl of black curls
my aunt drew the comb through my hair steady
and crushed what she found
listen, I want back that intimacy
my head in her hands / a disaster / a delicate tree
I hadn't learned yet / a tree is a household of beautiful birds
listen, my aunt's name is hasna henna / night blooming jasmine tree
two oceans from here the names of trees
grow from my aunt's mouth and her progeny
in a language the other does not speak
for years i have not visited my other country
or walked with my aunt beside the rubble of new trees
I ate rice from a palm tree leaf
across two oceans my aunt is dying
don't forget, her name is night blooming jasmine tree
across two oceans
all I do is write poems which heavily feature trees
but what happens if you replace tree
all I do is write poems which heavily feature refugees
night blooming jasmine refugee
once, a man i loved
told me to stop saying two oceans
two oceans two oceans two oceans
across two oceans i inhaled
the perfume of a hasna henna tree
my aunt was beside me
will i know the right time to stay or leave
listen, when they test my hands
for gunpowder, tell them I donated
my own blood to the cause
< REVISION >
Infinity Ghazal Beginning with Lice and Never Ending with Lies
For Hasna Henna and the Rohingya
Lice? My aunt once drew a comb through my hair steady;
she wouldn’t let what feeds on blood eat my inner tree.
Where now is the word for such intimacy? I know it still,
but all I see are jungles burnt of our rarest trees.
My point is: it takes a while to say, “I am a fire hazard,” or,
“a household of rare birds” is another way to say tree.
I wrote one draft of this poem, then she died. Will I
forget her name, Hasna Henna? Let’s smell a tree;
night-blooming jasmine, o-so-heavenly! A sapling
succeeds by flourishing from a tree’s seed.
How else to perfume these needs we breathe? A sapling
of course = a small and soft tree (i.e. baby tree).
I grieve the rice she fed me off a palm leaf.
Only now can I fully marvel: how finely formed is a tree!
Someone I loved said to stop with the oceans in my poems —
well, oceans + oceans + oceans! We drown so many trees.
(Night blooming tree = baby tree = once and future tree.)
Lately, all I think about are trees.
Read this again to replace tree with refugee.
Tarfia = joy in the margins + one who lies to protect trees.