say you began as rib or clod
of earth say you were blossoming
until someone stared too long
at your shirt and leaned in
unbuttoned pushed forced
don’t mistake me this is not
a poem against longing
but against the kind of one-way
desire that herds you into a
dead-end alley and how this can
lead to a weakened epidermis
and despair and nights of howling
and who can you tell except
mother friend cat
while sky keeps on being sky
and streets ﬁll with danger
say you survive and mostly
you’re okay because turns
out you can carry cauldrons
of hurt and your heart is
as strong as a giant carbon atom
say you gather sisters and tell
each other legends about when
women were keepers of the universe
when gardens proliferated
between our thighs and even if
we were hacked and scattered
over the earth temples
would grow from the bits of us
even the cosmos seriously
the cosmos stemmed from us
in other words we were
the beginning the origin of the world
say all this has vanished
like the great auks
those awkward ﬂightless birds
mistaken for witches
say those legends have gone
into a kind of extinction
and we have grown silent
as an underground stream
and every now and again
one of us would amass enough
steam to plunge off a cliff
like a waterfall shouting a name
and even though the noise she made
was thunderous nobody heard
and she disappeared and we did not ask
where she went to or why
heart atom danger
wants not to break apart
and it is hard to say
why our ears and tongues
went off to be pilgrims
in the valley of silence
without leaving a note
or how the thorns got
plucked from our throats
but now they’ve returned
we must make up the beds
and unpack the cases
we must listen to every
unbearable thing until we too
can name our unbearable
things until the sound of
unbearable is deafening
and it is like the fairy tale
after a long spell of sleep
it is wake up people it is
time to ﬁnd our way back
bridges are burning
and towers have collapsed
and some will say the witches
are returning but really it is the
world asking to be made again
so let us bring ﬂowers let us
bow down let us worship
and reveal our scars let us
Listening to Abida Parveen on Loop, I Understand
Why I Miss Home and Why It Must Be So
This frugal diet of living
is getting to me
Sometimes in the desert
the wind will blow through my shell-shaped ears
and whisper a sea song just to taunt me
If the endgame is to renounce house
mother father husband sibling succulent child
to go in search of better hummus and woollen blankets
to choose one dog and run for the border
I’m not sure this contest was made for me
What if the dog ignores me
What if he refuses water from the tin cup
I lay out for him what if we become estranged
like Enkidu ancient wanderer and his herd
What if my dog ﬁnds himself a family
of wolves and abandons me
What if I felt my heart was taken out of me
I could begin each day with praise
could serve and work without once uttering
the word home could write on multiple
clay tablets could even practise hieroglyphs
the symbol for voyage
a torn out eye
falling man with blood streaming from head
Apis Nandi cosmic bull running into me
I would do it if it meant it I could go back
and everything would be as I left it
bread on table bowl of salt
apple tree river and its stepping stones
returned to me
What if it was better to live with radiation
than with war what if home was Chernobyl
what if the well was poisoned but the bird song
made up for it what if the ghosts
of all the shot dogs went to live underground
with the worms what if you didn’t wake up
asking did it all really happen to me
What if we were birds forced to spend
our lives in air to mate and sleep
on the wing to rope round and round
the earth in circles and have screaming parties
what if we were never meant to settle
would you still search out my beak midair
would you still ﬁnd me
We are homesick everywhere
even when we’re home we are empty things
that need ﬁlling
we are always lost in love never found
please come ﬁnd me
What if this minaret was like the last
tooth in my head unsteady
and enﬂamed with devotion what if I’m ﬁnally old
and ready for the plant of rejuvenation
but no one’s offering it to me
We’re at that moment in the journey
when we’ve hit a wall and the only way to scale
it is to use your voice with its inﬂections
and ditches its rough grain and longing
What if god on the other side of the wall
was equally alone and in need of company
What if we replaced god with home
What if I was ready to become nothing
What if I understood there was no me
Would you carry me to this divinity
Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers
Great Man, now that you are dead, allow me to squeeze your hand. The sage
bushes in Umbria are heavy with bees, so I’m killing them with hypnosis. I
am a mere woman—inferior lettuce—but I understand swoon aka mirabilia.
I ﬁll this cup with nectar and offer it to soothe your Vesuvian wounds. I share
your love of baths and classiﬁcation and sure, if we had to point to a god in the
sky, why not call him Thunderbolt? I too believe sewers are the great architectural
invention. I do all my searching on roads. It has been two thousand years so we
can forgive some of your assertions. The sea mouse who helps whales ﬁnd their
way by parting the brows above their eyes. The one-eyed humans and Sciopods
with umbrella feet, the whole exotic bestiary. If I had no mouth but could live
off the smell of apples I’d move to Kashmir—scratch that, maybe Sussex.
Once a month, when the blood comes, I go out to lie in whatever ﬁeld I
ﬁnd to feel the scorch rise and the crops wither. Our powers are much
depleted. I can stand among men in full swing of my menstruus and
nothing will dim their ability to tell me about me. There are birds
at the window this morning I can’t name and dogs in the valley
beyond, who are using their bell-shaped lungs to announce
their happiness again and again and again. Nothing has
changed. We worry about the wane and winnow. In
your time perhaps the ladies used bits of cut-up
smocks but these days we have menstrual cups.
Desire is still a kind of ruin—that silly bird
ﬂuttering against the window net,
trying to get in, the body’s steady
lilt towards oblivion. They say you
had a sister, like Shakespeare’s—
mostly overlooked. That it was she
who ﬁrst noticed the smoky clouds
which sent you on your way. Dear
Pliny, I guess you never heard the
one about curiosity. The cat is real.
The earth never tires of giving
birth. If you get too close
to a volcano, you should
know it may erupt.
Many Good & Wonderful Things
What more am I to say? Our kind-hearted Sirkar has done everything possible for us to protect us from the cold. We are each provided with two pairs of strong, expensive boots. We have whale oil to rub in our feet, and for food we are provided with live Spanish sheep. In short, the Sirkar has accumulated many good and wonderful things for our use.
Kala Khan to Iltaf Hussain, 27 December 1917
History too has a hard time remembering
the black waters they crossed, the small
mountain villages emptied of men.
Death was different then. History is always
reinventing itself. Say what you will,
but clouds have remained more or less
the same, and leaving home is still leaving
home, whether it’s on a jet plane or climbing
the steep path behind the house with a roll
of bedding on your back. But to die in a faraway
place whose name you can’t pronounce,
for a king who isn’t really yours, is a sadness
history still hasn’t ﬁgured out. History
has been pushing for republics since Lucius
Junius Brutus, but men are hardy, is the point,
or bull-headed. And you’d think the glories
of lice making mansions in their shirts
was a paradise they could do without,
that trench-living would make them walk
across the front with arms held high, saying,
Take me quick, I wish only to enter the realms
of God. History tries not to be sentimental,
although letters give things away. One fool
longed for a ﬂute—the world is burning,
but he wants to play. Others were gluttons,
mercenaries, spies. The wise asked for opium
but write ‘sweets’ or ‘dainties’, they said,
otherwise the package might not reach.
History needs to forget the dead who cover
the earth like heaps of stones, who write: Mother—is my parrot still alive?
Mother—do not go wandering madly.
Sometimes it feels as though the rain
has been falling all your life and the girl
you married will tire of tending the cattle.
Do not worry. This is war, where the women,
like metaphors, are always steadfast and beautiful.
In history’s version she sits under the peepal tree
with your Victoria Cross pinned to her sari.
She has been waiting since 1918 and she is waiting
still. So let us speak of love the way we always have,
by asking, have you eaten, darling? And what price
did you get for the goats? And of course,
I miss you, but the earth is hard and the sky,
distant, and if I had wings I’d ﬂy to you.
In Marseille they said we looked like kings.
History cannot really say what happens to men
at war. So listen: At night I feed on stars.
Do not ask about the cold. They have given
me whale oil for my feet and someone
told me if I carried a piece of raw onion
into battle, the bullets would not ﬁnd me.
Every now and then the universe hands out treats.
A cryogenic pod for Christmas, a family trip
to Greece. We stare like pigeons at our feeders,
impatient for the next gift to drop, sprouting stress bars
on our feathers at the bounty of some other pigeon’s trough.
We were taught to show devotion by walking in circles.
We had visions in caves and when the host served an apéritif
of fermented mare’s milk, we drank it with grace.
We walked barefoot, keeping the centre to our right,
measured paces between shrines in twilight. These days
we take the video coach, but still bring baskets of marigold.
In times of war we go from cot to cot, whispering sweet nothings
into soldiers’ ears. We write letters to their beloveds and preserve
their relics—toothpick, comb, bone. How else to arrive
at the ecstasy of ourselves if we cannot see another’s body?
The world has its unknown territories, its dragons.
We wander about with blindfolds, shouting Marco.
Only the devil responds, Polo. It is all remembrance. To repeat
and repeat again, the names of what we deem holy.
Sometimes we move so far we forget where we’ve been.
It’s like looking at an old picture of your face. The earth holds
all our dead, all our half-eaten apples, and still, it has space.
We make circuits around history with lamps
and portable altars of ﬁre, feel the thrill of ghosting in footsteps
of gods and demons. Remember this hill where you were cruciﬁed,
this spot in the river where you tore out your breast and ﬂung it
at the cursed city. Remember this sky you forgot in your room,
confusing the blue of the screen for the cosmos within.
No matter how many nights you spend in exile,
remember, pilgrim, you come home to this skin.
One man sits on another if he can.
One man’s heart beats stronger. One man goes
into the mines for another man to sparkle.
One man dies so the family living at the top of the hill
can eat sandwiches on the lawn. One man’s piggy bank
gets a bailout. One man tips over a stranger’s vegetable cart.
One man stays home and plays tombola till all this blows over.
One man hits the road like a pilgrim to Shambala, child
on shoulders. One man asks who’s going to go out and buy
the milk and eggs? One man’s home is across the horizon.
One man decides to walk there even though it will take days
and nights on tarmac with little food and water.
One man is stopped for loitering and made to do squats
for penance. One man reports ﬁsh are leaping
out of the sea and sucking greedily from the air.
One man eats his ration card. One man notices how starlings
have taken to the skies like a toothache,
a low continuous hunger, searing across the ﬁelds.
One man loads his gun. One man’s in charge of the seesaw.
One man wants to redistribute the plums. One man knows
there’s no such thing as a free lunch. One man ﬁnally sees
the crevasse. One man gives his blanket to the man
sitting in the crevasse. One man says there should be a tax
for doing such a thing and takes it back. The ditch widens.
13 Creation Abecedarian
14 The Stormtroopers of My Country
15 My Loneliness Is Not the Same as Your Loneliness
18 A Blue Mormon Finds Herself Among Common Emigrants
20 Why the Brazilian Butt Lift Won’t Save Us
22 Every Unbearable Thing
25 Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers
28 In a Dream I Give Birth to a Sumo Wrestler
30 Instructions on Surviving Genocide
37 The Comeback of Speedos
38 Face Exercises for Marionette Lines
39 I Found a Village and in it Were All Our Missing Women
42 Tree of Life
44 Homage to the Square
46 I Don’t Want to be Remembered by My Last Instagram Post
48 Everyone Has a Wilting Point
50 Tigress Hugs Manchurian Fir
51 Poems Lull us into Safety
52 After a Shooting at a Maternity Clinic in Kabul
54 They Killed Cows. I Killed Them.
67 The Coronapocalypse Will Be Televised
69 Variations on Hippo
72 A Dress is Like a Field
74 Postcard to My Mother-in-Law who at 16 is Chasing
Brigitte Bardot in St Tropez
76 Many Good & Wonderful Things
78 I Carry My Uterus in a Small Suitcase
80 A Possible Explanation as to Why We Mutilate Women
& Trees, which Tries to End on a Note of Hope
82 What Mr Frog Running Away from Marilyn Monroe
Taught Me About #MeToo
84 Tiger Woman
85 We Will Not Kill You. We’ll Just Shoot You in the Vagina
92 This May Reach You Either as a Bird or Flower
94 Rotten Grief
96 October Fugue
97 Do Not Go Out in the Storm
100 Listening to Abida Parveen on Loop I Understand
Why I Miss Home and Why It Must Be So
102 End-of-Year Epiphany in the Holiday Inn
104 It Has Taken Many Years to See My Body
107 Hope Is the Thing
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