once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks

Dear readers,

Thank you for following me on this month’s journey in verse. I hope you encountered at least one poem that delighted or moved you, bewildered or emboldened you. It has truly been a pleasure sharing this range of works with you–and I hope to continue posting beyond National Poetry Month, though not quite as often!

The last words of April will come from one of the most revered contemporary Arab poets, the Syrian writer Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998). He was known for his stirring love poetry that gave expression to women’s freedom–and also for his poems of exile and elegy. He passed away 15 years today and was buried in his hometown of Damascus, which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity, and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine.”


“A Lesson in Drawing”

My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
“… But this is a prison, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?”
And I tell him: “Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.”


My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
“Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?”
I tell him, “Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.”


My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
“But this is a tear, father, not a poem!”
And I tell him:
“When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.”

My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.


2 thoughts on “once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks

  1. thank you for this lovely collection of poems! I stumbled on your blog earlier this month and have been enjoying it since then. You have a wonderful sense for poems that are both striking and complex.

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