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.


Leave metaphor, and walk with me.

“Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world—his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.”

Naomi Shihab Nye


The beloved and formidable Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish would have turned 71 today had he not passed away in 2008. Today, I share some words from one of his last works, Almond Blossoms and Beyond, to honor his legacy and everything he stood for.

An excerpt from “Like a Hand Tattoo from an Ode by an Ancient Arab Poet”

I am he.
He walks before me and I follow.
I do not say to him,
was something simple for us:
a green stone. A tree. a street,
an adolescent moon, a reality no longer real.
He walks before me.
I follow his shadow.
As he hurries, his shadow rises over the hills
and covers a pine tree in the South,
and covers a willow tree in the North.

I said:Did we not part?
He said:Yes.
I owe you the return of fantasy to the real,
and you owe me the apple’s surrender to gravity
I said: Where are you taking me?
He said: Toward the beginning., where you were born.
Here, you and your name.

If I could return to the beginning,
I would select fewer letters for my name,
letters easier on the foreign ear.

March is a month of storms and lust.
Spring looks on, like a thought between two people,
between a long winter and a long summer.
I remember nothing but allegory.
I was scarcely born when I woke
to a clear image between the horse’s mane,
and my mother’s braids.
Give up metaphor, and walk quietly
on the earth’s down, he said.

Sunset brings the stranger back
to his well, like a song that is not sung.
Sunset stirs up in us longing for an obscure passion.

Things acquire new meanings at sunset.
Memories wake and call,
like a signal of death at sunset,
like the beat of a song not sung to anyone.

(On cypress tree,
east of emotions,
gilded clouds,
in the heart, a chestnut brown
transparency of shadows, drunk like water.
Come, let us play;
come, let us go
to any star.)

I am he. He walks over me
and I ask him,
Do you remember anything here?
Tread softly-remember,
the earth is pregnant with us.

He said: I saw the moon shining here,
its grief plain, like an orange in the night.
It guides us in the wilderness to stray paths…
Without it, mothers could not meet their children.
Without it, wanderers could not read
their names in the night: Refugees,
guests of the wind.

My wings felt small in the wind that year.
I always thought the place was identified
by the mothers and the aroma of sage.
No one said to me,
this place is called a country,
around the country are borders,
and beyond the borders is another place,
called diaspora and exile for us.

I did not yet need an identity,
but they, men who came to us on tanks,
are carrying off our place on trucks.

The place is a feeling.
Those are our remains, like hand tattoos
in the mu’allaqa of the ancient poet.
They pass us and we pass them.

Thus said the one I was the day I did not know
the details of the names of our trees or the names
the birds who gather in me.
I did not remember the words to defend the place
from its removal, from its strange, new name
hedged with eucalyptus.

The signs say to us,
You were not here.

The storm abates.
The place is a feeling.
Those are our tracks, said he who was I,
Here our two orders of time meet and part.
Who are you in the presence of now?

I said: I am you, were it not for the smoke of factories.
He said: Who are you in the presence of yesterday?
I said: I am we, were it not
for the intrusion of
a verb in the imperfect tense.
He said: And who will you be tomorrow?
I said: A love poem that you will write when
you choose-since you are, yourself, a legend of love.

(Golden as old harvest songs
dark from the sting of the night,
white from the water’s endless laughter,
as you approach the spring
your eyes are almonds,
your lips two wounds of honey,
your legs towers of marble,
your hands on my shoulders two birds.
You give me a spirit that flutters
around the place.)

Leave metaphor, and walk with me.
Do you see traces of the moth in the light?

I said: I see you there, I see you pass
like one of the thoughts of our ancestors.
He said: Thus the moth recalls its poetic labor:
a song that the astronomers recognize
as proof of eternity.

I walk slowly by myself
and my shadow follows me, and I, it.
Nothing brings me back.
Nothing brings me back.
As if a part of me were departing,
anxious for tomorrow.
Do not wait for anyone.
Do not wait for me.


[the rest of the poem–which I highly recommend you read–is available here ]

All that is left is storytelling

I first encountered Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah (1971-) through his translations of the beloved Mahmoud Darwish. But it turns out Joudah is a stunning poet in his own right. It’s difficult to choose just one piece from his first collection The Earth in the Attic, so expect to read more of his work in the future.

poet Fady Joudah portrait

“Immigrant Song”

In the kitchen in the afternoon, peeling oranges and splitting cantaloupe gut,
All that is left is storytelling.

The one-radio, one-coffee-shop village now an almond field
And vacation-brochure ruins besieged by grass.

Everyday around noon a boy on a mule, the men out in the fields,
Bread fresh out of brick-oven, wrist deep in olive oil, elbows dripping.

The one-radio, one-coffee-shop village without an ink-line on paper,
Now spilled like beads out of a rosary.

Not what they would have grown.

We the people in god we trust.

We the people in god we trust everyday around noon a mule.

We the people dream the city: Oooh you give me fever.

Oooh you give me fever so bad I shake like beads out of a rosary.

Fever so bad it must’ve been malaria.

Hey doctor! You mule-ride away, you cost the rest of harvest.

Hey doctor, the city’s a medicine cabinet.

We plant tomatoes, okra, squash instead.

And a fig tree that won’t grow in Tennessee frost.

Trees die standing.

One-cantaloupe, one-rosary kitchen.