We have only one minute and I love you.

picture of a little boy in a doorway in Oman
Child in a doorway in Oman, 2007. Photo by me.

“Tablets V” by Dunya Mikhail (1965-)


Light falls from her voice
and I try to catch it as the last
light of the day fades …
But there is no form to touch,
no pain to trace.


Are dreams
taking their seats
on the night train?


She recites a list of wishes
to keep him from dying.


The truth lands like a kiss—
sometimes like a mosquito,
sometimes like a lantern.


Your coffee-colored skin
awakens me to the world.


We have only one minute
and I love you.


All children are poets
until they quit the habit
of reaching for butterflies
that are not there.


The moment you thought you lost me,
you saw me clearly
with all of my flowers,
even the dried ones.


If you pronounce all letters
and vowels at once,
you would hear their names
falling drop by drop
with the rain.


We carved
our ancestral trees into boats.
The boats sailed into harbors
that looked safe from afar.


Trees talk to each other
like old friends
and don’t like to be interrupted.
They follow anyone who
cuts one of them,
turning that person
into a lonely cut branch.
Is this why in Arabic
we say “cut of a tree”
when we mean
“having no one”?


The way roots hide
under trees—
there are secrets,
faces, and wind
behind the colors
in Rothko’s untitled canvases.


Will the sea forget its waves,
as caves forgot us?


Back when there was no language
they walked until sunset
carrying red leaves
like words to remember.


It’s true that pain
is like air, available
but we each feel
our pain hurts the most.


So many of them died
under stars
that don’t know their names.


If she just survived with me.


A flame dims in the fireplace,
a day slips quietly away from the calendar,
and Fairuz sings, “They say love kills time,
and they also say time kills love.”


The street vendor offers tourists
necklaces with divided hearts,
seashells to murmur the sea’s secrets in your ear,
squishy balls to make you feel better,
maps of homelands you fold
in your pocket as you go on your way.


I am haunted by the melody
of a forgotten song
sung while two hands
tied my shoelaces into a ribbon
and waved me goodbye to school.


If I could photocopy
the moment we met
I would find it full
of all the days and nights.


It won’t forget the faraway child,
that city whose door stayed open
for passersby, tourists, and invaders.


The moon is going to the other
side of the world
to call my loved ones.


The seasons change
colors and you come and go.
What color is your departure?


The dictator is the director of a great tragedy.

“I still feel that poetry is not medicine — it’s an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it. We all feel alienated because of this continuous violence in the world. We feel alone, but we feel also together. So we resort to poetry as a possibility for survival. However, to say I survived is not so final as to say, for example, I’m alive. We wake up to find that the war survived with us.” —Dunya Mikhail 

Today, this essential X-ray from the staggering exiled Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail (1965-) via her 2007 collection, The War Works Hard. 


“Bag of Bones”

What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.
His bones, like thousands of bones
in the mass graveyard,
his skull, not like any other skull.
Two eyes or holes
with which he listened to music
that told his own story,
a nose
that never knew clean air,
a mouth, open like a chasm,
was not like that when he kissed her
there, quietly,
not in this place
noisy with skulls and bones and dust
dug up with questions:
What does it mean to die all this death
in a place where the darkness plays all this silence?
What does it mean to meet your loved ones now
with all of these hollow places?
To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?
To depart without death or birth certificates
because the dictator does not give receipts
when he takes your life?
The dictator has a heart, too,
a balloon that never pops.
He has a skull, too, a huge one
not like any other skull.
It solved by itself a math problem
That multiplied the one death by millions
to equal homeland
The dictator is the director of a great tragedy.
He has an audience, too,
an audience that claps
until the bones begin to rattle—
the bones in bags,
the full bag finally in her hand,
unlike her disappointed neighbor
who has not yet found her own.

We said there isn’t any worse to come.

The Iraqi American poet Dunya Mikhail (1965-) gives me the chills. There will be more to come from her on this blog as I work through the stack of her collections currently on my nightstand.

“My Grandmother’s Grave”

When my grandmother died
I thought, “She can’t die again.”
Everything in her life
happened once and forever:
her bed on our roof,
the battle of good and evil in her tales,
her black clothes,
her mourning for her daughter who
“was killed by headaches,”
the rosary beads and her murmur,
“Forgive us our sins,”
her empty vase from the Ottoman time,
her braid, each hair a history —

First were the Sumerians,
their dreams inscribed in clay tablets.
They drew palms, so dates ripen before their sorrows.
They drew an eye to chase evil
away from their city.
They drew circles and prayed for them:
a drop of water
a sun
a moon
a wheel spinning faster than Earth.
They begged: “Oh gods, don’t die and leave us alone.”

Over the Tower of Babel,
light is exile,
its codes crumbs of songs
leftover for the birds.

More naked emperors
passed by the Tigris
and more ships . . .
The river full
of crowns
dead fish,
and on the Euphrates, corpse-lilies floating.

Every minute a new hole in the body of the ship.

The clouds descended on us
war by war,
picked up our years,
our hanging gardens,
and flew away like storks.

We said there isn’t any worse to come.

Then the barbarians came
to the mother of two springs.
They broke my grandmother’s grave: my clay tablet.
They smashed the winged bulls whose eyes
were sunflowers
widely open
watching the fragments of our first dreams
for a lifetime.

My hand on the map
as if on an old scar.