There is nothing more terrible than waiting for the terrible.

illustration of a dark hillside dotted with bright orange flowers. Silhouette of a child in the distance.
Art by Kristina Closs

Half-Life in Exile

by Hala Alyan

I’m forever living between Aprils.
The air here smells of jacarandas and lime;
it’s sunset before I know it. I’m supposed
to rest, but that’s where the children live.
In the hot mist of sleep. Dream after dream.
Instead, I obsess. I draw stars on receipts.
Everybody loves the poem.
It’s embroidered on a pillow in Milwaukee.
It’s done nothing for Palestine.
There are plants out West that emerge only after fires.
They listen for smoke. I wrote the poem
after weeks of despair, hauling myself
like a rock. Everyone loves the poem.
The plants are called fire-followers,
but sometimes it’s after the rains. At night,
I am a zombie feeding on the comments.
Is it compulsive to watch videos?
Is it compulsive to memorize names?
Rafif and Ammar and Mahmoud.
Poppies and snapdragons and calandrinias:
I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you under the missiles.
A plant waits for fire to grow.
A child waits for a siren. It must be a child.
Never a man. Never a man without a child.
There is nothing more terrible
than waiting for the terrible. I promise.
Was the grief worth the poem? No,
but you don’t interrogate a weed
for what it does with wreckage.
For what it’s done to get here.

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Check out more of Hala Alyan’s gorgeous, necessary work, including her two novels Salt Houses and The Arsonists City and poetry collections The Twenty-Ninth Year and Hijra.

The air smelled of burning clementine groves.

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From Hijra, by the Palestinian American poet, author, and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan (1986-).

“Seham”

Sit and I’ll tell you of my father’s prayer rug,
dark as plums with yellow borders,

borders like the map we ate, grit tangled
between our teeth, the years swelling

like one hundred arrows. Here,
have some stew, taste June in the steam.

Did I tell you about the name we bore
like armor, the earth they spat up

with fishbone? After they planted copper
in our eyes, we went on planting suns over

the graves. The air smelled of
burning clementine groves. We fed

our daughters until they grew
redwoods and oak trees instead of hearts,

the fever we took from the land when
our ribs turned into compasses.