I rarely do this, but the spirits are moving me to re-post (with slight updates) this amazing, necessary verse I shared two years ago:
“Landai belong to women,” Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian, said. “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”
“A poem is a sword,” Saheera Sharif, Mirman Baheer’s founder, said. Literature, she says, is a more effective battle for women’s rights than shouting at political rallies. “This is a different kind of struggle.”
Today I share a testament to the power of verse from the women of Afghanistan. The following couplets are called landays (or landai), an oral and often anonymous song, each with 22 syllables, created by and for the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether sung to the beat of a hand drum in a rural village centuries ago or whispered furtively into a phone hotline run by Mirman Baheer (Afghanistan’s largest women literary society), each landay is a stunning reflection of a layered life–a life in which singing and writing these poems does not come without grave risks.
I hope that after reading this poem you will understand why I’ve recently been captivated by the work of Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi (1969-), who was forced into exile in 2012 and now lives in London. He is often described as one of today’s leading African poets writing in Arabic; if you’d like to read more of these beautiful translations, check out the collection where this poem lives, A Monkey at the Window.
The body of a bird in your mouth
Raw light spills from your eyes,
You must breach the horizon, once,
in order to wake up.
You must open window after window.
You must support the walls.
I let alphabets cling to me
as I climb the thread of language
between myself and the world.
I muster crowds in my mouth:
suspended between language and the world,
between the world and the alphabets.
I let my head
listen to the myth,
to all sides praising each other.
And I shout at the winds from the top of a mountain.
Why does my tongue tell me to climb this far?
What is the distance between my voice and my longing?
What is there?
A body transcending my body.
A body exiled by desire.
A body sheltered by the wind.
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
Welcome to my ninth round of daily postings for National Poetry Month. This past year, when I found myself overwhelmed, heartbroken, and angered by the state of the world and the state of this country, I once again turned to poetry. It was verse that helped lift me out of the quicksand of scrolling through endless polemics and social media posts. In stanza after stanza, I remembered the enormous struggles of humankind not just now and here but everywhere and across history. In line after line, I rediscovered what is worth celebrating and fighting for in our lives. In word after word, I fell back in love with language.
Let us begin this month with one of my touchstones: the Palestinian-American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye (1952-). Let us remember the tender spots we carry in our brains and our bodies and our lives. And let us read poetry, together.
“Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.” —Tommy Olofsson, Sweden
I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.
Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.
Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.
Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.
I find myself drawn to this poem by the Cuban American poet Silvia Curbelo (1955-) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Tampa Bay setting, a landscape I spent many years of my life and that I don’t often encounter in poems.
“Tonight I Can Almost Hear the Singing”
There is a music to this sadness.
In a room somewhere two people dance.
I do not mean to say desire is everything.
A cup half empty is simply half a cup.
How many times have we been there and not there?
I have seen waitresses slip a night’s
worth of tips into the jukebox, their eyes
saying yes to nothing in particular.
Desire is not the point.
Tonight your name is a small thing
falling through sadness. We wake alone
in houses of sticks, of straw, of wind.
How long have we stood at the end of the pier
watching that water going?
In the distance the lights curve along
Tampa Bay, a wishbone ready to snap
and the night riding on that half promise,
a half moon to light the whole damned sky.
This is the way things are with us.
Sometimes we love almost enough.
We say I can do this, I can do more than this and faith feeds
on its own version of the facts.
In the end the heart turns on itself
like hunger to a spoon.
We make a wish in a vanishing landscape.
Sadness is one more reference point
like music in the distance.
Two people rise from a kitchen table
as if to dance. What do they know