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Your Body Is War

Your Body Is War

by Mahtem Shiferraw

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Your Body Is War contemplates the psychology of the female human body, looking at the ways it exists and moves in the world, refusing to be contained in the face of grief and trauma. Bold and raw, Mahtem Shiferraw’s poems explore what the woman’s body has to do to survive and persevere in the world, especially in the aftermath of abuse.

A groundbreaking collection, the poems in Your Body Is War embody elements of conflict, making them simultaneously a place of destruction and of freedom.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496214508
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 03/01/2019
Series: African Poetry Book
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 72
Sales rank: 1,140,580
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea and now divides her time between Los Angeles and Addis Ababa. She is the author of the poetry collection Fuchsia (Nebraska, 2016) and the chapbook Behind Walls and Glass.

Read an Excerpt


Because the Body

does not break at sight

I feed it sweets, because the world is sour in my mouth.

Swallowing Suns

There is a picture where you are swallowing whole suns, small winds of fire raging down your throat, charring everything you have ever swallowed whole —

his mouth, their feet, chunks of poems still bleeding with foreign blood,
these and other things you do not know the meaning of.

It is always the same story or different versions of the same story;

it begins with the sun and painted palm trees bending down without breaking their plump leaves a song, their trunks the size of small planets;

when you shiver, cold,
they sneeze, and suddenly

you find yourself in the land of strangers,
the land of immigrants, where people like you forget where they came from,

because they must, because assimilation is a sin rewarded here, because it does not carry with itself the aroma of shiro, or mud or wet air,

because it is less painful to wake up every morning and not want to paint the skies with Amharic idioms and wave the end of hand-sewn netela in their direction,

because even waking up becomes an act of sorrow,
and this kind of sorrow does not let you be who you want to be, an amalgamation of sorts,
neither alien nor human, neither foreigner nor American or Westerner, and instead

you become a small plant, or a small tree, and your branches grow inward, as if you are the only one who needs to stand in the shade, as if this is such an ordinary thing, because there are

others like you too, and even though you cannot hear their language, and understand their voices filled with honey and goat cheese, seeds for eyes and abdomens filled with loaves of black bread —

even though you do not know their words,
you know their eyes, that smile they smile,
as if still hiding behind themselves,
and their backs are so broken from worry, worry, worry, always worry shrinking their stature, and sooner or later you all realize

knowledge has failed you, kindness and honesty do not actually matter, because

what is a man with an accent,
even one with blue eyes and the fairest of skins,
what is a woman with a veiled head, with a multitude of mouths to feed an ocean away,

what is a boy, a girl or others sent to follow disillusioned dreams and instead find themselves

in constant hiding, hiding from everything and everyone, even from themselves, and instead they

look at you, and you look away because you remind them of the thing they left,
that accent they were told to hide,
that hair, that smell, that food,
that way of masking everything behind a laughter that splits them in half.

And so you look away, as you must, as they do too and your job is to swallow, swallow everything,
a slurpie, a pie, a chicken with eight breasts;

you swallow your light inward, so when others come they will not notice the sadness sitting behind your eyes and when they come, their arrogance is more sour than old enjera, more bitter than loved ones lost at sea,
and you meet them with fire, having swallowed whole suns in your life, having spent years in their shadows, because

the land of the free chooses its prodigies like your grandmother sifts through sirnay,

the white ones sitting in a round tray,
the amber ones thrown to feed the chicken.

Your Body Is War (I)

because you have spent enough time carving a wound as big as a star, and when it's ready you flesh it out — its colors blindfolded,
and you hold it in your hands and you sing a forgotten song for it until it is ripe and raw and ready to explode,
then you pick a knife, unfold your skin,
and place it right beneath it so your blood can glow at night and when you walk away someone smells the scent of the firmament emanating from your body, and they say,
this is unworldly, and it will be exactly that because war is slow and agonizing like how sometimes it is to love, to kill for love, or for anything else,
and each task is so arduous, you can't let yourself be contained, because the universe inhabits you and your eyes are two black holes digging through the back of your brain appending you into white bricked walls,
and you keep telling yourself there is no smell of war in me but why else would this feel like madness like a seed was planted in your stomach and grew into a sharp spear,
and it grew out of you, and into all versions of you and into the rest of what you thought was you, because when it is time to stop the body does not know it black hole eyes cannot see and your hands would rather busy themselves with something new, something torn,
they touch the sand and a poem comes rushing and it is about a black body, and a body of blackness and you try to wash your hands, but such poems do not go away easily, instead they stick to your skin, they sink chiseled teeth into your bones, until all you can do is scream, but who can hear you now, when even your star is fallen, your eyes empty sockets of sorrow —


My father is a fish; he doesn't swim, but when he looks up, his eyes are riverbeds, eyebrows painted with winds,

an ever-watchful eye splitting his forehead and behind his back hidden in black, black hair.

When he hears our voices a small earthquake jolts from his eyes,
his fists clenched, because,
a father with three daughters has many things to fear.

When he speaks,
his voice is honey his words, poetry,
his hands tree branches,
oil skin, seeds for teeth.

Small metaphors take hold of him, when he least expects it;
old and new Amharic enveloping us all,
secrets we cannot understand.

Sometimes his own stories escape quietly through the night;

he is fourteen when he carves his own soap out of sheep fat; sixteen when he cuts his father's hair for the last time; seventeen when he touches the cool surface of a handgun.

There are also fleeting stories;
his beehives, his plants, the meat of wild pigs roasted in hiding.

In sickness, we are fed milk and honey, and when rain falls again, we become fish too, swimming among the husky corn plants, our feet drenched in mud, and we buy
karia by street shoulders —

but by then his skin is laced in blue-gray,
constantly worried,
shoving away men with lustful eyes,
protector from lonely neighbors,
hyenas, schoolmates, and everyone else,

until it is only us in a half-built madhouse in the middle of nowhere.

The Art of Invisibility

I was taught to be afraid of men morning and day and night,

taught the art of flight before I wrote my first words;

they will come after you they will hunt you they will rape you;

do not stand in their shadow, or,
do not stand at all.

Instead, learn to shrink your body as if you were an aging fig and to run, always run,
as fast as you can.

So I have mastered the art of being invisible,
so breathless, if I opened my mouth only clouds would come out,

and if you touched my flesh it is not there, it is somewhere farther safe behind the heads of eucalyptus trees, behind mothers, behind women

who have eyes even in the back of their heads, women who can hear my woes before the sound of my voice, women as strong as

oak trees, as tall as the city's mountains women with a third eye, a fifth eye, an eleventh daughter;

and I want to tell them to shut their wombs so they can stop glancing behind their backs or to the sides, wondering which angered demon was sent their way, so safety cannot be a novelty,
a strange fruit hidden where they can't see it,
where only its aroma emanates slowly, slowly to the mantels of winds, where everyone they know everyone they once loved will send treacherous words their way —

what were you wearing what did you do this never happened to you

where the horror of men is nothing compared to the ambivalence of everyone else —

and so their wombs will shut or bleed an invisible blood, and that invisibility,
is the biggest sin — here is your veil of shame:
hide underneath it, pretend your body was not made of earth and mud and bubbling breath, your eyes do not have light,
your mouth so foul, and your memory, so wrong! No,
it didn't happen like that.

Let us rewrite your history:
beneath the invisible veil,
you are no more.

The Suicide Chamber

Walk in silence; this is not a place of sorrow, but one of stillness.

You are not alone — though your thoughts are already gray, your screams soundless and fog-thick.

These eyes, floating above your head,
this mouth attached to small things,
dismembered arms and legs slowly crawling, making their way up, up —

this you, you do not recognize.

Instead, this is where you find pieces of yourself, and others,
at odd hours, on quite ordinary days;
when you see your grandmother for the first time in sixteen years, or

when remembering the unborn child, or the dense texture of her tumor, when longing for his breath, or when your feet are floating above water, when something inside of you is split in small halves, even while staring at your reflection, or the moon's arrogant light revealing shadows you do not want to see,

wondering what it would feel like to fall off a bridge, and let any car swoop you by,

or jump out of the train, and let the blackness of tunnels swallow you whole;

and drink this water, drink, drink the tsisisat
until it is heavy and bubbling in your lungs

thinking so fondly:

I am the daughter of the river and to the water I shall return.

Find yourself among the presence of others like you ordinarily so —

somehow speaking the same language of sorrow and shame.

This is where they come to find relief from the world, to find themselves, or not at all, this is where they continue to exist in solitude,
multiples at a time, because this is easier than anything else, easier than admitting what they dare not say, easier than waking up every morning, and that is what we are reduced to,

the task of being disembodied the small, small task of disappearing without a sound, without a whisper of sorrow.

The Tree of My Deaths

This fire consumes me with the appetite of a lover;

and what I want is this:

to hold it in my hands,
to kiss its flames,
to dip my hair into that succulent orange;

all the colors I want to use for my suicide are there —

a tender blue, the shadow of gray, the blood of red, the purple of plum, the whiteness of the sun, the translucence of ghosts;
I think of it like this:
I will die multichromatic.

And then there is the blackness of it all;

the burning,
the charcoal body,
the smell of smoke.

This cannot be it, this is not
how I want it to happen;

so instead I burn entire notebooks filled with poems,
stories I've written at night,

and the characters melt quickly, pages devoured one after the other, and what is left is the ash of sorrow,

and I dig a hole in the garden by joyous adey abeba, and scatter ashes and weep slowly, quietly,
as any child would.

How I tell you years later:

there is a tree of stories in my garden and death hangs loosely from its branches and its leaves are a shade darker than the deepest night and it bears no fruit, no characters, no people,
no plots; it bears no names,

the tree of my stories the tree of my deaths.

Behind Walls and Glass

There are many places where you can hide

but none are safe for you to call home.

This is a land that fed you meat and frozen vegetables,

a land that calls you alien and immigrant,

a land that defines your self-worth by the color of your skin,

a land where your language is nothing but strange sounds.

This is not home;

home is a place where you can be who you want to be

where meat comes from goat herders where papayas are the size of cats where God is only God where black and brown and white are only colors

where you fall, and a flower blossoms in your name

where you are not asked if you have a nickname if you were colonized if your ancestors were tied and sold to the ferrous hearts of sea merchants,

if you know anyone else in the entire continent if you were a child soldier if you have starved.

This is not it.

This is the place to hide behind walls and glass behind fake accents and quick smiles behind designer clothes and fancy cars and lavish trips and dancing and nightclubs and short shorts and scorned boys who want to claim your body before you know it is yours.

This is your hiding place:

tell no one and you'll be safe.

Your Body Is War (II)

When men tell you this you do not know who you are;

men with long arms and lurid eyes bleeding an old blood, speaking a thing you have heard before.

They say, your body belongs to them, or the war,
something you will yourself to forget,

though you feel parts of you missing eaten away slowly in broad daylight.

What they leave: not one wound, but these:

the flowers of one thousand wounds, within thousands more, so small and so deep, resting comfortably within your walls.

There is nothing left to do.

You are sick, but this sickness does not let you grieve,
or be, or believe.

If they ask, you have been at war before,
or, you were it, and you have spent so many years in wandering, having forgotten the bone sound of sleep, or the smell of things unbleeding.

Instead, when men come,
you hide, and they find you anyway.

You think you are invisible and you must be because that rustling sound must not be there, those hands must not be reaching under your shirt and that voice belongs only to the devil.

When you are alone the whispering becomes water,
murmuring things you do not want to hear because that would have you stand so tall, so unremarkable,
naked flesh and bare bones breaking open once more.

But this, this you, you know;
the danger of being so utterly vulnerable,
being present, or worse, being noticed,
spotted among the thinning crowd when you are hiding, not recognizing your face in the mirror, because the one who looks back

has a blinded eye and ears slashed, and a permanent smile etched from earlobe to earlobe.

This, you should do:
feign a great sleep upon their arrival,
a small death.

What is it to you anyway —

you thought you were dead but the dead have no more fear and you have water-waves of it,

so many you escape at night to fill the oceans, and the oceans spit a black spit back to you and when you come back there is nothing left.

You are not there,
but your body is:
war —

ash, ash, ash,
now dead, now a ghost,
walking among the tombstones of men calling their names one by one

thinking them ravagers — a smell you have taught yourself so well, and with each scar you draw a new wound, hundreds more showing up to drink sunlight, thick shards of glass underneath your skin, cutting your flesh, the names of men etched beneath each bone

containing this —

no ordinary war no ordinary body

into a thoughtless spree, selves multiplied as many as the wounds,

black ocean black master black festering heart.

Ash and Blue

The inevitability in certain things:

the sky holding thoughts, and folding

them back slowly.

Oak wood aging with time, its lines the

center of the earth, rings resurfacing upon each other.

Moss thickening, the smell of morning air and carrying it through the day.

The delicate composure of small objects —

a pen, an unloved desk,
papier-mâché ghosts.

One moment, the self, the next, ash.

Body of Punishments

You crave the unknown like your body craves punishment;

a father throwing the sleeping body of his daughter down the stairs,

the hands of a homeless man struck down with a bullet,

the corpses of chairs and tables thrown against walls,

a belt's peeled skin because of too many lashings,
the body left untouched after so much fumbling.

It is easier to distance yourself from it all, anything that can numb this grayness out of you.

Remember what this body wants to crave:

sunbathing in the Spring,
a soft kiss on the throat,
tickling hair in the back of the neck,
ocean water under the feet,
rain all over its skin.

This body of punishments wants to be remembered for what it could have been:

a home for the displaced.


Excerpted from "Your Body Is War"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Swallowing Suns    
Your Body Is War (I)     
The Art of Invisibility    
The Suicide Chamber    
The Tree of My Deaths    
Behind Walls and Glass    
Your Body Is War (II)     
Ash and Blue    
Body of Punishments    
Like a Lover’s Quarrel    
The Curse of Ishmael    
Black and Blue    
Death by Trains    
The Memory of the Body    
Your Body Is War (III)     
The Old Tree    
The Wrong Kind of Dream    
Your Body Is War (IV)     
Journey with Dante    
At the Mad Man’s    
Water Dreams    
The Body Book    
Conversations with Self    
The Yellow Woman    
The Fruit Mother    
Ghost Procession    
Your Body Is War (V)     

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