Poetry: Two Poems by Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo’s The January Children has been on of the most exciting collections of 2017. These two new poems show why. Here, Elhillo comfortably explores established and invented forms with her beautiful, consistent focus on language, and bodies, and the hot spot where two cultures collide. There are few poets emerging today that can manage such a balance (think Akbar, think Monet, think Shire).


application for asylum

how did you learn fear?
i crossed a body of water

how did you learn fear?
i grew a new american body it was the summer [      ] died

& now?
i don’t like to be touched

what do you do?
i keep having the dream where my brother is dead i wake up & can’t remember where he lives

where do you live?
broken dishes in the water

where do you live?
[      ] died teenaged & his brother died too they were moonfaced & dark

where do you live?
we came here to be safe we crossed a body of water

where did you hide?
[      ] was killed in the summer in the country we asked to keep us

what do you hide?
it makes the bleeding brand new

what did you lose?
they were identical twins they look like my brother broken dishes in the water i don’t know where we’ll go




for Charif S.

not black    our grandmothers insist & point
to vague & arid swathes across the map
arabia’s tribes conveniently nomadic   to place
wherever blood begins to show a touch

of dark   or daughters do not fear as they
are told   the hot turmeric of the sun
allow instead its fingers’ pull of color
to the surface   of the body kept

cloistered for generations   attempt
at manmade white   with creams & veils  & fire
to kill the curl   hair oiled & brushed out thin
so of course i hear the song that names it

asmar   asmarani   & hear my own dark name
i shake out the dark froth of my hair


i shake out the dark froth of my hair
the man in the silver shop says    sudan
really    but you look so clean   ya asmar
& in an emirate by the water

at a party    my girls & i are scrubbed
& polished   with our eyelids painted gold
& yes we gleam & yes all day we tugged
the sun into our copper mouths

hair swollen in the heat     forest of
acacia trees      impenetrable though
a man dressed all in white    thobe bluing in the
clean cold air conditioning from his car

rolls down the window & caws to his friends
“العبيد هنا”           the niggers are here


“العبيد هنا”           the niggers are here
our mothers debark    a copper child on
each hip    american future bluing
each life to match its new passport

& now    & here    the option to name the
asmar something new    to pretend the word
in our new language     is no longer black
despite     bilad al sudan    land of the

blacks     as if our arabic will pale us
or blur the target    disguise us as some
other other    some more desirable
dusk     as if the bullets will hear our sons’

sorghum inflections    & bend to find some
black that holds up against language & sea


black that holds up against language & sea
black the only name assigned my body
that ever felt like mine    black my hunted
kin    my hunted blood    & black my only

country   & asmar    & asmarani
& black that does not wait until called
a nigger or wait    to be asked who
taught me to speak an arab’s arabic

or offered a window to some vaguer
brown    to opt out of black   to cling to the
vague & arid swathes of map    ready
to fictionalize my beginnings    i

unfurl in my sun worship to the dark
markings of the alphabet that named me



Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, and a Cave Canem Fellow, she received an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. In addition to appearing in several journals and anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, her work has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Estonian, and Greek. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me.

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