Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Safia Elhillo





ars poetica

“Autobiography practiced in the enemy’s language has the texture of fiction.”
– Assia Djebar, Fantasia

in ohio i tell a classroom of white students a story i mean to be beautiful
about my grandfather      retreating in his old age to his first tongue

in which there are no separate words for like & love      once at a restaurant
meaning    i think    to say i would like some tomato soup     repeats

to our flustered waitress      i love tomato soup      i love tomato soup
& the white students & the white professors like my story     they think i mean it

to be comic    the room balloons with their delight      they are laughing
at my grandfather & it is my fault    for carving tendernesses from my old life

without context      parading to strangers my weak translations
now they think i am joking & lap     at my every dripping word

& isn’t this why i learned this language      to graduate
from my thick & pungent newness      my accent & my nameless shoes       to float

my hands like a conductor         redirect the laughter to a body not my own
for a moment of quiet inside my traitor’s head


The Persistence of Damage

with my teeth i understand my lover’s waist
we worship at each other’s throats
i am not afraid of men only of forgiving


my father without meaning to / i am in on the joke about myself


a specter tries each our faces in turn
someone   in time   will be first to die


i am most afraid it will be him


i am most afraid it will be me

Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). She received the the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and is co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Safia is a Cave Canem fellow and holds an MFA in poetry from The New School. She is of Sudanese origin and lives in Washington, DC. More from this author →