Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Jess Rizkallah





the prefix mar means sea

holy mary full of grace leaking
from your eyes as oil, this means answered prayer

do not be afraid
of the mariposa balanced
on your crown

just a message from the dead
fluttering back over the river styx, a loophole.

marigold means yes, i should ring that bell,
i should be here now feet in good earth warm

around the cold and all-knowing marble
even in this moment pulling at our lungs

but we never carve into stone a mouth in time
to learn that martyr means the sword
always sinks into the sea.

mars is the god of war who once ruled
the scorpion i was born under

creature of desert of water by way
of thirst of waiting for the horizon’s blade

marie as in suffix of war as in warrior while the world sleeps
a name made diminutive when they assigned it to a woman.

my birth star was surrendered to pluto of the underworld
at the end of all the worlds above us

of breaking and remaking
old names as they are given

i’m middle named after a passed great grandmother
on each side of the family, but which marie did whisper herself

into my mother’s ear before labor while i waited inside
held like a breath i was a hydrophone

open for baleen whales to part with their songs
now stored in the beauty marking my cheek

the word marine makes the ocean into a net for our mouths
but of course it passes through itself

our throats dry in the night, red with want,
salt left behind so we wash our feet
run saline through piercings
as we try to be good daughters

mary marie maria ya qadisa mariam ameen
our hearts weighed against ma’at’s feather

light as the sky from up here you can’t tell
that marianas trench, deepest twist in the earth,

still records the simmer of boats on her surface
meaning there are corners on which i graze but don’t break my skin

and from down in my blood the crush of cells rises up like plastic
braided across my arms. my mother’s heart breaks

on a daily basis when she looks at my scar tissue
imitating its medicine roiling over the plates that pulse under our feet

why not me instead she pleads to someone above my left ear.
to calm her down i try not to pick instead i point to taurus,

his hindquarters thrown into the sky by ishtar
who first was named astarte, as proven by the head of the bull she kept for herself.

it rested on her shoulders not far from the taurus mountains
where the etymology of my grandmother’s maiden name
once lived. mar maroun blurred the coastline

between here and God. he made gardens
shimmer with wishes and wings and his believers

named maronites, mar of sea on ite of stone
church of mountain which monks carved into, revealing

stalactites arranged into a rosary by dripping water
into cupped palms and when we drink we cross ourselves we say ameen

we praise the mar, as in saint, as in alchemist of holy water
maroun buried north of aleppo like a fish under a chalice

not far from mare nostrum, a holier sounding name
for that which we now call the mediterranean sea, praised

even as we dump our trash into it then chronicle the side effects
on the news. i wanted to bring myself to it at sundown an anchor

feet first thighs next clenched self prepared for the burn
praying against the burst where my skin is thinnest

where i hold every seed i could scatter
as far as my voice can throw

but i told mama i would keep my distance
from the toil and bacteria, so I skipped the stone of my gaze

along the path of coins the sun broke into the water
until i reached the sun itself she stung my eyes

in beatitude i said a prayer to the virgin
for the line of hearts waiting on their feathers                       ameen

today, to mar something is to disfigure it. but once
you could press your hand against glass

to keep time warm. once, you could throw a rock into a wave
for someone waiting on the other side

of your life. smoother
by the time they found it.

a palm washed up to shore. once,
stones in a pocket didn’t mean walking into the sea.

I want to be unafraid.


icarus puts on her make up

i tied my hair into a ponytail
and when a strand on one side came loose
to frame my face, i felt beautiful
like an arab woman.

i pulled a strand from the other side
to match. a symmetry,
a mimicry. a rare allowance.
i could rouge my lips

and sigh. i could kneel
to pray. i could cross
my legs in the last pew
no one would know.

mountain mothers say battered knees
forfeit yr womanhood. be markless
and marked by shadow until the melted sugar
clears away the under, the brush, the blush.

hold the peach its bruise facedown.
divorce the body from its reflection in dirt. sever

the proximity to animalia. my kingdom
for a mane to call my own. my mane

for a throne i never asked for.
one day at the alter we will both wear crowns.
frankincense and myrrh. shroud me

in sequins
a plagiarized night
to fool the night. carry me
on your back

for as you slept i lined
each threshold
with salt.
in the dark

no one can tell
the gasp of fear
from the gasp of desire.
desire is just longing

wearing eyeliner.
my shoulders push up wires
where once were wings.
now with a brush i glitter them.

i present them to a man
of my choosing
his face flushed. once,
i was ashamed.

never knew these hairs vestigial, remnants
of angelic days when i could be the messenger
or the star above a birth, content
where hands can’t reach

my skirt unripped

but the fallen pray with battered knees
each scar a looking glass into the earth
tender sheens activating
the past

where once i raced a boy
and the asphalt claimed
a tablespoon of my flesh
the bone simmering

to forshadow the tingle
every time it rains. come summer,
a tangle of cells
obstructs my every close shave.

i remember the look on my aunt’s face
and her daughterless tongue.
her silent disgust as i cried.

i ran i jumped my wings obliterated
by the sun i fell i scarred i bled
i reflect but don’t repent
my skirts hemmed above the knee

not to betray
womanly obedience
but to remind you
that once i flew

i was an animal in the heat
i was better than any son.

i could have easily escaped
but for once i wanted
to win.


Photograph of Jess Rizkallah by Valerie Jane Kwok.

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer and illustrator. She is an NYU MFA graduate, a Kundiman fellow, and editor-in-chief at pizza pi press. Her full-length collection the magic my body becomes was a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award and won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize as awarded by the Radius of Arab-American Writers and University of Arkansas Press. Find her at More from this author →