Rumpus Original Poetry: Four Poems by Janan Alexandra





I call my mother to ask her the Arabic word

for scrubbing the plates clean
from yesterday’s breakfast,

knowing there is no English
for this which has a name

in Arabic: [                  ]

I know to use coffee grounds
when I wash the dishes

to take away the smell of egg.
My mother has language for what I do

not, I ask for the word that exists,
to carry its flap in my mouth

I say it as I cross the street:

zankha & again zankha,
to practice loss & wonder

when I can no longer call,
what else will have no name ?


small history 14 years after your father attempts suicide 

Last night with your mother & father. A kind of family house,
a notion of home. There with your one grandmother who had
strong calves & sleek black stockings stretching across her ankles
which were like stones she loved. Bless her wrists’ blue-green
rivers & her teeth & lips that studied poems. Bless your father
who cried & cried in his chair, which in the French would mean
in his flesh. His face was smooth as new fruit, eyes like honey
thickly bright. A liquid strange & low pooled in your father’s throat
but this time it was not blood & so in his chair he rocked & in his
way became brave & soft. He made a sound of wooden hooves
on the wooden floor & the thousand hands of time were thus
measured in hooves & the rockings of chairs. & here your father’s
neck grown silken with new grass & what was broken of the skin
had been softly resewn & here was now meant to last & last.


small history after a white lady asks me if i know that i have an Arabic name 

I do not always know how to hold my name in my mouth, it reminds me
that it is half my own and half my mother’s, and then isn’t this the story.

In English the j gets ground between the teeth, there’s no way to bite it softly.
In Arabic there is a home for my name but it is swept with longing.
And isn’t that also the story: a house of stone half-there, half-destroyed,
we have a word for this—ruins. It brings us to our knees, we call it gentle falling.

The house in the mountains is peopled with family not my own but we touch
language and sip coffee in the one room that still stands, we home this small
history of chickens who etch their pocked prints into the dry coppered earth.

This is where we gather pine nuts, in my mother’s mouth the word snoubar,
this is where we peel potatoes, our hands wet and pulpy as apricots soaked in water.

This is where the first stone dropped. This is my sister and me twenty years later.
This is the falling house of language. And: are you sisters and where is your family
and why does she not look like you?

Yes. My name is the dark in my eye, the moon-white mark below my shoulder.
The consequence of etymology: where you come from and how you live now.
An inventory of belonging. How we learn our own names.




I have my father’s feet. In the long
thin bones, the wide-tipped toes,

they bend with broken grace,
collapse beneath my frame.

& love never goes in a simple way
even if I pray it all the way down

into the soft soles of my feet,
which I have learned to wash & oil

each night. Like two slick fish who flop
into my hands, two great sorrows for

how they might carry my body home,
dragging against their own gravel song.



If you are not afraid, come closer.
One pattern does emerge:

exile can become a name for no country
& also a name for where you live now.

Country can be a synonym for loneliness,
a flare thrown from your chest when asked

where are you from ? Is it a flare or a flag, hot
& whipping against the roof of your heart ?

My ears deepen red when I hear people talk
about the Middle East, garbling our names.


It is not embarrassment but a sad fearshame.
My breath quickens when they say I-rack & I-ran.

I run & I run, my hands held out—who will care
for the sounds of our names ?



When we could still touch the sea, my father
led me through June courtyards with laundry

lines slung low, tablecloths flapping grandly
in the wind. (This is unfactual, but not false).

What I know is only ever half-true. I know
he gave me music, made a brightness for my ears.

I made him mixed tapes of Muddy Waters &
Mississippi John Hurt. He played Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,

I played the Rolling Stones. Are we American?
I hated to be. But what do I know.

My mother taught me this phrase: what do you know ?
I think I’m following a trail he left.

I cross my legs & marvel at our feet, mine
which are his which are carrying me.

Maybe this is the anthem I could sing, no nation
but inheritance: the sweets he brought home

in golden wrappers. My mouth ripe for crinkling plastic,
tart & chewy amardeen, rosewater & pistachio.

I hunt for another side of longing. What is unsweet
& without memory. What is no place & no return.


Photograph of Janan Alexandra by Anna Powell Teeter.

janan alexandra is a Lebanese-American poet and MFA candidate at Indiana University. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing, Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center, and the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. She currently works as Associate Director of the IU Writers' Conference, in addition to teaching creative writing classes to undergraduate students. You can find her work in Ploughshares, The Adroit Journal, Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab-America, and elsewhere. More from this author →