Rumpus Original Poetry: Two Poems by Sarah Fathima Mohammed

By

 

 

 

Homeland, Gone 

We begin as two bodies tightened 
into bruises on the bus stop’s bench. 

My mother holds four American pennies
blackened by time, like worship. 

She tightens her grip as if she’s going 
to lose them.

*

Rust, the only darkness 
this nation bears.

White, the only color 
this nation bares. 

*

Pennies clatter on the sidewalk 
like teeth, like all the ways 
we can’t contain this country. 

*

My mother apologizes 
to the driver, her small body drooping 

into itself, a wrinkled peach pit.

His face whittled into the tip 
of the pocketknife on his dashboard

hardened steel.

*

If I were to run 
my finger along the driver’s cheekbone

my hand would come back 
stained with blood. 

Every stoplight’s mouth weaponizes 
in our wake. 

*

What my mother means: 
Forgive me / for wanting / something more

than survival / than America wringing 
my body / out of its deep waters 

like a fish / pressed onto the blistering shoreline /  
separating the scales. America / swallowed 

the pink flesh / inside because 
immigrants can only be / sustenance. All that’s left

in me / mottled language / dirty brown / leftovers.

*

In Tamil, there is no word 
for Sorry—repentance, a softened technology

of light shredded by the spoonful. 

In Tamil, forgiveness 
is a birthright inherited  

like the first blooms of spring. 

In Tamil, when my mother finds 
her hands empty of change, 

the rickshaw driver slides his thin 
hands through her hair. 

*

Paravalla.
Naanga inga irokum. 

It’s okay, sister— 
it’s okay. We are here, he would say. 

She used to drink this melody like milk. 

*

English require beg. My mother repeats this
until we only know to stand
on our knees. Especially for us. She hits

her chest, palms her hijab. We have 
this only. She pries my empty fist open. 

*

Sometimes, I revise her words 
into myth, oiled dark and wilting, pretend 
I do not understand. 

*

In my mother’s country, 
Sati is when the woman burns herself 

into memory during her husband’s 
funeral, follows his spirit to heaven.

My mother burns herself
into survival for a country
that doesn’t love her back. 

She gives herself to the white 
half-light of the bus, to loose change 

and cracked syllables, sharp Tamil 
peeling into Sohee. 

*

The driver rips the hijab from her head—
meaty, red hand reeking 
of grease and sweat. 

Pennies gone, bus seats slick 
with prayer. 

My mother whispering, So-leyh.

*

At night, I listen to my mother 
language herself, echo
through the walls: So-wee. The word 

slants: Sohr-dee. Her bed 
rustling as she chases
days she can’t catch. 

 

 

 

Mother and I Pray While Sleeping

Moons empty in the whisper 
of space between us.
Mother’s ankles roll into 
my calf, brimming with silver, 
with sleep. The night is made 
of photographs. We sleep over 
the prayer rug, woven from 
all the daughters that have 
pressed their lips to it 
and swallowed. Kitchen door
creaking, the door that never 
stays closed, always making 
a sound—in another world
we, too, speak, even if it is just
to Allah. Even when it is not 
pretty. Even when men cover 
our mouths with cardamom 
and bruised fists. 
I don’t know what 
Mother’s voice sounds like. 
I don’t know how the words
Mother’s voice sound in my own 
mouth. Nobody has taught 
us to open. Not even our
mothers. For now, I close 
my eyes and dream of a begging
where all the words start
with I want. 

 

***

Author photo by Shannon Finney


Sarah Fathima Mohammed, daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, is a poet from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the 2021-22 National Student Poet of the West, the nation's highest honor for youth poets presenting original work. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Adroit Journal, Frontier Poetry, wildness, SOFTBLOW, PANK, and diode and has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, Poetry Society of the UK, Claudia Ann Seaman Awards, and Hollins University. More from this author →