Friday, September 2, 2022

Excerpt from An Otherwise by Solmaz Sharif

Excerpt from An Otherwise

Downwind from a British Petroleum refinery, my mother is removing the books she was ordered to remove from the school library. Russians, mostly. Gorky’s “Mother” among them. The Shah is coming to tour the school. It is winter.
In the cold, the schoolgirls line up along the front of the main building and wait for his motorcade. Knee-highs and pleated skirts. Shivering in the refined air.
Wave, girls, the teacher says.
My mother, waving.
Put another way:
The must of the glued
spines and silverfish, metal
shelves, my mother
reaching on tiptoe
to take down Gorky,
for example,
filling her arms
with stacks of books.
The Dickens could stay.
You understand.
And the air is important to note
for what it is doing
to the pink
lungs, bronchioles—
a life of inflammation.
Wave, girls, the teacher says
to the shivering
and ironed line of them.
And wave she did.
And if he cared
to see
into the minds of teen-aged girls,
this King
would’ve seen then
the rifles pointed at him.
When I was a small child,
I think, about five or six, I must’ve
heard something, some cassette turning
to dust in the car’s player,
notes stretched, song
that quieted, in the front seat,
my parents, some tape spooled back
with a ballpoint pen and worn
to mica in the car’s player as the turn signal
clicked its quiet, and the keys
clicked with the wide and final turn—
song which was, I’m sure,
an ancient poem sung and filled
with cypresses, their upright
windscreen for what must be grown.
Downwind, I walked the wide hallways
of a great endowment.
It didn’t matter if I did or didn’t.
It changed only myself, the doing.
It fed down to one knuckle
then the next, this compromise.
It fed down to one frequency
and another, leaving me only a scrambled sound.
It would burn your fingertips
to walk the length of the hall
dragging them along the grass-papered walls
where they punished you
for not
wanting enough. For not wanting
to be nonbelligerent
by naming the terms
for belligerence.
The shellacked
shelves, the softly shaking
pens in their pen case.
What was given there
could be taken, and
quietly, you were reminded of this.
You were reminded all
was property of the West.
The mess of a raven’s nest
built behind a donor’s great bust
then gone.
The mess of bird shit on the steps
then gone. All dismantled and scrubbed
sensibility. And this was it.
This nowhere.
My school of resentment commenced.
What awaits us on the other side
of alphabet,
serrated, all slit,
all hole,
red with scream,
I do not know.
The knowing is the dullest part of all.
Someone posts a picture of the Poet’s tomb
and I want to say,
That’s my city—
but I am left with the lie of my.
I said what I said and stayed
what I came to say
long after the people left.
A poet as a fixed position
most cannot stand to be in
for long.
Someone snaps a photo and moves on.
Someone provides a corpse for this great wall.
Maybe I shouldn’t have taken you there,
she said of our trip
to her childhood home.
For years, I wrote of the bumps
left by the tanks
churning over her roads
as braille messages from the martyrs,
which meant I missed
it entirely,
the only
my mother’s face
turned out
the passenger window,
just looking.

Summer. Harvest done.
The last stone fruit
pitted, jarred,
spoiling the last white shirt—
Row of cypress,
Solid and settled masonry.
The unseen town
and town just
The echo
as if inside
a room of stone.
I felt each world
was one cypress-lined path
and each path had
one of us, bagless
and awake, walking
wind and footfalls.
I felt we were heading
to meet somewhere.
I tried to say it was dead, the song,
but then it came, my mother singing
of cypress—
I tried to leave the literal,
but it got lonely—
I tried to leave desire,
but it scratched at the door, tapped
its empty bowl against the floor—
I tried not to answer,
but the bulb shone—
I saw that the head bent over
a book I couldn’t see
beneath a single yellow lamp
through the evening window
of a childhood not mine
was my mother’s
mind alight
learning to oil a rifle.
It seemed the astrologer might back away
from the stench—
There are too many and it is hard
to tell what is for you
in the noise.
I didn’t ask if the prisoner
with the sharpened spoon handle
to the wrist
came, saying, Tell my mother
or the mother
salting a meal she won’t taste herself.
At a gate, it seemed
the officers knew I was coming.
Their questions tailored.
At a gate, I was asked
the name of my father,
my father’s father,
beneath a shivering bulb,
and whether I write
At a gate, one man
selling gladiolas
wrapped in plastic
out of a black bucket.
One selling wreaths.
One selling water.
At a gate, the men gathered to discuss
a playground
over the unmarked graves.
At a gate, I watched one hand
outstretched, saying,
I thought it was loss—
language, its little
when it’s a beckoning,
a way.
At one gate, my mother waving.
Enough, I said.
I plotted.
In the mornings, I wrote.
In my sleep, I wrote
with fancier, more elaborate inks.
And in my writing I began to write of cypresses.
And of small and sharp stone.
And I, on this path, a wooden handle in my palm, and a blade at the end of it.
And beyond, their windscreen, the unseen.
I knew not the poem, only the weather.
I knew not the listening, only this landscape, its one clear channel.
The metal in my teeth caught its frequency.
The iron shavings of my blood pulled toward this otherwise.

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