From the Vermont High School Writing Contest


Swallow your fear. 
Regurgitate it in the form of poetry. 
It’s not masochism if it’s pretty, 
You tell yourself. 
You are a proven liar. 

You watch your aunts parade around the room 
Poking and prodding their flesh until it fits into 
Too small garments, dotting their bodies and their faces 
With lines indicating where the vessel is too big, 
Too unwieldy, indicating the imperfections yet to be wrangled. 
If i fit into my mother, I think i’d die of shame. 

You do not look into the mirror. 
You sit in the same room, 
Staring at the ceiling. 
Your grandmother is crying in the bed next to you. 
You say nothing. Your silence is the worst thing you have ever not done. 
You can write poetry for your grandmother but she will never read it. 
You can write songs for her but she will never understand them. 
You can pray for her, but it is not any kind of praying she remembers. 
Know this. You will do all these things for her anyway.
God bless all the stories we missed 
Because we were too afraid to hear them. 
God bless all the lives we missed 
Because we were too afraid to feel them. 

You will learn that graves are more for the living than for the dead. 
You will learn that flowers are more for the dead than the living. 
You will learn that you are the most silent crier in the family. 
You will learn that you cannot make your sadness big enough 
To take up space, that it will instead sit in a densely packed ball 
Somewhere in a cobwebbed corner. 

You will make lists of things you know and things you don’t know. 
Bread tastes like ash in your mouth. 
You step into the shower and the world seems yellow tinted. 
You are sixteen and fifteen and fourteen all at once. 
You have shed shells of yourself all around this home 
And your relatives have pinned them on the walls, 
This house is haunted by all the people you have been and left behind. 

Things you don’t know: 
Your eyes. 
Isn’t that funny? 

Fruit is rotting in the refrigerator. The power 
Won’t come on in the house so you eat in the dark. 
Can people rot when the electricity cuts off? 
You can almost see mold starting to gnaw at your fingertips, 
Becoming so sedentary that a walk exhausts you. 
You stroll with your father on the yellow-tinted dusty streets 
Air force ones in a country where no one can buy nike. 

Swallow your guilt. 
Watch the people go by. 
The metal poles rise and fall, 
Slamming down on slumped backs. 
Your aunt says the streets run red in Karbala 
You inhale ghalyoun smoke and your lungs run red with feeling. 
People are crying. You’re crying too, you think, 
And so is the stranger beside you 
The stranger looks like your father. 
The stranger might be your father. 
You wear white to the shakhsei and your uncle jokes 
They will mistake you for a saint. 
What you would give to be mistaken for anything holy. 
The music is at a volume where you feel your heart trembling 
With the beat, four foot high Yamaha drums shaking your bones. 
Mourning is a thing of the whole here, 
Gaping above the crowd. Crying is a thing of the world here, 
Chests heaving in unison. American individualism, 
That heaving leviathan, sits above your heart 
And keeps your tears from falling. 

You are both the cup half empty and the cup half full. 
You are constantly on the edge of a flood 
But cannot seem to flow over the edge. Maybe it’s the mold 
That’s been slowly spreading at your edges. Maybe it’s the 
Gluttony and the chairs made of gold. Maybe it's the way 
That long red and white stripes bind up your soul. 
Maybe it’s the air of the plane tunnel finally eating up your lungs 
Maybe it’s your own acrid breath echoed back to you, 
Maybe it’s the rot they always told you reached sinners. 
Maybe it’s the rot you always expected reached saints. 
Maybe it’s the way you’re leaving. 
Maybe it’s the way you dread returning.

Biography of a town.

The closed-off cages of broken intersections 
Haunt the corners of this town. Nothing hurts more 
Than a broken wing. Nothing hurts more than 
These neon hallways and their strips of glaring light. 
I lick the remnants of summer off my hand and they 
Tastes like mango and freedom. The sticky-sweet 
Residue clings, gluing my fingers to each other 
Until I cannot parse my own thoughts. The rule of my life here: 
Everything is ten times better than you think it is, 
And also ten times worse. My mom and I go to look at 
Escape routes and pass through our previous numbness. 
There used to be a hot yoga place, she says, and a Mexican 
supermarket too. As she points I watch their ghosts 
Being drawn out until I can see translucent skeletons stacking 
On top of buildings. The car-sized commercials we pass by 
Make me want to vomit and uproot them, contaminated yellow glow and all, from the ground. 
My hands are giants and yet they grasp nothing. 
I guess all small towns layer grime onto my skin, because 
I still feel dirty here. Once we stopped in a parking lot and did nothing at all. 
Once you drove me fast in a shopping cart, and 
I yelled as loud as my lungs could bear. 
Once I saw a thing split in two and then become one again. 
The man at the cashier hands me the receipt instead of my mother 
Because I have to translate his domestic talk to my mother’s foreign ears. 
The man on the telephone apologizes to me for not being able 
To take my mother’s order, and my mouth stays locked up. I put in screw you, 
And it comes out as no problem. 
The man in the gas station 
Stares at us like he wants to take us apart. The sickly light makes your 
Eyes seem even wider than they are. We just wanted a Reese’s. We run to the car. 
I throw salt over my shoulder. 
You spill gas on the asphalt in your hurry. 
It stains the pavement dark and all I can see is our blood spilling. 
Starry night looks ugly in this hallway lighting. Starry nights look ugly in this destitute 
Un-metropolis. The white flesh of my clementine sticks 
To the inside of my fingernails. I sit at a plastic table painted to look like wood 
And breathe. I look at escape routes and I dream.
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