Lena Tuffaha

Altered States

In Miss Sahar’s class we learned the science
of language, we learned to read and transmogrify.
We created words, we learned

to tear apart a root, break down compound structures,
force a gaping vowel into the center
a space for breath to escape

the subject does the work of the verb
We carried our tattered abstractions
and their articles to the border

Al-Homeland     Al-Justice     Al-Return     Al-History     Al-People

but the soldiers just swatted flies with our travel documents,
asked where we were born and who our grandfathers were.

In Miss Sahar’s class we learned that in Arabic the verbs come first
and we had to search for subjects under a microscope,
Arabs invisible to the naked eye.

Interior: Baab

To make a gate to a (little) paradise,

to keep at bay the crash of what takes place

on the street beyond, you have to choose

the strongest wrought iron. But like fine lace, the places

where the scrolls and curls touch and

the seams are soldered are lost to the eye.


What matters most in a wrought iron gate

is the way its veils

with its henna-print tendrils

the rough edges of what happens outside,


the way the sheen of its leaves

and vines catch the light, and like lace,

we forget until

we touch it again

the rough kiss, the heft

of all that filigree in our hands.

Private Lessons

Miss Sahar always wore a coral lipstick.
Miss Sahar smoothed her green dress before she sat.
When Miss Sahar took off her sandals for prayers, I looked

to see what color she had painted her toenails.
When Miss Sahar’s father died she wore only black dresses.
Her lips were thin and the room was full

of the dark coffee and olive-oil-soap scent of her mourning.
Forty days later, Miss Sahar eased into midnight blue.
Two months later, Miss Sahar lined her eyes with kohl,

but her lips were thin, naked.
On the last week of school, Miss Sahar wore
the green dress again. The teachers whispered about a brother

released in a prisoner exchange, one of them
brought date cookies on a silver tray.
Miss Sahar was dancing in the teacher’s lounge,

I squinted to see through the key hole,
the drumbeat beckoning me form the playground.
There she was, green dress hiked up to her white thighs,

floral scarf knotted around her hips,
her arms expansive seagull wings.
There they were, the religion teacher with her soft belly,

the math teacher with the ‘s’ shaped scar on her forehead,
the geography teacher with her cigarette breath,
and Miss Sahar, swaying

together, rose corals in a sea of song.

Kingdom of Kaan, Republic of Saar

*Kaan and Saar are past tense Arabic verbs, translating to Was and Became.

Antara is one of the great pre-Islamic desert poets, who thought of his beloved Abla’s smile on the battlefield.

In the beginning were the words
sacred breath -- and the words
were entrusted to our hearts.
And in the words we were told
the raw materials for a life of plenty
lay dormant, thick veins of turquoise
in a rock-strewn landscape.

Miss Sahar’s lessons were geometries
of light and shadows. She espoused
the reflexive property of renaissances,
how the verbs that built cities
of concentric beauty could rise again.

The Arabic she taught us was fit for recitation,
for poems whose oceanic rhymes we could not navigate.

We were poets, she would insist, before we
ever reached the water’s edge,
or planted a citrus tree, or built a palace.

We were poets. And for Miss Sahar
a hemstitch refracting on the skin-colored dunes
shone like Antara’s sword,
like Abla’s white teeth glinting in his memory.

We were poets. This was in the kingdom of Kaan.
Our words were carved by our own hands,
and the words were ivory boxes,
and walnut panels of filigree. Our words

were kings and queens cooling their throats
with rose water, resting on silk cushions.
Our words honeycombed in stucco ceilings,
in miniature chambers where
our poems could nest. Our words
built a world worthy of museums,

emerald equations and azure architecture
tourmaline translations and sapphire scales
garnet gardens of opal apothecaries
malachite mathematics
magnanimous mellifluous moribund.

Miss Sahar insists We were poets.
But now we live in the Republic of Saar
where the words have never
been granted residency. Our words
recall their finery but they buckle
beneath the weight of night oceans,
congruent angles, unwritten lines.


Dear Miss Sahar

I’m writing long after

any words can reach you.

          My greatest fault

continues to be my adamant belief

in this world,

this man-made project of coins and clay,

because coins tarnish and clay must ultimately crumble.

Religion keeps trying to save me

from my misplaced devotion,

to show me that where you now live

offers a biosphere of mercy,

lushness, shade, the end of

                    drought. A better investment

of time and prayers.

                    I would like to give up

praying. I understand at a cellular level

the absurdity of asking

                     for divine intervention,

a foreign solution to a civil war.

I understand and yet I am writing

because it is all I know.

That, and remembering. Do you?

                      Is there memory

where you are? Do you remember

our conversations in your garden?

                     Do you remember

a walk under the pistachio branches

when you explained that borders aren’t just

ink printed on maps and I asked

if we could draw new ones

and you warned me

“these are the questions

that must never be asked in a poem.”