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SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

[Three Poems + Commentary]

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi


A guard forces you to urinate on yourself
Another barks out louder than his dog
the names of your sisters
who live in the delicate nest 
of a ruby-throated hummingbird
Each will be a skeleton he says

Was there someone who gave you
seven almonds for memory, 
a teaspoon of honey every morning?
Cardamom tea before bed?
Someone who starched your shirts 
in rice water, then ironed them?
Held your chin 
To say the send-off prayer
before school?

You’re tied to a metal coil
And memory    
is a burnt wire.

—First published in UniVerse: A United Nations of Poets

In the Piazza

A tentative note on the accordion
Across the mural a weak dawn
Fractured columns of light
on the goddess of war with a ridiculously small head
and metallic horses sculpted in unnatural proportions

There are people in the piazza too
The accordion player’s wife
a banker finishing his coffee
a young nun in a bubble jacket looking for keys
in her backpack and my baby chewing on his terry lion

There are boys running after pigeons
that carry rainbows around their necks
The sun humiliates statues of gunmen
that dwarf us with their big ideas
Us and our small music



Come be spun in the nightly vortex
where I am Sarai’s child some times
And some times Hagar’s
My mothers—
their golden dust
rises between us
when Jerusalem’s trees morph into green tanks

Your loquacious mouth 
shapes missiles with my name on them
And of both my mothers
Come kiss each missile on the forehead
before you strike this house
Poems that were doors
will forever close and split
into ancient pebbles
Come like rain falling on the tanks

Your sleeves dry and mighty
with no tears to wipe 
Come turn in my grave
where every flower ticks like a bomb


On Poems from Kohl and Chalk:
Commentary by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

On “Iman”

In 2006, I saw chilling photographs of Israeli girls writing messages on missiles for would-be victims, posing delightedly for photos with missiles (in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, next to the Lebanese border; July, 17, 2006). This was soon after I read about the killing of a six-year old Palestinian girl, Iman who was walking to school in Rafah when Israeli soldiers sprayed her with bullets.

The image of the Israeli girl kissing the deadly weapons in anticipatory celebration of murder was a desecration of faith (“Iman” in Arabic) itself, like a morbidly joyful kiss given to the dead “mothers” Sirai/Sarah and Hagar/Hajira—figures that are holy in all three Abrahamic faiths.

Israeli children sign their missiles

On “Guantanamo”

Besides waterboarding, administering drugs with neuropsychiatric side-effects, and other horrific torture techniques used for Guantanamo detainees (imprisoned without charge or trial), there are those that inflict pain through indignity (forcing them to urinate on themselves) and culture-specific provocations such as disrespectful mentioning of the names of their female family members and threatening to harm them. A number of the detainees were young boys, and so this poem imagines an interrogation that prompts the child-detainee to remember his mother.

On Kohl and Chalk, the collection

Writing a book of poems is bafflingly similar to giving birth—not just in how a book shapes throughout gestation, “birth” and “life” after publication, but how it continues to shape the author long after it has been brought into the world. Just like a mother who is with child, the book and the author are a private self— taking in the same air, responding together to all manner of stimuli. Once the umbilical cord is cut, the attachment becomes complex and increasingly revealing. The child then “makes” the mother as the mother learns who she has become, and continues to become, as a result of the birth; the making is reversed. The book similarly begins to “make” the author by compelling her to discover what was indecipherable when it was in manuscript form.

Kohl and Chalk is that child to me—an inner and outer process without end. This book itself has much to do with my preoccupation with making. What makes me who I am? Can I remake myself? Am I being constantly unmade and remade? There is an obsessed dialogue between windows and mirrors—both involved in making— one a source of light, a symbol of the vast external that I yearn for, the gaze on an unnamed future, the adopted country; the other, a reflection, a private study of origins.

Equally important are the personae, real and imagined, influencing this making. My windows float across history in multiple places, and my mirrors hang in my own bathroom as well as the city square. The making of identity is enlarged, pluralized, exposed to questions; it is the making of “we.”

The poems included in this collection span nearly two decades. The earliest poems are from my time at Reed College—as a “foreign student,” a Pakistani daughter sent abroad to study. Poems from successive years explore the splitting of the self in marriage, childbirth, naturalization, and being a writer/mother—the energies that make and break all these bonds.

Splitting and making anew extends from the idea not only of birth but the birth of Pakistan, “partitioned” from India after the end of the British rule, and more importantly the relation it bears to the two languages I speak: Urdu and English. Urdu as a hybrid of Turkish, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Persian tethers me to the regions of South Asia and the Middle East; English, the colonist’s tongue, is nonetheless my own—a language handed down not only from political and cultural history but also family and poetry. Being at odds with one another, being a “split-lingual,” makes as well as challenges identity; these languages are seen in turns, as parts of a mosaic as well as fissures scarring the whole.


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s

Baker of Tarifa, a book based on the history of interfaith tolerance in Al Andalus (Muslim Spain), won the 2011 San Diego Book Award for poetry. Her poems have been translated into Spanish and Urdu, and have appeared in Poetry International, Vallum, Nimrod, The Bitter Oleander, The Cortland Review, The Adirondack Review, RHINO, Journal of Postcolonial Writings, Spillway, and other places. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize multiple times. Kohl and Chalk is her new book of poems.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury