To: Paris

In my first semester of college, I had to write a poem towards a place, in a similar vein to the way the writer from Martinique, Aime Cesaire, does in Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. I wrote about Paris, a city I’ve been enchanted with for many years but never had the chance to visit until March this year. 

 

Paris: immutable permanent marker dream.

What I feel for you is a sparkle-crack love,

found in picture-book fairytales I outgrew by 13.

You are my desperate idealism;

you are the sepia wallpaper on my laptop screen.

You are the romance I cannot touch, only see

all in glossy magazines –

Paris.

I think I know your contours

better than a man knows the outlines of his lover.

But we have never met.

I know you only in dreams.

 

Yet I have learned your skin – ancient, soft, powdered,

the weak tang of perfume, warm bread, crushed cigarettes,

6pm coffee, 10pm wine –

your name smells of stereotypes.

I’m told your streets are poetry.

You are formed and malformed

through stories smoked from other people’s lips.

Don’t base your love on what they tell you, deception comes in dreams.

 

But I have grown up swallowing fictions.

Someone once whispered to me that the Eiffel Tower

was a needle that God used to sew up the sky.

But where are the seams?

Where are the seams?

 

Paris, you have a residence permit for the red beating city

within me

where no boy has ever kept up his rent.

And they warned me

that you are most beautiful in the rain – how treacherous

in this age of acidity.

 

For

I am Hemingway and you are the moveable feast.

I am Gatsby and you, the green light.

I am the mind, the notebook, the pencil,

you are the magic that runs through these instruments.

I am Zelda, you are the madness.

I am Pablo, you are the desire in my paint.

I am the dreamer and you are the dream.

 

But dreams are inclined to disintegrate.

Turn to fine dust under piles of boulder and glass and

21st century politics.

So they say that you’re crumbling.

Like the pastries in your abandoned patisseries, like the wrinkles on an old woman’s face.
I think that you’re crumbling

beneath the weight of artists trying to imitate

the unwieldy – love, tragedy,

Paris.

 

They say you will disappoint.

You will disturb this fantasy.

We will not always have Paris

the Paris of our dreams.

 

See, my aunt once had a suite at the Ritz, she called me to talk

about the soot-stained post office

on rue-this or rue-that and what does that say about you?

The broken wine bottles that cut

like unfinished romance,

the bread gone stale, the cold lights of train stations, the vacant eyes of vacant streets, the morning’s grey,

the poetry buried beneath white lights

of cellphone screens.

 

Paris –

sometimes dreams are too heavy for me,

even when full

of holes and cracks;

yet I am still

Atlas and you

are the globe I carry.

 

I will always have Paris.

I will always have a dream.

 

Love is when you see through the bullet hole into the heart.

It enters through cracks, its victims’ flaws.

Yours are the smoke snuck on buildings,

and the vines like veins

bleeding honeysuckles onto windowpanes, the brusque sandwich orders in seedy cafes.

 

For you are the postcard that never came in the mail

but I somehow found in an empty drawer one day.

A dream stuck in the bottom of my pocket,

a coin lost on the pavement,

an idea like a thread unspooling from my fingers, misunderstood,

misaligned like the buttons on a cardigan

done up wrong.

Paris, surely

is a song I’ll know the words to

when it finally plays.

 

Until then I sit

writing poems by the radio.

 

oceans

Last fall, I worked on putting together a mini art installation about climate refugees for a class. I collaborated with two of my friends from Nepal; one made a beautiful video, compiling statistics and interviews, while the other displayed some of his photography of the environment, overlaying landscape images of Abu Dhabi and Nepal. I wrote a poem in the perspective of a climate refugee – or at least, attempted to write one. Here it is:

 

the sea was my first friend.

i was

three years old when it taught me

what colours were –

the silver of still waters

at dawn,

the cotton blue of late afternoon,

a copper sheet at sunset, and the

ink of waves at 10pm.

 

the sea was my first teacher.

it taught me how to count – 1….2…3…

the ocean has a music

older than our bones in the sand.

a rhythm more ancient than the pulse in our necks.

[beat]

in the evenings, i would sit

by the hem of its skirt.

my father would bring the fishing line

and we would reach into the ocean’s lap

for gifts,

return home with dinner

spend the days washing salt out of our fingernails.

the sea taught me

the most ordinary of loves there is:

friendship. of trust – give and take, give and take

out and in, rise and fall, tide beneath my toes, tide beneath my feet,

tide and its music.

 

and to feel.

the sea taught me what it is to feel.

peace is that blue womb

where everything is all at once meaningless and meaningful.

happiness is the spiderwebs of sunlight

on morning waves.

sadness is the tide coming out, coming in.

a tune without feeling.

 

and i learnt from the sea

what fury is.

a different kind of fury than my father’s

when i steal an extra piece of fish. this kind of fury

could make the world stop breathing, my mother said

the earth is a clay pot

but we won’t stop baking it. she tells me

nature is sweating from the heat, it weeps with fatigue.

the oceans threaten to tip

like tears from under eyelids. far away, brazil shaves off its beard

and china smokes a cigarette.

i ask her, what am i supposed to do with these fairytales?

she takes my hand and tells me

the ocean is boiling.

don’t you believe it?

one day, this womb will break.

but we won’t be born again.

 

today, it is quiet.

mother always says be afraid of too much silence.

this earth was made for music.

in the air there is a violence. the sea trembles

like the mind of prince hamlet.

the dogs and chickens are perched on higher ground.

eyes wide open, mouths agape, while

my mother stares at the water. for

today, it is quiet.

 

the ocean trembles with stillness.

while something moves within, like a creature turning in

the womb it’s been living in.

the water feels as if it’s entered my head

a thought metastasizing in the brain.

in the great amniotic sac of the sea

there stirs a beginning and an end.

i remember my mother saying

once it ruptures

we will not be born again

 

and suddenly it rushes

like a volcano blooming outwards.

this kind of fury is different.

this is where the world goes blue

with wetness and ruin.

i watch my mother stand alone in the water

like a crab clinging hopelessly onto a rock that isn’t there.

the world is breaking around her and i think

the sea has taught me its final lesson:

what it is to be betrayed.

 

now my home hangs on a picket fence

like a used up tissue discarded in a bin. i went back

saw my childhood

burnt out like a cigarette.

there was nobody left. i lost my parents

to the ocean’s music

it engulfed them, led them astray

like the pied piper and his flute that day.

 

so i moved to the capital

where the sea only exists

on postcard images.

i lived amongst the traffic jams, the square buildings and landfills.

worked on and for nothing.

and every night, i heard the call of my friend, the rush of that last wave –

goodbye, it seemed to say.

it took everything from me

and left.

 

we spent so many days plundering the sea

plunging our fingers, our feet and fishing lines in.

of course it turned back

and fished us out instead. but we do not stop

our thievery. it boils with anger

yet we do not stop hurting it

then turning to ask for its embrace.

what can it do

but rage? this earth was made for music

it cannot stay still.

 

these days i watch national geographic

on my neighbor’s tv screen.

they say the sea will always exist

but will we?

will we?

we are the traitors.

in our blood, in our sweat, in our teardrops and wombs

there is saltwater, little pieces of the ocean

we have stolen for ourselves.

 

my mother used to say friendship

is give and take, give and take.

but all we do is take,

of course the sea will turn

and give us that embrace.

unlike us, it keeps its promises.

one day, it will take everything back

every little piece

and we will not be born again.

we will not be born again.

It Comes in Pieces

An experimental poetry-prose piece inspired by the work of poet Lyn Heijinian.

soil
My mother told me I could never let go of a baby pink comb. An aeroplane skimming over a cloud, soft as the foam of milk. The feeling of his cheek against yours. Truth is nothing but fodder for an argument. A Senegalese accent is a truffle rolling on the tongue. I hated the sound of a violin but I was in love with a violinist. Poetry is glass. He used to play me songs on the guitar and I was taught to believe in magic. Should love feel like an itchy sweater? I’ll forget 16. The sound of a heart breaking is always silent. Sometimes I heard music and wanted to collect its notes in a sealed jar, like storing butterflies. When we met, I started to write. He left. My father made warm omelettes on weekends. I left, and that in itself was a kind of power. Libraries are meant to be quiet but we were not. Poetry speaks where eyes and mouths don’t.

bloom
I can only remember the laughter when it hurt. They still talk about how we danced. Blame it on the Chinese tea. David Bowie will always and never sound the same. You’re having the most fun when the moment’s too blurry for Instagram. It took six years. Marginalia, paraphernalia. I used to dream of this, just like the lights and the car rides in indie films. Those 250 words were an exercise in bonding. Did you want me to…? There was one month left but facts get lost in the wind when you’re running across the field, air ruddy on your face and coat flying out behind you. Jealousy is a corrosive substance. We got in an accident and felt more afraid of the metaphor than the chipped paint. All it took was a tango. Something aches and we’ve all got our hands on each other’s hurt. This is my fight song. I’ll remember 17. ‘Us’ is a beautiful word.

dew
You collected the shiniest shells on the beach. Nothing is lonelier than reading a textbook at night. Solitude by the sea, solitude in a snow globe. My mother told me to think of those below you. Tears are salt are ocean are wombs. The girls said you were bossy and you learned to twist your mouth like theirs. That seagull was like a scrap of paper. I write about being jagged but do not accept it. The colour blue, is it cold or warm? My mother fed me honey and cinnamon when I was sick, hot and sticky on a steel spoon. I didn’t know friendship was an acidic substance. How many followers do you have? The wine looked like blood and tasted worse. She was Ariel and you understood. You are startled by the sky every summer, it is honey blue. She cut her indigo braids then went to write her SATs. Depression is dyeing your lungs the same shade as the evening and she looked at you and nodded. Landlocked countries make us caged birds that do not sing.

stem
My mother snatched books away from me in the car. Both comfortable and uncomfortable with loneliness. Have you ever tried writing while you’re drunk? Novels are alternate universes.  The word ‘introvert’ is branded like a red hot poker on a cow. Talk to us, please. I have gazed up at the stars and tried to catch them in my palms like beads. Let’s make a necklace. Noose. You got in a conversation with poetry and it never seems to end. We keep asking each other what love even is. Crying on the telephone. Why are friendships like strings and how could she do this to me? I’m a kid. How mean, so mean. You wore your silence like an ugly fashion accessory that one feels obliged to wear because a great-aunt gave it as a parting gift and it was too impolite to say no. God, no.

leaves
My skin was always too tight. The better the chocolate, the more bitter the aftertaste. I am ashamed by inches. He said you were soft and he was not expecting it. No one has been able to touch you. 15 is full of holes and now you will fill them with sugar. Clinics reminded me of the imperfections. I romanticized my own fault lines but at least I was not an earthquake. I imagined him saying that a curved spine is more interesting than a straight one but he did not exist. Can’t breathe when it’s happening. Once you had three slices of cake, you’ve been looking back ever since. He asks me if I need a goddamn sonnet proclaiming my beauty. To be naked is to be free is to be unseen. I scrolled through Facebook pictures and wept. Yes, I need proof, but I do not say it. Fashion is a masquerade. Poetry is a glass. A girl is a price and you are paying it.

thorns
My mother kept buying jeans in different colours, only now you wonder what this meant. Speak. You can and will never finish those letters. What if she had done it? A scarf could be the culprit. It burns to feel like this, it burns, that’s how you know. A family trip to the mall can prevent divorce. The top shelf of her cupboard will always be dark. You couldn’t sleep at night, strained to hear noises, you thought she’d do it and dawn would be an ending. Nobody to ask so you ask all the questions on Google. Your mother laughed the most. We played Monopoly on the bedroom carpet. I don’t want him to hate me. You screamed music, then poems, you screamed your own name. Silence is heavy not loud. Love is Paris and he saw it in you while I saw it on an atlas. I once wondered what a language made from the sounds of rain would be like. Eyes are only taps that need plumbing.

petals
He wrote that hell was brown-eyed. She liked books about solitude. I hugged them both, thinking that what we had was like a precious gem in the desert, like a rose in the middle of Cairo. We dreamed of Paris together. Do you remember eating straight out of the sugar packets in the café with the bad crème brulee and French music? I have kept the Polaroids safe. Tu me manques. You can find triads in jazz; we are a triad too. The unholy trinity. One point in London, one point in Abu Dhabi, one point in Gaborone. Three is my lucky number. Will you let me wring the pain out like zest from a lemon? You know I only function in metaphors. I don’t want to be 19 without you. I’m so sorry that it hurts, take all the music you want. Flushed with wine but more from being together. Can we talk about Sylvia Plath though?

honey
So this is how it feels to be bathed by the stage. Blinded, I can see the light. The poetry comes through the cracks. Applause. Thank God tears can’t be heard. I did it, I did it, I did it. The notes are streaming, painting, streaking across the air and it is all for me. Jazz is a palette of colours. Love me. They have said that music can transport the soul and shake off skin. If you are a musician, you must be an alchemist. I hear paintings, I see songs. Mortal to immortal. What is your aspiration in life? Devenir immortel puis mourir. I pin and find my dreams in Google images. 18 will always be radical. I am afraid to say that one of my goals in life is simply to love and be loved.

***

this is how you lose her – a slam poem

I recently performed my first slam poem at an annual arts show called Verbal Emancipation. It was magnificent. Here is the poem:

this is how you lose her.
as you make love to yourself
through a cellphone screen.
your red-lipped smile is as hard as your hairspray
oh, what a shame
that filters erase pores, but not unhappiness.

this is how you lose her.

as the facebook likes rise
you feel the meter go up on your self-love scale.
you don’t mind the numbers this time
because they’re not telling you
that you take too much space
like that godforsaken bathroom scale.
‘fat’ – a curse word hurled by girls
who try to love what the mirror shows them
but fail. chase after self-esteem
inside a no-cream
skinny latte.

this is how you lose her

when the pop of orange bubbles in the corner of your screen
tells you how you confident you’ll feel today.

flawless. like. stunner. like. slayyy. like like like.

follow.

but let me ask you one thing
as you angle yourself thin
which do you love more?
the girl on the screen
or the girl in your skin?

and this is how you lose her
when your answer to that
becomes your hesitation.

and you lose
when society points its fingers
and you turn them all to point to
yourself.
because you’re female.
you were built up that way.
raised on a plate for catcalling men,
your body a meal for the
wolves in your head.
but take it with a pinch of salt,
the world says. life is a contest,
you’ll always be second best.
this is how you
lose her.

when you listen to that.

today, you noticed your face cream’s called ‘fair and lovely’
but darling, you’re unfair
more caramel than vanilla, you wish
your skin told a different tale than of how it was once oppressed.
see, black girls have lupita, brown girls have mindy kaling
but white girlfriend jane over there has the rest of hollywood
to spare.
isn’t that what’s unfair?
that if you’re dark, you’ve already got a burden to bear.

and you lose her
when you notice the symptoms
of this snow white syndrome
flare. and as you place that filter on your face
do you notice how it makes
your skin get
lighter lighter lighter
and the world gets brighter brighter brighter
as the comments roll in,
a sea of ‘yass girl SLAY’s
never mind that I don’t know your last name
but I’d still double-tap that.’

this is how you lose her
when those words become gospel
leading you to the light
but instead of god, you find Perfection.
and you’re forced to realize
that Perfection is the kind of lover that never stays.
this is how you lose her,
in his too-tight embrace.

and you lose when you pick the guy that only
desires you
because desire is a wolf that rams its
tongue down your throat, brands its touch on your skin
but forgets what your favourite colour is.
yes, he will learn the outlines of your legs
faster than his math assignment. desire
is when he thinks girls become less pure
after they’ve been touched by a man,
well maybe he should take a look
at his hands
this is where and how you lose her.

when you think love is when he looks at you
from between his legs
and desire starts to equal respect, an equation that can never make
sense.
do you raise your skirt’s hem
for him or yourself?

see, a soul can’t be dressed
a soul can’t follow a trend
but if this world was a cup of coffee, then soul
would be the sugar grain
forgotten on the saucer’s edge.
these are the thoughts that pour from your brain –
your tongue calls them ‘feminist’
but the world always thought that
your mouth should be drained.
so angry
so angry it has to be this way.
but anger doesn’t look good
on a woman, they say.

‘a soul can’t be dressed.’
‘a soul can’t follow a trend’
and you cry.
because nothing’s about the soul anymore,
it’s all about the skin.
isn’t it?

and you lost her
when you forgot to ask the girl in the mirror
if she’s happy.
when the lipstick’s gone, the concealer erased,
are you happy with yourself?
when your phone is down, the camera turned away
are you happy with yourself?
‘cause you could drip in gold
or just wear your skin,
you’ve always heard but never
known that what matters is within
‘cause a soul can’t be dressed
and it shouldn’t be a
revolution
to love yourself
but it is.
you always thought being a girl
came with that string attached.

but this is your call to arms
to try to love what you have, what you own,
what you are.
you’re a girl. you’re a woman.
you’ve got your beauty in knots
all you need is to untangle it in your thoughts
because

this

is how

you find her.

***

 

IMG_1729

Geared up for the show – me & my beautiful friend Tsaone. He sings.