Two Poems by Mahtem Shiferraw

Sister Black, Sister Blue

I have a sister in every continent;
she is yellow, & when she speaks
her body blooms with small sunflowers

she is light, she is the moon
white beams spiking through her hair
tender & coarse all at once;

she is liquid, she is quick & slow
with things that call her darling;

she calls herself queen, or moon,
but she is the sun, and milk &
when she drips, her honey feeds
children, & women, & the children of men
who send only their lustful eyes her way –

she is dappling, she is a dance, she
once held herself in a glass;

she is tall, she is a tree
she looms long like a stranger’s hills

if you ask what she will do
she says, there’s a sorrow in every time zone too

she is shadow, she is small
she is contained in things that sprawl

she breaks too, she breaks easy
or breaks you with things she sees

here is a sea, here is a flower
here is the name, here is the tower

where you will lock her away
away from things she belongs & not
away from everything that walks the earth

sister black, sister blue
what happens when I call you
what happens when I call your name
which name comes & which one hides
which one gliding, which one bleeding
which is sorrow & which is joy
which is moon, & which is egg
sister sorrow where are you
when I sing this song for you
when I breathe & when I birth
when daughters come unadorned

sister armor, sister soldier
oh how many things we have to fear
how many to conquer, how many to lose
how many to lose, how much to lose

sister hair, sister skin
what happened to your shade of blue
since when you’re purple too

this is here, this sense of being
how many times it has you kneeling
how many times on your back
how many days sitting in the dark

sister black, sister gray
how I wish we could betray
this time here, that time too
how many ways to portray
how many apologies to convey

sister moon, sister star
black of black of the blackest you are
wear my mantel, wear my skin
beauty has always been our sin

sister sorrow, sister of truth
come with me to the land of hues
run like fire, run like wind
this is not our place to hide
to hide ourselves, ourselves free
ours is a rootless, an ashen tree.


A Dream in Sequences


Let’s begin with a face;
it is painted black,
it is painted blue.

Let’s say: this is your face.

Which color, do you think,
always bleeds out of you?


The body is in disintegration,
what was, no more
what is, no more

a desolate landscape
drinking ocean blue

a tongue of fire
still burning from the ground up.


When you are given a name
it is not yours to claim;

this is part of a history
you cannot erase,

part of ancestors
who have dreamed of this day,
of this you

though not like this,
not this black-less you.


Build a way for your children
so they will learn to hide
in plain sight;

tell them
this is how you muster
sorrow –

but before they are grown
they will know
what that is;

that which is nameless,
the absence of their selves
everywhere they go.


You were woven
with the riddles of those
who came before you,

already occupying a space
you were denied for years.

What stands so tall
& unapologetic
among the white fog –

is it you
black man
black woman
black they
black child?


Things you lost,
things you lose:

the right to inhabit this body
without inquisition
without fear
without violence.

what must you do
to keep it safe –


You tell the story, or the stories
of those who came before you;

their wisdom, their laughter,
their deaths already attaching itself
to you, to your body

you and they
they and you

the tales
of the black body
told in blue.


What we say
what we do
what we won’t do
to be seen, or unseen
through these festering eyes.

But –

black body
blackest body
breathing blue

I. See. You.

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