Poem of the Week: “how to say” by Safia Elhillo

This week’s poem was chosen by Center for Poetry intern, Lydia Barron. “I chose the ghazal how to say by Safia Elhillo because first and foremost it’s a great plug for the ghazal writing workshop being lead by Professor Guillermo Delgado tomorrow, January 28th at 7 p.m. in Snyder C303! Last week we talked about the ghazal as a form which deals with love and loss through themes of repetition and the significance of ghazal rhyming in Persian culture. This week we are going to write some ghazals and play around with form, which is what Elhillo also does in how to say.  

how to say follows the speaker as they attempt to reconcile Otherness with heritage, addressing a lack of language while still being intellectually and socially rooted in another culture. how to say addresses love and loss, not of another person as some other ghazals do, but of a part of the self. This is most evident from the last couplet, which is also meant to have the poet’s name in it (a form of ‘signature’).  The name Safia meaning ‘pure’ contrasting with the speaker’s ‘clouded Arabic’ asks what is really carried forward by language. If to love a word is to be connected with its meaning, what does it mean when you become distanced from your own name? In some ways the final couplet also works to re-ascribe meaning to the poet’s name through acknowledging the limits of translation as well as the limits of only using one language as a framework for experience.

Since ghazals were popularized in America by the poet Agha Shahid Ali in the 1960’s American poets have been attempting to translate the works of Hafiz, Rumi, and Ghalib while also finding ways to adapt the ghazals rhyme scheme in new ways. Because of this translation is also a focus of ghazals by modern Arabic-American and Indian-American poets, including Safia Elhillo’s contemporary Fatimah Asghar. Poets addressing translation and the limits of language and the ways language impacts the ways we love, live, and lose are uniquely powerful and Elhillo’s mastery of the ghazal form is something I look forward to exploring further with Professor Delgado’s ghazal writing group tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Snyder C303.”

how to say

in the divorce i separate to two piles books: english love songs: arabic
my angers my schooling my long repeating name english english arabic

i am someone’s daughter but i am american born it shows in my short memory
my ahistoric glamour my clumsy tongue when i forget the word for [ ] in arabic

i sleep unbroken dark hours on airplanes home & dream i’ve missed my
connecting flight i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic

i dream my alternate selves each with a face borrowed from photographs of
the girl who became my grandmother brows & body rounded & cursive like arabic

but wake to the usual borderlands i crowd shining slivers of english to my mouth
iris crocus inlet heron how dare i love a word without knowing it in arabic

& what even is translation is immigration without irony safia
means pure all my life it’s been true even in my clouded arabic

Copyright © 2017 by Safia Elhillo. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 13, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

Published by cpoetrymsu

The Center for Poetry opened in the fall of 2007 to encourage the reading, writing, and discussion of poetry and to create an awareness of the place and power of poetry in our everyday lives. We think about this in a number of ways, including through readings, shows, community outreach, and workshops. We are at work building a poetry community at MSU and in the greater Lansing area. Contact: cpoetry@msu.edu (517) 884-1932 http://www.poetry.rcah.msu.edu

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