The World Grows Blackthorn Walls

14 May, 2021

Painting by Kehinde Wiley,

Painting by Kehinde Wiley, “Mrs. Siddons” with a blackthorn background inspired by William Morris (courtesy artist Kehinde Wiley).

a poem by Sholeh Wolpé


Tall, stiff and spiny,
try to make it to the other side
and risk savage thorns.

We who left home in our teens, 
children who crossed boundaries and were torn
by its thousand serrated tongues, we
who bear scars that bloom and bloom
beneath healed skins, 
who have we become?                                                         

I ask myself:
is home my ghost?
Does it wear my underwear
folded neatly in the antique chest
of drawers I bought twenty years ago,
nest inside my blouse that hangs
from one metal hanger I’ve been meaning to discard?
Is it lost between these lines of books
shelved alphabetical in a language 
I was not born to? Or here on the lip
of this chipped cup left behind
by my lover long gone? 

I carry seeds in my mouth. Plant 
turmeric, cardamom, and tiny 
aromatic cucumbers in this garden. 
Water them with rain I wring
from my grandmother’s songs.  
They will grow, I know, against these blackthorn walls. 
They can push through anything, uncut. 

I left home at thirteen. 
I hadn’t lived enough to know how
not to love.  
Home was the Caspian Sea, the busy bazaars, 
the aroma of kebab and rice, Friday  
lunches, picnics by mountain streams. 
I never meant to stay away.   

They said come back
and you will die.   

Exile is a suitcase with a broken strap.
I fill up a hundred notebooks with scribbles,                                                                   
throw them into fire and begin to write again, 
this time tattooing the words on my forehead,
this time writing only not to forget.  

Complacency is communicable like the common cold.  
I swim upstream to lay my purple eggs.

They say draw sustenance from this land,
but look how my fruits hang in spirals
and smell of old notebooks and lace.  

What is a transplanted tree 
but a time being 
who has adapted to adoption?  

Spirits urge and spirits go,
but I speak only to the future. 
Perhaps it’s only in exile that spirits arrive.  
They weep and wail at the door of the temple 
where I sit at the edge of an abyss.  

But even this is an illusion. 


 From Abacus of Loss, forthcoming from the University of Arkansas Press, March 2022.

Sholeh Wolpé—(Poetry Editor) Sholeh Wolpé was born in Iran and lived in Trinidad and the UK before settling in the US. She is a poet, playwright and librettist. Her most recent book, Abacus of Loss: A Memoir in Verse (March 2022) is hailed by Ilya Kaminsky as a book “that created its own genre—a thrill of lyric combined with the narrative spell.” Her literary work includes a dozen books, several plays, an oratorio/opera, and several  multi-genre performance pieces. Her translations of Attar and Forugh Farrokhzad have garnered awards and established Sholeh Wolpé as a celebrated re-creator of Persian poetry into English. Recently she was the subject of a Metropolitan Museum of Art Spotlight, The Long Journey Home. Presently a writer-in-residence at UCI, she divides her time between Los Angeles and Barcelona. For more information about her work visit her website. You’ll also find her on FacebookYouTube and Instagram.

Caspian SeaexileIranian Americanpoetry

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