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. 

Caspian SeaexileIranian Americanpoetry

Sholeh Wolpé is an Iranian-born poet, playwright and librettist. Named a “2020-2021 Cultural Trailblazer” by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, she is the recipient of the 2014 PEN/Heim, 2013 Midwest Book Award, 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation prize as well as artist fellowships and residencies in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, Australia and Switzerland. Her most recent books include Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinth (Univ. of Arkansas Press), and The Conference of the Birds (W.W. Norton). Wolpé’s literary work numbers over twelve collections of poetry, books of translations, and anthologies, as well as several plays . She has performed her poetry with world-renowned musicians nationally and internationally.  She is presently Writer-in-Residence at UC Irvine.  She tweets @Sholeh_Wolpe.