Two Poems, Practicing Absence & At the Airport—Sholeh Wolpé

3 September, 2023
In these excerpts from her memoir in verse, Abacus of Loss, poet and translator Sholeh Wolpé evokes a day in the cemetery with her parents and a decisive moment while in transit at the airport.


Sholeh Wolpé


Practicing Absence


We’re attending a funeral in the same cemetery where our
parents have bought their burial plots. After the service they insist
we walk over and see. There’s a bench, says Daddy, and a shade
tree. In case you want to come and visit. Often, I hope.

She doesn’t come often when we are flesh, says Mama, why would
she come when we’re just bones?
She then rings an arm around
mine and we navigate the graves.

Mama’s knees buckle with every step.
She, who always glided as if on rollerblades.

Daddy walks ahead, careful not to step
on the names of the dead.

We goad our parents to lie down.
And to our surprise, they do.

Even the sparrows suddenly fall silent

as we lift up our phones to capture
our parents practicing their own absence.


At The Airport


Sitting with three open books black with the meandering
calligraphy of a “terrorist language” at an American airport
is a terrible idea.

But five hours early, what’s a girl to do but risk it, open what
she must under the watchful eyes of TSA and cameras that
blink when a person of unknown dark curly-hair origin is
spotted with undecipherable texts, possibly manuals for mass
destruction of something.

A few people pass by, too casually perhaps, and peek at the
books, but in the end, it’s a sweeper who soft-shoes his way
towards me, a Latino Fred Astaire with fake bushy mustache.
He runs his broom to and fro, moving dust closer and closer to
my ridiculously high-heeled red shoes, then stops. He pretends
to notice me for the first time, puts his small chin on the stick of
his broom, gathers his mouth as if around a cut lemon,
squints, then asks in Spanish, ¿Que es esto? Greico?

Good move, I think, so you no hablas inglés, amigo. I look up
and give him a sly smile. He parts his lips, slightly. His teeth are
corn-yellow. A smoker for sure. But that mustache? It takes all my
strength to not reach up and pull. To see if it comes off.

I answer in Spanish, No, this isn’t Greek, it’s Persian poetry.

He lifts his chin, says, ¡Bien! ¡Hablas Español! He then bends over
the book for a closer look. I say, this time in English, Poetry, and
point to the shape of the couplets. See? I say, A line of Persian
poetry consists of two hemistiches separated like this. I point to the
blank space between separated texts. He ungathers his lips
from their concentrated pose, nods, mumbles something
about how he hated memorizing poetry at school, then in
perfect accent-less English: Don’t miss your flight.

With that, he turns on his heels and just as deliberately, soft-
shoes back, towards some place, over there, broom still in
hand, past a door that appears and disappears like an itch,

Abacus of Loss by Sholeh Wolpé is a vivid memoir in verse that unpacks individual memories in a series of thematic strings—the wires of the abacus—each with a different number of beads, from three to thirteen. Their enumeration has a compound emotional effect on the reader and shows how the malleability of time influences memories as they expand and contract, lengthy and detailed discourses, or short, punchy bursts of emotion. Yet every memory counts, every memory adds to the layers of loss that shape life. At times, the narrator’s perspective and her evocative lyricism together with the counting and repetition remind the reader of prayer beads, especially when they include pleas and entreaties.
—Sherine Elbahawy

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.

airport travelcemeteriesdeathIranian culturepoetryUnited States

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