Jess Rizkallah


can you be arab without following every trail of smoke

                                                                                     a duet with abdelhalim hafez

i smell lebanon in all things burning or burnt
                                                                                   day and night
the firewood haze wafting in through the hostel window that opens
into the fire escape. what’s a fire escape when outside is
on fire too? we talked about depressions in the brain
mirroring the ones left in floorboards. let’s go somewhere
without walls                   the radiator was pushing 80
the long drag of a cigar makes a starched suit out of
the freezerburned brooklyn february. it will be
half thawed by morning. the man smoking the cigar
sings with the music playing from his phone, his arabic sunbaked
and cobbled with hard G’s weaving through the hot sand
of abdelhalim’s voice.
                                                                                     always trapped between water
                                                                 and fire, despite all that burns you
the cigarette mingling with the aftershave
of the stranger next to me on the bus is how
my dad smells and my dad never left beirut
even while he lives here now. he speaks to me of burning
ships. i echo them often, too. as though they’re kindling. a sea
of splinters waiting for gasoline, and my tongue a match.
                                                                                    between water and fire
                                                                                                   despite that grief living
                                                                                                                 inside you
in the bukhoor jido burns as he walks through the house
teta crossing herself then throwing open the shades.
just like that, ruh al’qudus stretching out in the dust particles.
i watch them go dizzy in the sunbeams. this is all witchcraft
and i am something i’ll never say out loud. inside me
is a stake, already burning.
                                                                                   and despite the wind
                                                                  your grief will grow
my face as the laser powers down between my mother’s fingers,
her cool palm easing the swelling. she went into hair removal
because her daughters are hairy and brown, and america is cruel.
                                                                                                              your grief will grow
                                                                                   to resemble trees
my follicles going the way of the cedars, dead
or deadening or bonedry where the roots once were
under a thousand electric suns pulsing
through the head of a needle. i claim the ghosts of
everything that feels mine. i claim the smoke, too.

(“mama how do you deal
with the smell of
burnt hair all day?”

oh, you get used to it. though,
these fumes are dangerous.
you know this job could
kill me.”)


Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer and illustrator. She is an NYU MFA graduate, a Kundiman fellow, and founding editor at pizza pi press. Her full-length collection THE MAGIC MY BODY BECOMES was a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award and won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize as awarded by the Radius of Arab-American Writers and University of Arkansas Press.

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