Sometimes you think of this
as fabric, because you see the skin
fold and unfold, dry and burn,
the softness emaciated as if it was nothing.

Other times you think this is
what it is: only a body
housing something new, something strange
something like you,

but then you would have to think
of yourself as a stranger
and strangers have not been good to your body.

At times, it also becomes a vessel of sorts
carrying sorrow-quenched eyes, a mouth of fire,
and a spirit so gray it almost looks black;

but then you would have to consider
how black once saved you
how black came back for you
how you were told you were black
and found it odd, and familiar,
because that part of you, you already knew. 

Sometimes you are also told
it houses the divine, though you cannot fathom
how, or even why, why would the divine choose
to have its resting place here, here where mad things
happen in broad daylight, where everyone’s eyes watch eagerly
and say nothing of the blackness, to you or anyone else,
where they say nothing of the madness that will follow you
day after day, especially at night, when mourning for a loss,
this loss, has become so customary you almost miss it. 

But most times you think of this
as a tree: a eucalyptus tree, an oak tree, 
a willow tree, and you can clearly see 
these branches, so long they can reach
the back of your head, and hold it in place, 
and when you move your leaves 

fall, as part of you will always do, 
and new ones grow back again, 
sturdier, greener, lovelier, and 
birds rest on your branches
and sing songs in beautiful languages
you didn’t know existed

where the lonely and the hunters 
seek for your shade, where the strong 
whisper their secrets, where you roots
are so deeply entrenched with the earth
they explode upon concrete roads, and push 
upwards, always upwards, 

until you see the naked horizon 
and you can already smell the ocean breeze
and there, yes, there you can think of this
as what it could be: the world contained
in flesh, and sorrow, and bones, and ash,
the world contained in you, and you
spread all over the world
like the branches of an old tree.

B Y   M A H T E M   S H I F E R R A W   

because you have spent
enough time carving a wound
as big as a star, and when it’s ready
you flesh it out – its colors blindfolded,
and you hold it in your hands
and you sing a forgotten song for it
until it is ripe & raw & ready to explode
then you pick a knife, unfold your skin
and place it right beneath it
so your blood can glow at night
and when you walk away
someone smells the scent of the firmament
emanating from your body, and they say,
this is unworldly, and it will be exactly that
because war is slow and agonizing
like how sometimes it is to love, to kill
for love, or for anything else,
and each task is so arduous, you can’t let yourself
be contained, because the universe inhabits in you
and your eyes are two black holes
digging through the back of your brain
appending you into white bricked walls
and you keep telling yourself
there is no smell of war in me
but why else would this feel like madness
like a seed was planted in your stomach
and it grew into a sharp spear
and it grew out of you, and into all versions of you
and into the rest of what you thought
was you, because when it is time to stop
the body does not know it
black hole eyes cannot see
and your hands would rather busy themselves
with something new, something torn,
they touch the sand and a poem comes rushing 
and it is about a black body, and a body of blackness
and you try to wash your hands, but such poems
do not go away easily, instead they stick to your skin, they
sink chiseled teeth into your bones, until all you can do 
is scream, but who can hear you now, when even 
your star is fallen, your eyes empty sockets.

T H E   O L D   T R E E

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Ethiopia & Eritrea. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Cactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length collection, Fuchsia, was published by the University of Nebraska Press (2016). Her poetry chapbook, Behind Walls & Glass, was published by Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Y O U R   B O D Y   I S   W A R

B Y   M A H T E M   S H I F E R R A W   

​​H E R M E N E U T I C   C H A O S   J O U R N A L