The Searching Poetry of Safia Elhillo

A Homeland in the World

The searching poetry of Safia Elhillo.


They say dozens of women, that day in Cairo, threw themselves from balconies in grief. They say millions attended his funeral. His cheekbones, they say—his satin mouth. They say he was secretly married, secretly gay; that he was always suffering. In his late concerts, they say you could hear the whisper of death in his great shallow sea of a voice. Some say his voice wasn’t all that great, but no one could match him for feeling. They say it was the Nile that killed him.

Half a century later, the romance of Abdelhalim Hafez—orphan turned nightingale turned tragic icon—still rings around the Arab world. I thought, growing up, it rang for me. My grandfather, running Syrian radio in the early 1950s, filled the airwaves with new talent, another term in those days for Egyptians; Abdelhalim, whose early shows were met with tomatoes at home, became his star. That shallow sea: the earliest music I remember, its sadness familiar as mine. Abdelhalim crooned to please crowds; I took it personally. I wasn’t alone. As Safia Elhillo puts it in The January Children (2017), her first collection of poems, the singer “left behind two siblings & four / hundred thousand widows”; he was, she says in an interview, “the national boyfriend.”

A series of imagined encounters with Abdelhalim runs through The January Children, held together by a delicious premise: The speaker vying with a nation of competitors to be his girl—his asmarani, the Arabic term of affection for a dark-skinned person and the lover to whom many of the crooner’s songs are addressed. Pieces of the gallant legend (“storied mouth,” white suit, soft manners, his hair on the deathbed “still / shellacked still neatly combed”) collide with language borrowed from the modern job market (application, references, “callback interview”). The vision of a scramble for last century’s heartthrob is poignant for the same reason it is funny: the absurdity, the lonely dissonance of waking up to a collective adoration out of context and too late—as Elhillo and I and countless others must have done in our diasporas. Tragicomic timing of the second generation, doomed to flirt with ghosts.

But whose nation is it? Sudan, where Elhillo’s family comes from, has historically stood in uneasy relation to the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. Colonized by their northern, paler neighbors even as Egypt itself fell under the sway of paler others further north, Sudanese people still suffer from pervasive anti-blackness on the part of those who share their language. Elhillo’s engagement with Abdelhalim is spiked by this history:

& I come from
cinnnamoncolored womennutmeg
colored women& I want my due

And what is her due? What do these poems want from a figure who’s “been dead my whole life”? To lay claim to an Egyptian idol—one who sang the dream of Arab unity, one who was himself called asmarani—is also to affirm a more fluid idea of belonging, a commonwealth softer than borders. The poems might be read as minutes of a séance, their object of desire less a person than a portal to a gentler time, as flickering a figment as the nation-state itself.

& my country
[did i make him up] is the man I meet in the songs

Elhillo’s poems often train their gaze on some half-shrouded point behind them, less concerned with finding their way back than describing the fog. The writing moves by torchlight, mapping haunted ground, measuring the distance between “where i’m from” and “where i was put,” the Sudan of her alternate selves and the America of her one life. Formal techniques recall the modes and affects of expatriation: scattering, smattering, rough translation, dark humor. And paperwork, paperwork—from everyday officialese (one of Elhillo’s best-known poems, “vocabulary,” is in the form of a multiple-choice test) to the accidents and farces of bureaucracy, the red tape in which every migrant life is bound.

The January Children derived its title, Elhillo explains in an epigraph, from “the generation born in Sudan under British occupation, where children were assigned birth years by height, all given the birth date January 1.” Under the sign of indeterminacy, the book plumbed the clouded lore of ancestors, the very fuzz of memory. Among that cohort was Elhillo’s grandfather, whom we meet again at the beginning of her new volume of poems, “elegant in that old overformal way of immigrants,” anxious for her to arrive. Girls That Never Die opens with the scene of the poet’s own birth, as if marking the passage from the nostalgia of her early work toward a sharper focus on the grain of inner life. The haze of history seems to clear; a life is emerging in high definition, wrapped in a wealth of coordinates, down to the precise minute of “that final diluvian / push.”

Still, elders hover. Their heavy stories and evasions crowd these pages. What emerges is a portrait of the artist stealing sips of air, reaching out from under being “someone’s daughter” to become something stranger. We are taken through the stations of an itinerant Muslim girlhood, its scars and comforts and minor subterfuges, its “chorus / of approving mouths” and its “damp alphabet of silences.” Often playful, always anchored to care, as if testing how far such candor will take her without damage, Elhillo’s voice is raised against that stifling hush, defusing the threat of dishonor—people will talk—by saying it all first. The poems brim with the urgency of disclosure, glint with things not said. A sexual education that begins and ends with warning produces an experience dogged by painful contradiction: “i am hungry for touch / & ashamed to be looked at.” Hurt unvoiced “makes a low hum / at the base of my remaining life.”

Sometimes patriarchy takes familiar forms, like the man who follows her “home from the six train” or the taxi driver who, guessing they share a religion, “demands an inventory of my wickedness.” More complex and more maddening are the demands women make of each other, “the ways we swallowed blame, smooth pebble / in the shut mouth.” “Infibulation Study” is one of several poems that consider female circumcision by asking hard questions of the “many mothers” who became “wielders of scalpel & sharpened rock / to cut away what frightens men.” The book must be turned on its side to read this poem, which has been set horizontally to spill across the crease, as if made to lie down. A caesura runs down its 15 lines like a spine, a body divided against itself, “a body to be sliced like festival lamb.” Even on the thorniest ground, Elhillo finds reserves of caustic bite.

which knives are for the animalswhich ones are for the girls

The book begins with a particular birth and flowers into speculation about other lives. Biography bends to the subjunctive mood: what might have been, what if. “Self-portrait without stitches” reckons with survivors of ritual mutilation and what it means to have escaped it. The capacity for pleasure, speech, and movement blur together to become aspects of the same outsider’s privilege.

i think of all the ways
we matchit could have beenit
couldn’tconsider the cut placethick
liquidof citizenshipspilling from
my many mouthsuncutmy many
uncut mouths

Appetites bloom in the teeth of condemnation, but bodily delight is not simple either. In her sketches of a young girl’s life, Elhillo is attentive to how desire is shadowed by catastrophe, how sweetness is harnessed to rot. Some varieties of pain are self-imposed: “the knotting sugar…making slow velvet of our bodies” or “the smell of my own hair / burning for years of school photographs.” The collection is suffused with bittersweet fragrance, “the funk of sandalwood & oud” that lingers and loops across generations, like an inheritance that cannot be shaken off: “i stink of my every mother.” In Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel By the Sea, a refugee from Zanzibar to England brings with him a casket of incense “as all the luggage from a life departed, the provisions of my after-life.” Ancient Egyptians rubbed their effigies with scented oils to conjure the god’s spirit. The dream of home is like that: fragile and tenacious as perfume, headiest when it is vanishing, only ever half-real and now gone.

Safia Elhillo, whose name combines the Arabic words for “pure” and “sweet,” takes girlhood as a zone of experiment. She ventures that we might live by different adjectives, that we might be loved even unsweet—“& then how boundless could i make my life.” Toward the beginning of Girls That Never Die is a poem that appears to renounce the wistful backward glances of her previous book, in which Abdelhalim was likened to Orpheus. “I have no real use now for those Greek myths, their dead girls…. And all I know about Eurydice / is that she died. My every other fact about her is about him.”

If girls make up a history of lack, if they are named for absence, it follows that girls are also pure potential. Sifting for traces of women before they became “students of purity for men,” Elhillo slips from memoirist to theoretician of a shapeless condition. She is a master of mock definitions. What is a girl? A “paintbrush / sent off to stain a sheet.” Euphemisms are glossed with acid wit:

بنت ناس /bint nas/ n. daughter of People; girl with a Name; unbroken yolk as reputation; daily maintenance of Name; girlhood governed by Tongues; reputation as system of value; virgin; sane; oiled & brushed; fluent; chaste & shy; reputation as condition for Name; reputation as condition for daughterhood; reputation-shaped urn

Like amulets, these palm-sized poems seek to ward off danger. They charm a bolder world into being; they dare it. Two poems begin “say,” that magic formula for conjuring a distant scene by naming it. The collection’s title is borrowed from a rap lyric and works like a spell. The final poem, one of several titled “Girls That Never Die,” ends on a fantasy of deliverance: a girl disgraced (“undaughter”) saved from stoning by a flock of birds. If Elhillo’s previous work was steeped in the long twentieth century and its weight of fact, these poems offer peephole visions of nextness, uncut futures. Less tethered to Sudan and its mythologies, they nest in smaller places, fragrant and provisional as the “systems of jasmine” an aunt might tie in her hair.

Tone and subject are personal, even confessional, but a riddling disposition lifts the work out of anecdote. “i excelled at smallness,” Elhillo writes of her girlhood, but the same is true of her craft: a shy poetics that probes taboo by borrowing its very form. The syntax tends to spareness and elision, as if laying down the bones of a language we do not yet speak. Three poems are named “Taxonomy.” The grammar of sex is pitted with lacunae. “Profanity” begins:

i know ninety-nine names
for my god & none for my [ ]

Language fires up the limbic system. Expression is the object of a carnal hunger. “i dream a new & fluent mouth full of gauzy swathes of arabic.” Features of the body take on calligraphic form. Eyebrows are “blue-black parentheses.” Cut locks are “cursive scrawls.” A sleepover produces “false lashes for weeks after / like commas in my every pillowcase.” Some images risk sentimentality and even orientalism—those gauzy swathes, the frequent smoke, the oud. But Elhillo knows this and responds: “it’s only that I’m west of everything I understand.” Her work reminds us that diaspora is a distorting mirror. When a culture is uprooted, its cuttings repotted elsewhere, how could it not look ornamental, out of place, enlarged?

i guard

my few swearwords like tinkling
silver anklets

The children of exiles are reduced to antiquarians, hoarding what they can of the home country, “overproud of my little arsenal,” spinning into fantasy the unlived life, remote, on the far shore. I like this writing best at its most amphibious, when it invents a language for betweenness that is neither a lack nor a stable set of claims—the cant of hyphenated America—but something like counterpoint: a line of song pricking another into a richer music.

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