Tending to Water-Ancestors

The first time I wrote the word nomenclatures in my notebook, I stared at it for a while, unable to pronounce it, unable to gouge a meaning out of it. I didn’t know it then, but the first semblance of the collection, Nomenclatures of Invisibility, was just starting to show up. Instead of questioning what this word might mean, I set myself to write as much as possible. After all, that had been my way of coping for the second collection, Your Body Is War—writing and writing until the poems showed up, distinct from one another. Though this collection had something else in mind. Soon, I would find out, this collection rested in silence; silence was required of me in order to receive it, silence and discernment. I didn’t understand it; I struggled with it. But I still wouldn’t let it go. 

I picked up colorful post-it notes, and wrote the word nomenclature upon them. I put one above my writing desk, one in my notebook, one in each space I would spend most of my time. It was a small reminder; whenever I was going about my day, I would look up, and see the word, and be reminded that there was something else with me, something bigger than me, and that the fact it hadn’t showed up yet was a rude reminder of how little I knew about it.

The hand that feeds us bleeds
of things we do not know.
We call it mother, it gives us
names of things unsaid.

from Crackling Blue

At times, I admonished myself; I’ve done this many times before, I thought; how difficult is it to put together another collection? Or better yet, how difficult is it to see the poem lurking behind this word? 

In truth, it was really, really difficult. 

No matter how much I stared at the word, I couldn’t see what it already saw, I didn’t know its mysterious ways. Instead of claiming knowledge over it, I needed to be quieted, to be in a state of listening, in a state of surrender, before I could write anything at all. What’s in a name, I thought. What requires nomenclatures? New things, but also ancient things. Ancient-bearing things; things that are already gone, but still lingering. This was intriguing enough that I could follow it; I didn’t expect to understand it, but I told myself, I can keep showing up. Just keep showing up, and see what else is there. That didn’t seem too difficult to do. 


On the opposite side of my brain, the word verdazzurro kept resurfacing; it’s Italian for blue-green (or rather, green-blue), a combination of two colors in one, a translucent, mirroring thing. The more I thought about it, the more I kept seeing myself reflected back; my face, upon others, my storyline upon others; many other others, others, others. I’ve been told I am a synesthetic artist, meaning that my understanding of the world comes through different colors, so I didn’t find this kind of thing to be auspicious. But the blue was long and large, it loomed like a menacing presence over me. I thought, could you be another poem? I thought, what do you want from me? But I had forgotten about it between other collections; the blue had always been there, and now, there it was, showing up with more fervor than ever, water and fire, water and fire, among other things. 

My ancestors are made with water –
blue on the sides, and green down the spine;

when we travel, we lose brothers at sea
and do not stop to grieve.

from Nomenclatures of Invisibility

It was a terrifying thought, actually; it took me a while to consider that the two things may be related. I decided not to make anything out of it; after all, if a poem refused to show up, who was I to coax it into being so prematurely? 

One day, in conversation with friends, I heard someone ask, what’s the difference between the immigrant and the refugee, inferring that the experience of the refugee is much worse. I didn’t agree or disagree with this assessment; I was simply baffled by this kind of questioning, that would claim to measure the depths of our suffering in such a specific way. It’s not just about movement, I thought; it’s not just about fleeing one’s home, I thought—but also that. What about the crossing itself? The word crossing popped in my head; it reeked of many things. What do we require in our crossings? 

When we left our homes,
someone has set them on fire
though our eyes are trained to no longer
see this. 

from Crossing Borders

Buoyancy, they said. 


I became terrified. This was the first time I heard their voices so clearly. I could see them too—ancestors from many different places, from different worlds and times, asking to be heard, asking for their stories to be heard. 

That’s when I really needed to surrender. 

I am here, I said. Speak. 


True to the collection, I traveled across many lands. Each city was both new and ancient to me. When I first landed in Shanghai, I thought it looked a lot like the city I grew up in. Then I ended up in Seoul, and someone I didn’t know fed me a meal from my childhood, someone braided my hair, their eyes filled with love. My travels took me to cities like London, Rome, Florence, Addis, Dubai, Kuwait City, Doha, Istanbul, Los Angeles, San Francisco, each one carrying more meaning, revealing a self I had not seen before. I stood at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and marveled at icons in Geéz, the ancient Ethiopian language I grew up hearing. I visited Casa Internazionale Delle Donne in Rome, and wept under the framed publication of people of African origins who had died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. I walked back and forth at an art gallery in Dubai, staring in disbelief at the installation of artist Chiharu Shiota’s that wrapped bright-colored red thread across the entire room, suspending a small canoe up towards the ceiling. Every city I went to, I took the time to cross the waters; upon bridges, by ferries, through boats, just crossing, crossing, crossing. 

Stranded at sea, bubble from
the earth, dust and bones
slide on my face.

This is not my story;
but in it I stand
called by other names;
the ghosts of my past selves
all reaching at the same time
and all refusing this –
this foreignness they smell
like something burned and tossed.

from Dust and Bones 

Are you here, ancestors, I asked. 

And they showed up, multitudes upon multitudes, each requiring a different kind of tending, each demanding to be seen, to be extracted out of invisibility. Were I the writer I once was, perhaps I would’ve thought it to be within my authority to decide which story to tell, which poem to write down. Instead, I realized I was being educated; this collection found me not ready, and here I was trying to capture it…with what? I was emptied. 

So I made the good decision of waiting, of being patient, which is something I’ve never done with my work before. I wrote down my questions, I told myself we did not need to hurry, because look how long they’ve been waiting to show up. Look. 

I looked. Everywhere I looked, there they were. Slowly, I started my collecting, relieved that they would choose me to be their respite. 

I gathered us one by one; I made annotations, I looked up our histories, I spoke with our elders. What did you give up when you came here, I asked. Everything; they said. Everything.

And so I needed to give everything to the collection. 

The post-it note with the word nomenclatures above my desk hovered like an-all seeing eye. It had been there all along; I just couldn’t see it yet. When, after a year-long of gathering and tending, it finally showed up, it came all at once, and refused to be contained in one poem. Slowly, it became two, three, and soon, an entire collection set up its bones, and took shape in front of my eyes. 

You are here, I thought.

We’ve always been here, they’d say. 

And so was I. 


Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw is a writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her work has been published in various literary magazines. She is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Fuchsia, which won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets; Your Body Is War; and Nomenclatures of Invisibility. She is also the author of the poetry chapbook Behind Walls & Glass. She is the founder and executive director of Anaphora Arts, a nonprofit organization that advocates for writers and artists of color.

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