Back to Issue Thirty-One

Lesson: Nymphaeum


I have circled these squares
all the years of my life, each
of them—God
forgive me—my own qibla. Whatever you do,
Hana, resist
our monuments. Think instead
of the hands that were made to build them.
Through fissures in stone walls,
thorn blossoms find a path,
blue-violet in April, delicate Canaanite
banners. There will be talk
of crisis, of urgency, but water
has always been scarce. We live
where we trust it runs, where
it returns, the thistle leaves, once supple
and quenched, harden into the spears
of long drought.

Kaan and her sisters, Saar, Ma Zaal
what was and what became and what remains
are verbs for phases of drought.

We remain thorns, as the poet
declaimed. Hillsides of spring, antiquated
flower bracelets, parched flags.
They’ve harvested our names
and lifted the land beneath our houses
but they are renovating the ancient temple where,
before we knew God, we prayed
for rain. They love nothing
like a history denuded,
reprinted for postcards. The past
tense is incomplete. It wants
and we answer: Tomorrow!
We answer tomorrow with
today’s shackled hands.



Once, Eternal




The ancestors say spring
is the son of winter, a postman
and his beast delivering the news
from Damascus, Sa’ad, who left
his village as the sky
swelled, a son named
Happiness. His mother did not grieve
and his father said: if he slaughters, he survives


The ancestors say happiness is land
where no one thirsts, and roots
that are centuries older than their caretakers.
The postman who left his village carrying
love letters and news of trial proceedings
walked into the certainty of hunger
and a treasonous sky. He slaughtered his beast.
His mother did not grieve.
His father said: eating the flesh of what carried him,
swallowing what housed him, this is how Sa’ad survives. 


The ancestors know Happiness returns
before Spring. A mother does not grieve
the son who leaves, even after the body
wrapped in swift burial whites that stifle the open-
mouthed cry, even after the young
olive branches and wilting roses
garlanding his head follow him into the earth.
There is only ululation for our dead. A Happiness
Supreme is Sa’ad returned, land
warm again, green sprouts sated. Three stars
of Deneb Algedi inaugurate this season;
Nashira glinting azure, and beneath her the Lovers.
Let your sons take their brides under these stars.
To grieve is to relinquish the child who travels.
His mother ululated.
His father said: Sa’ad is home. Happiness that was once,


The ancestors say the days after Supreme Happiness
determine the borders between winter and spring.
Shbaat negotiates with Athaar—three from you and
four from me, cousin, and the old woman
will have to burn her spindle to stay warm.
They are flippant, the negotiating months,
watching the women strip their cities
down to kindling. They forget that happiness roots
in language. Tyrant rains endured
yield long life or a numbness to frigid constellations.
Before the slumbering
rise up, Roman days await, strafing winds
of صن و صنبر, the deluge
of وبر, the counterfeit heat of آمر و مؤتمر
and the scorpion sting of معلل و مطفئ الجمر
The moon eventually falls into other phases.
Our mothers miraculous, persevering.
No maps are new to the ancestors.


*The poem is rooted in Syrian and Palestinian agricultural folklore, which describes Spring as a season of four “Saads,” also an Arabic masculine name that translates to Happiness.



Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book, WATER & SALT, won the 2018 Washington State Book Award. Her chapbook, ARAB IN NEWSLAND, won the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize. Her poems have also won the Robert Watson Literary Prize and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Tuffaha is a Hedgebrook alum and is the recipient of a 2019 Artist Trust Fellowship. Her newest chapbook, LETTERS FROM THE INTERIOR, was recently released from Diode Editions.

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