Back to Issue Twenty-Eight.

Family Portrait



The girls and I circle
the wet-grassed garden to serve
noghl and tea to our mothers,
who titter and swat bugs
on each other’s arms. Yana
slapping the tablah to Milad
singing Rahim, Rahim Ulla
jolts my ears with its sexless
faithfulness. What wrong did I
expect of him all these years?
Later, while our mothers
snore on the living room floor,
we gumshoe past jayenamaz,
pack our lives like limp geese
by the neck and let them dangle
from the window to avoid
looking at the faces
we’re about to lose. Family, to me,
is only the sweat of female secrecy:
Negoor’s body hair sings
to mine as she passes me
the joint, cheeks wistful
with the heaven of Afghan
blow. Finally, Leda explains to us
Foucault: there is no invisible force
to relieve us from ourselves. We are,
after all, going nowhere. And I
agree—then why, whenever
the bathroom reeks of sacred
blood and poultry, do I begin to weep
for a drill to cleave
my forehead so the light
can enter me in shuddering waves? I do
believe in God. I do. But once
Milad establishes that on judgement day
even our mothers will run from us in fear,
I tipple the night’s thick milk
until it swallows me.



Egon Schiele: Wally with Black Stockings, 1913



 Though the last thing I want 
       to be is saved, I feel—
in the assaulted sense of the word—
      jealous. Of youth.
Jealous of this flame-haired 
             muse, whom Egon sifted 
from a ramshackle 
            Kaffeehaus in pre-ruined
        Vienna. She must’ve known 
            that she burnt like a star, 
brushstroke et al, through 
        that great era of a looming 
              First World War—
years before scarlet fever, before he left her
             for their rich, musky
neighbor. I need you, 
                 he told her, for 
              the painting. Wally’s eyes grow,
in later portraits, even bluer, aquatic 
              with loss—but here, she’s 
child-nymph, hogs-hair brushed 
        into black gouache, knees raised, 
her gaze keen like a shard of 
         milk-glass rubbed
into ox gall, then honey. She wanted, 
     I imagine, to be more 
        than burnt umber and graphite 
on paper, but must’ve 
           loved him, devotedly, the way
I loved a man whose vision I attempted
           to satiate for three 
burnished years. Who wouldn’t
            want to be rendered to a sign
of a century? Wouldn’t want 
            to be so forever
                fuckable? I too once
       was nineteen & oversexed    
  in history’s violent lingerie, 
            I thought to be shattered
confirmed I was loved. And isn’t that 
   what desire is, a building waiting
               for bricks to be thrown 
  through its windows?
          I’d nothing left, I thought, 
to trawl of my life—but I still 
had it then, the bloom 
       it cost to mistake, 
                    like any good muse, 
            the music of a man’s hand
for the work of salvation.






Even poverty can be glamorous, if you insist.

Piss rusted on elevator floors so gilded I mistake it for a trinket.

Mother burrows her face in my hair. She bites my scalp for a hope.

We try to integrate. It is a dream to have enough for a car. Mother says One day we will drive past palm trees to gas stations and buy lemon-salted almonds, which is her way of saying One day we’ll have a house.

Our failures thread bread crumbs into prayer beads.

We are, by default, religious.

Before I brush her wet face, I am still young. Who wouldn’t be humiliated by a cold room the size of a casket? Teeth cracked with ice. But suddenly, with her in my arms, I am no longer small.

Dirty and hungry like a parasite.

I wish I could carry my mother, my life’s true love, toward the mirror.

As if her caravan beauty could save her.

Huddled together like lovers in frost, I watch ants march through her inflamed eye socket, a spectacular procession.

God. Is what we lack a shelter for the fragile to pass through?

Does this refugee camp look like a life to you?

On paper, I have a birthright. To the sadness framing my mother’s eyes this is meaningless but it makes me invincible in theory.

In theory, my mother is not a tongue running along the coin lock of a shopping cart, looking for the promise of more.

But when did theory deposit me? When buy me dinner?

Poverty contains, by necessity, poetry.

Mother says Que sera sera, one step after another.

To return to where we’ve come from would mean to mourn, to moor, to morning.

Upstairs, the blue uncertainty wafts its clouds like unfurled flags.

The workers hand out flip phones, grape juice, sleeping bags. Still, we remain silent in the fibrous shatter. Faithful to our gold feet.

At night, I sing a lullaby to Mother, cradle her in my arms.

I feed her a spoonful of glass. By morning, she will be a window.

Aria Aber was born and raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. Her poems are forthcoming from or have appeared in the New Yorker, Narrative, Kenyon Review, the Poetry Review, and others. Her first book, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and will be published with University of Nebraska Press in 2019. She is currently based in Madison, where she serves as the 2018 – 2019 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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