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Ladan Osman

The Figures


are all black in the picture I am drawing. I get sick of coloring them in. 
My family. Girls I grew up with. A boy or two who would not look at me.


I do not fill you in with pencil or pen. You are 
an outline. I love you.


I listen to your belly.
Sometimes it's a lake lapping against its bank. Sometimes a small angry dog. 
Or a woman screaming and billowing sounds as if she's in Hell.


I keep drawing, ink and silvery pencil smudges on my palms, 
a callous on the heel of my left hand. I cannot draw right hands.


I give myself childhood bullies. 
I make myself a little odd-looking. A big space between my hair and eyebrows. 
Everyone in my family is a version of my father except my mother. 
I give myself her cheeks when I'm good, a peach-pit chin when angry.


Today you get a beard. There are times I don't remember the color of your eyes
so I draw trees around you, so green, little buds. 
Tomorrow gray and a little evil. The forecast in those eyes cloudy: a fight.


Money. Who cleans the bathroom most often.
Things people on TV say to each other.


There are nights when I count the tiny holes from which chest hairs will come 
and say, listening to your slow heartbeat,
do you ever think this isn't real?


Maybe I'm just drawing on cheap paper, living in my pictures.
I love you when you say, maybe. I'm glad you drew me.


Women Brewing

When my grandmother was mad she'd say nothing, 
her fists curled, a cool element.

She'd swallow the fire, she'd drink it like it was too-hot tea. 
She'd clasp her hands in her lap, hold them to her belly.

Cold mango calmed her, neighborhood gossip. 
She'd pray for the stillborn.

When my mother was mad she'd scream Wow! 
like a wailing kettle,

her Wow! climbing the stairs, floating down to the basement, 
standing in front of open windows.

WOOOOOW! one time so loud and long 
she ripped the stitches from her C-section.

Wow! from the kitchen 
where she'd break the dishes.

When I'm mad I say nothing. I pace in the bedroom and think.
Soak my feet and think. Lie in the bed and think.

I stand over the teapot, wait until clove perfumes the house. 
Before the kettle shakes, before it wails Wow!

I get out the honey. "Honey!" like the ladies on TV. 
The kettle is off the too-red element.

The tea is not too hot. Not too hot. 
Sugar dampens a boiling pot.

Honey, I say, drink some tea with me. 
Honey, I say, let's talk. 


How to Make a Shadow

Give her the spirit of a dog, 
a black dog with a sword in her paws. 
Tether her. Put Position 
at the bottom of a well filled with rats;
rats with shining backs, their eyes shillings
in the pocket of a man who sweats, 
sweats at the ass crack for Position. 
Say to her, bark and she moans. Sudden chorus. 
The grass sits up to listen and asks: 
Who is the weed that will not sever?
Why won't the earth take water? Say, bark 
and she bites the space between ankle and sole. Say, no
to her. Be quiet. Like, may the seed stop up your throat. 
Or, hold the sword between your teeth. Cut your tongue. 
Say, I nigger your heart, I eat your sleep. I give you the dream 
where you kneel and can't straighten. 
Get down from here, into the well.
Fight the rat or let him ride like a disaster on your shoulders. Say, no
Say, don't open your mouth again. Or try to open it 
with a bridle there. I ride you when you're so small, small beast. 
It will ring as omen: smiling dead squirrel at the curb, shining scythe under a bus bench, 
dead birds in a nest, dark feather under the doormat.
Black tongue, black roof of mouth, black paw pads, black nails, black snout, black spit.
Say, die, and she comes like a jinn, 
silk shadow at your bedside:
I nigger your dreams,
bitter seed in the well of your throat. I will not scatter 
from your heart. I grow a tree there.
I rest in its shadow.


-from The Kitchen Dweller'sTestimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) selected by Fall Guest Editor Tyree Daye

BIO: Ladan Osman is a Somali born artist whose work is a lyric and exegetic response to problems of race, gender, displacement, and colonialism. She is the author of The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony(2015), winner of a Sillerman First Book Prize. Her next collection Exiles of Eden, a work of poetry, photos, and experimental text, is forthcoming with Coffee House Press in 2019. Her work has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Roar, Rumpus, among others. Osman’s writing has been translated into over 10 languages. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

PROMPT: In "How to Make a Shadow," Ladan Osman draws on elements of surrealism to craft a shadow that is terrifying and mesmerizing, from the "black dog with a sword in her paws," to the "smiling dead squirrel at the curb, shining scythe under a bus bench." Rather than drawing a mere shadow, Osman's poem embodies the word and its vast connotations. For your poem, write your own "How to Make..." poem. Maybe you'll make a cloud, a forest, yesterday. Maybe a thumbtack, a chisel, or a rainbow. Whatever noun you choose, enter into its full essence, letting your imaginative engagement with it take you deep into its light as well as its darkness. --Amie Whittemore, Associate Editor  

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