By Devin Kelly
We are discussing the roots of things. How phobia
means fear of, and we make them up. Bookaphobia.
Classroomaphobia. Girlaphobia. I say there will be
a quiz. They laugh. It is evening in a small room
in Queens where the desks are miniatures
of the things they should be and the children
sitting in them too close to me and my coffee
so soon done. Then I ask them if they are afraid.
Then I ask them of what. The word penis. Spiders.
The people who hate me for my name. How a moment
turning stills to a moment stilled. How silence,
even in silence, breathes. Their pages of homework
loiter upon their desks. Fifteen words they had
never seen before, and fifteen meanings, written out
beside. Benevolent. Ailurophile. I spoke, upon the hearing,
of opposites, to think of words as people, rooted,
experimenting with different prefixes. To think of words
as lovers, hungry for what it might be they want.
What is her name? It lingers a moment before
it hassles its way out of my mouth. The shape it takes,
unfamiliar, awkward. A word I have never spoken before.
And her skin brown. How she taught me the way
to count to ten in Arabic. The people who hate me
for my name. The people who hate me. The people.
Across an ocean, a man kneeling does not see the hand
that holds the gun that fires the bullet that splits
his head in two. Across an ocean, someone laughs
at a fence of severed heads. I do not know
what to teach anymore. Graphophobia. Philophobia.
Fear of writing, fear of love. And all these children
who do not have a name for their sorrow. At night,
in bed, I turn her name for the hundredth time
and find its beauty. The soft grace of wanting
to be held. A child, scared, moving in dark
from room to room to find the mother who named her,
the father, too, and their reasons why.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume Press. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, RATTLE, The Millions, Appalachian Heritage, Midwestern Gothic, The Adirondack Review, and more, and his essay “Love Innings” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Manhattan, teaches Creative Writing and English classes to high schoolers in Queens, and lives in Harlem. You can find him on twitter @themoneyiowe.
Editor’s Note: June 26, 2015 was a day of imperative progress in American history. A day of change. A day when love triumphed. I celebrated this historic event in the most wonderful way I could have imagined, at the wedding of two women whose love is beshert. But when one of the brides gave her speech, she reminded us that there is still more to be done. “Today we celebrate,” she said, “but tomorrow, we keep fighting.” Even amidst a joy so great she shared it with the entire country, the blushing bride reminded us that we can—and should—always be working to make the world a better place.
Today’s poem was written in response to Islamophobia. A Muslim girl in a classroom. What is she afraid of? “The people who hate me for my name.” The families of the victims of a racist hate crime—a terrorist act—in Charleston, SC have what to teach us about love and forgiveness. But what are they truly the victims of? “The people who hate me. The people.” We speak words today that carry with them the chalk outlines of the hatred that flows from fear: Black Lives Matter; I can’t breathe. “I do not know / what to teach anymore,” writes the poet, but he knows “all these children / who do not have a name for their sorrow.”
Let us shout our joy from the rooftops and dance in the streets because yesterday love won. And today, tomorrow, and in the days to come, let us fight until love triumphs over fear and hatred, until there is justice and equality for all.