Three Poems by Jess Rizkallah

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


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i am but i’m not

white man says to my brown father
go blow up your own country
i’m not buying a car from you

fires my father        replaces him
with another white man.
the first time i hear my father cry,
my grandmother says a hail mary
& he smashes the statuette of white jesus

we still brought it with us when we moved
to the white neighborhood where the children
broke eggs into our living room    named us loud & dirty    
& the white father smiled at us
the next morning as he mowed
his lawn.

& now white man leers at my brown sister
who no one believes is my sister    he likes how exotic
& kardashian she is    all bellydancer hatching
from double apple smoke    something entrancing
in the way she talks / way she walks        
white man better keep walking say the Lebanese men
who say they will protect my sister
they say they are her Big Brothers    
i say No, actually I am her big brother.
I am all of her big brothers    & I am her big Sister

so they tell me my problem: i’m too white
for them    too loud & dirty    won’t shut up,
but they like the way i wear my shorts     
& my arabic is too dull of the knife
my tongue could open them with so i let them
drive me home

then white man asks to use my phone
says i look like a nice white girl
not like those Not White girls        winks.         
do i know what he means     and suddenly
i hate him    it is so easy to hate them

but it’s midnight by an alley on boylston & a strange man has
my phone    so i just say No, I don’t know what you mean    
& i feel very much like a white girl        because i am    
but i’m also not    but when i’m scared
& i want to be, it’s not impossible    it’s actually really easy.

but white girls still ask me where i’m from
no, where are you really from?
& their boys love middle eastern girls
but oh man, all that hair    would have to go

so i don’t shave anything for weeks    
because fuck you

then an arab man tells me he loves a woman with body hair
& i want to set fire to every individual hair on my body
because fuck you

& my mother tells me i’ll never find a man
if i don’t get rid of it

but she also tells me to be less american    so less white?
but i am white. so is she    but she watched people die
& still, white people called her the smelly immigrant

but white people invite me to their potlucks.  
ask me to bring my mother’s food. they like me.
except when i’m angry & they don’t like me.
or when they don’t like my brown family.
i don’t look like most of my family.
i look like the people who hurt my family.

the census classifies middle eastern people as white
but if we can be called terrorists and white people can’t
then are we really the same?
is the distance between guantanomo and an acquittal
just a pair of parentheses?
i’m safe in spaces others are not    but invisible
when my white friends make bomb jokes
when they say we deserve it

maybe i am the insurgent that hollywood says i am
maybe they’re not safe from me    from my tongue     
from its rage    living in the space between  
all my loud     & my too much        

& it’s funny
that’s the only thing white people
& my people agree on
when they look at me

 

Prodigal Daughter

11.
America continued     there was a daughter born between
two countries    and as we divided her motherland, we divide
the estate of her, we take     our property

12.
white boys all CHEWBACCA, HAVE YOU SEEN JESS?

white boys all JESS ARE YOU DOING NO SHAVE NOVEMBER TOO?

white boys all IS THAT WHY THE REST OF YOU PEOPLE COVER UP?

13.

and i’m all YOU’RE GONNA BE HAND SOLO
FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, LEO.

and i’m all FUCK YEAH & I’LL CROP
CIRCLES AROUND YOU, DAN.

and i’m all GO FUCK YOURSELF, DEREK.

but i still divide my eyebrow after school one day.
unFrida my gaze. looking less like my dad but it’s okay
because it’s beautiful to look like your dad
until it’s not.    so give it back
grow in your new teeth.

15.
i looked more like my mom at 14 when she
came to this country to find everyone
less thicket & more asphalt
    concrete gazes        hammers for teeth
coming at her in the hallways        blunt force tongues
she said to me this is how immigrants learn english.

16.
i had the same knuckles as jido. you could braid that shit.
that shit grew poems. now he’s dead. like these follicles.
my punchlines land harder. beating you to the asphalt
against white faces & i can say that    because my face is white
that’s what you wanted

18.
and i’m all YEAH WHATEVER MY EYEBROWS HAVE THEIR OWN ZIPCODE.
and they laugh. and they don’t know. and i win
because this is how we all find each other
the one thing whiteness can’t come for
even when the laser does.

19.
i know where i belong, i pretend it belongs me back.

20.
i’m only trying to land every punch where i am the softest.
absorbing the shock. needles pulsing electricity into my skin
leaving corpses. an ingrown inheritance    and then
arid land.

22.

hey jess. i didn’t know you were white under all that shit.

23.

and now the prodigal daughter returns to the motherland
arms offered    to its skies    but it does not recognize
her barren skin    it does not recognize        
        her teeth

 

#NotAllDogs

ghosts of white boys past sees my shirt riding up
and tells me to shave my back
tells me to shave my face
tells me to shut my face
tells me he’ll break my face
and then he barks like i’m a dog. or he’s a dog. who’s the dog?
i’m more confused than sad, but later i’m a little sad.
and later another white boy joins in and i think about dogs

how a not-white boy but a man who says he’d defend me from
them says he feels like a dog in this house
because no one ever listens to him
as he fills every room with petrified oaks
& howls when he thinks everyone is sleeping.
but i hear everything.

so if no one ever listens to dogs then they can’t be dogs.
all they ever do is make noise. is hack and hack. and take.
that’s why bitches.
that’s why the word bitches.
that’s why my whiskers. silver bullets if you get too close.
so don’t.

he too tells me to shave my face
forgetting that my DNA unfolds from
the tucked knives hatching from his cheeks after a long day
same ones i let the laser come for
like it’s my fault the sun pulls at the ball of string inside me
and drags it through my skin. my arms. my legs.
my back. so i cover up. so i shave it off. so i don’t.

fine then, call me bitch. call me monster. can’t be hairy monster
though right? okay wrong. okay sure. i’m not trying to be pretty.
not trying to be smoother. or more aerodynamic. or a suitable mate.
i’m trying to be invisible. got all these white boys pointing out my tail
got all these ghosts on my tail. got all this tail, they’re mad
they want it. not sure for what. for scraps. for laughs. for play.
crazy bitch. hairy bitch. quiet bitch. nice bitch. shut up, bitch.

make no mistake. i only rid myself of what distracts from my fangs
coming for you in the night. does not mean i want you with me in the night.
i am always awake. i am always aware of every scent.
of every bark you’ve ever tried to convince me
more threatening than my bite.

men are dogs. it’s always said.
too crude to be dogs
if you ask me. so don’t.

not all men, not all dogs, you stupid bi--.    i said don’t.

ana kalb bi’hl beit, no one listens
no. you just wish you were. wish you had these teeth.

these teeth always growing back.     you see,
i grind them down to nothing
& swallow the ashes every night.


Photo of Jess Rizkallah

Photo of Jess Rizkallah

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer, illustrator, and coffee slinger living between Boston & New York. Alumna of Lesley University, MFA candidate at NYU & founding editor at Maps For Teeth magazine / pizza pi press. She's a pushcart prize nominated & nationally ranked WoWPS poet (2016). Her work has recently appeared in Word Riot, Nailed Magazine, Button Poetry, Rattle and on her mother's fridge. Her collection, the magic my body becomes, is forthcoming on University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Find her at jessrizkallah.com.