2 Poems by Mahtem Shifferaw


Small Tragedies

Everybody has a story 
about how they didn’t fit 
                          until they do – 
and they want to tell it. 
Here is how it begins; 
how you make monsters out of children 
by telling them stories 
about this other world, a world where 
they sink in clouds and color the earth 
where forests of blue lakes 
give birth to strange animals 
where adults 
are only a bleak version of themselves 
where stories 
            are never only stories. 
This is how children are made; 
           without intention or precision 
where orange doors and glass portals 
lead to another dimension, 
another self. 
Look at them command in this other world; 
they don’t hesitate, or quarrel, and they are not afraid – 
they climb trees, and pick up leaves, and speak a language 
made of wild berries and honey nut combs – 
they grow tall, and feed off the earth and 
drink its glazed colors, and swim through all shades of green – 
sodden green, lime green, bruised green, emerald eyes, muddy-greens 
of bedwaters, the blue-green of newborns laughing. 
This is how 
monsters are made – 
            they fit 
                      until they don’t. 



White is a color, 
black is art. Nod to those before you. 
Brown is a sense of being, and dark only 
hovers beneath the shadows of necks – those 
who fear it most. Here is to fear. 
Red are the tip of shoes of the woman 
who waited in the bathroom patiently when I was 
only three – to steal my mother’s ruby earrings. White is 
the unsafe silence of bathroom walls, and their 
morbidly cubic nature. White is water running under 
my feet, the innocent screams of school children at 
lunch hour. 
Brown is the anomalous texture of curtains from my 
childhood home. Brown is also the parched wood 
of a small coffee-grinder my mother used. Brown as in 
the intimate angles of sharply cut ambasha my grandmother 
made, flour and water, lemon skin and cinnamon shreds, the 
dark heads of raisins, while on a cargo plane back to Ethiopia, 
the tired eyes of war-victims and their slow recovery. Brown 
is also the color of my skin, but I didn’t know it then. 
Blue are the waters embedded in my grandmother’s eyes. Blue is 
the whisper of the Nile, Abbay. Blue is the color of the brave. Blue 
are the walls of empty neighbors houses and the insides of their 
living room. Blue is skimmed milk tearing the sky. 
White sometimes comes back at odd hours. White are strangers eyes 
drenched in sadness. White is the uniform of doctors, the smell of 
alcohol and something mad. White is absence. Purple comes back 
as shoes, American shoes. Sky and blood under a quiet shadow. The 
shadow of a young tree planted in memory of a murdered teacher in 
high school. And the milky paste of over-ripe figs spurting prematurely, 
spiking insides. Purple is warmth in mid-July, when rain hails on corrugated 
tin roofs and the leaning green arms of lonely corn plants. 
Yellow is crying; it’s a bell, a cathedral in Asmara? A school? Or the 
shriek of a mass funeral. Yellow is dead. But listen to black. Listen to 
black notes, black heart, listen. Black is art. Not of the artist, the art of 
being. The painful art of memory. Here’s to remembering. 



Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet, visual artist and cultural activist. She grew up in Eritrea & Ethiopia. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Blast Furnace, Blood Lotus, Bohemian Pupil Press, Cactus Heart, The Missing Slate, Mad Hatters Literary Journal, Mandala Journal and is forthcoming from The Bitter Oleander Press and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Her short story "The River" received Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Press. You can find her here: http://mahtemshiferraw.com/