Safia Elhillo

Six Poems from The January Children

asmarani makes prayer

verily everything that is lost will be
given a name & will not come back
but will live forever

& verily a border-shaped wound will
be licked clean by songs naming
the browngirl in particular verily she
will not heal but verily the ghosts will
not leave her alone verily when asked how
she got her name if telling the truth she
will say [a woman died & everything
wants a home]


a brief history of silence

at the musician’s club in omdourman
a singer is stabbed to death for playing

secular music the month before a violinist
on his way home is beaten by police his instrument

smashed to matchwood all the bars in khartoum
are closed down all the alcohol in khartoum poured

into the nile a new law forbids women from dancing
in the presence of men another bans song lyrics

that mention women’s bodies


the last time marvin gaye was heard in the sudan

at a party in omdourman lights strung among the date palms
my not-yet mother honey legs in a skirt opens her mouth

& the night air is the gap in her teeth
she sings in a lilting english to a slow song

while bodies around her pair off & press close
before he is my father my father smokes

a cigarette & shows all his teeth when he laughs
wants to ask the darkgold girl how her english got so good

what the words mean & could he sing
something sometime into the gap in her teeth

but first police arrive
rip lanterns from trees & fire a shot

through the final notes of the song & tonight
my parents do not meet


portrait with asylum

& then two boys from sunday school identical twins
beautiful boys like the moon my mother said dressed in matching
outfits long into our teenage years both dead by twenty-five

& all the mothers in dc marlyand virginia [crossed an ocean &
thought it was enough to keep up safe] cooked for day & packed into
the emptied house & later crowded around cups of sweet strong tea
to trade theories gang violence mugging hate crime islamophobia
xenophobia because they were too black because they were not
black enough murder mistaken identity accident though
probably not both times but all agreeing this would never have
happened if we’d never come to this godless country each still haunted
by the brother back home twenty years missing the husband shot in
the street daughters whipped through thin cotton blouses but back
home this would never have happened not both not both


portrait of abdelhalim hafez as orpheus

after the funeral women poured
down from balconies fourteen brown
nightingales diving in the name of
a communal beloved the legend goes
a brownfaced head hair combed back
with water skims down the river nile
by night o moon o you who have
forgotten me survives the failed body

the storied mouth propped open
& a final song falls out
if you see my beloved reassure me reassure
me leaves no ripples
in its wake


everything I know about abdelhalim hafez

once at a party he wore a white suit & vomited blood
in the hospital in his last days his hair was still
shellacked still neatly combed he loved his country
my beloved my mother abdelhalim was an orpan
abdelhalim was honest only when he sang
he swam in the river as a child
little brown boy shoulder-deep in dirty water abdelhalim
was always singing abdelhalim died in london
but it was the river nile that killed him bilharzia liver damage
massive uncontrolled bleeding did we make him up
[wait I’m getting to that part]
abdelhalim sings of his country as a beautiful girl
washing her hair in the canal & my country
[did i make him up] is the man I meet in the songs
the lover I waited to deserve only to learn
he is already dead i am most afraid of having nothing
to bring back so i never come home


All poems reprinted from The January Children, University of Nebraska Press, 2017, with permission by the author.


The University of Nebraska Press extends the University’s mission of teaching, research, and service by promoting, publishing, and disseminating works of intellectual and cultural significance and enduring value.


Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in poetry from the New School. Elhillo is a Pushcart Prize nominee, receiving a special mention for the 2016 Pushcart Prize, and recipient of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize and the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation, and Crescendo Literary and The Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Incubator. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019).