Momtaza Mehri is a poet and essayist. Born in 1994, her work has been featured in DAZED, Buzzfeed, Vogue, BBC Radio 4, Poetry Society of America, Mask Magazine and Poetry Review. She is a Complete Works Fellow, winner of the 2017 Outspoken Page Poetry Prize and she took third prize in the National Poetry Competition 2018. Her chapbook sugah lump prayer was published by Akashic books/ African Poetry Book Fund in 2017. She also edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant art. She became the Young People’s Laureate of London in 2018.
The judges had this to say about Momtaza’s poetry:
Momtaza Mehri draws on her Muslim and Somali background to write poetry of great topicality and urgency. Her poems are also quietly powerful bullets of searing intelligence and compassion. There are many unforgettable images and imaginative uses of language, and an audaciousness and versatility with form that marks her out as a voice with a bright future ahead of her.
a) 20,000 bones sit below Lower Manhattan, under what was once known as a trade centre.
b) Under concrete pillars, you can find anything. Allegedly.
c) 40 per cent of the bones belonged to children under twelve. All enslaved.
d) Property built above property.
e) 100 boxes worth of the enslaved, their belongings, were found in the North Tower,
after its decennium crumple.
f) A bruised string. Archivists speculate. It could have been a slave’s prayer beads,
inscribed with His 99 names.
g) My grandmother rolls each stone between her fingers. She too counts backwards.
Was my mother’s face a terror in the cockpit,
or a terror below it,
in the soup of mud and bitumen?
The skin of my elbows hangs loose as a murmur.
Sad girl litanies don’t pay the bills,
or undo our architectures of longing. This, I know.
I wake daily to a world that is romantically invested
in splitting me apart.
Don’t let me collude against myself.
Don’t let me believe I am what I am not.
He tells me to change the channel. He’s sick of watching bodies
that look like his own dying. Yaa rabb, it’s a fucking looped record.
Puffs on a shisha pipe, apple fumes straddling the lounge,
a sweetness that takes nothing from us.
I flip to the satellite’s distortion. A dubbed Bollywood picture,
Kajol’s icon unibrow
stitching, then unstitching, into a bridge
big enough to take us somewhere
a little less red.
Iqama; connoting a) the second call to Muslim prayer, after the adhan
b) residency permit or identity documentation for foreign nationals
been staring at the end for so long it’s a beginning
been both the call to prayer
and a permit paper
been NIDO milk powder mixed with water
been the rosary beads of a dying man
been loose change made looser
been who I need to be which is exactly who I am not
been the first scent of petrol
been the first blister of love
been at the centre of a global conspiracy I want no part of
been too good for my own good
been too bad at being bad
been a sack of nectarines sliced to the sour heart
been the juice gushing down a forearm
been the evidence
been the lack of evidence
been the crime scene of dreams
been the murderous practices of civility
been an avatar for apology
been the manifesto for the disenchanted
been the history of my own neglect
been too heavy with history
been the deliverance from myself
been the mind in the gutter
been the body that joins it
been the done to
been the undoing
been both the complete absence
and the presence of too much too soon
MY IMMINENT DEMISE MAKES THE HEADLINES THE SAME DAY I NOTICE HOW EVEN YOUR FRONT TEETH ARE
At the internment camp, promise me you’ll take the top bunk.
I want to see you every time I look up.
National anthems are still more violent than most hip hop lyrics.
Sugar-coat me this. I know.
Got a sense of humour blacker than my granddaddy’s knuckles.
You are the sinkhole into which I pour my desperations.
My sixth pillar. Validate me, if only with the soft explosions
of your breath. Its daily, naked persistence.
Who cares if they burn our houses?
Yes. We might lose our reflections.
We might lose our names.
We might lose feeling in both hands.
Our blood will still dry solid. Still keep its colour. A kind of Abrahamic love
to outlast the mist of rain,
the depth of waters,
the permanence of chicken grease on fingers.
Find me a world as eternal as the birthmark between your shoulders.
Find me a sign as prophetic as a boy born with a target on his back.
Haven’t you heard?
Every time my thighs rub together,
God answers a prayer.
This heart is not a footrest.
I can make an exception.
We can make a life out of such exceptions.
Oiled Legs Have Their Own Subtext
doctor says there is something wrong with your thyroid / you are known to leak everywhere / to take the shape of whatever / wherever you are poured into / you do not contest his claim / or any other man with his hands around your throat / before the appointment / you slice a heart / swallow breath mints to disguise / the miasma of desperation / let the gulf of aden run ragged / from the twinned lakes / of your shoulder blades / an inherited wetness behind the ears / you kiss / the mirror’s cold naval /with the kind of pride that comes naturally / to those born carrying history as an extra limb / / you do not think you are a Good Person™ / not because you cough up contradiction / phlegm thick as aramco / poverty’s slick jaw / or how you gloss your mouth with a humanitarian shade of pink / but because you remember the names of your brothers / never your sisters / your sister’s sisters / your sisters who are an occurrence / never an event / never a shudder when they stop occurring / there is nothing to mark their arrival / or leaving / hodan aged 21 / and six months / who doused herself in liquid surrender / set herself alight / her second attempt at peace / in the bulletin thumbnail she wears royal blue / looks like a woman you would powder / your nose next to / at a wedding / wrist against cheek / soft wick of rimmed eyes / banjee queen / doe-eyed diva / dhow-hearted / what did they do to you / onto you / at Nauru Regional Processing Centre / what did this processing look like / OPC1 / where detainees sew their lips together / silence themselves before they are silenced / where women hoard cloths to plug their bleeding / hide from both inmates and guards / carry the children of men who did not ask / infants who did not ask / an island of orphans / of what could have been you / but is not you / will never be you / from across the ambit / oh for fate’s insurgencies / its sweet edge / the topologies of our lives / their sharpened sighs / soft implosions of flip-flops / on airport floors/ you dream in eastern time / wait for the hijaz to collect / the bags under your eyes / for her to warm your pulse / with her hands / her cratered lap / friends described her as a ‘gentle soul’ who had been ‘destroyed’ / by her time in detention / you note the alliterative phrasing / a velvet undoing / there are as many ways to be destroyed / as there are droplets on the tongue / to describe it / hodan rolls in your mouth / draws salt from saliva / you think of white nerve endings / the melting of dermis / grass hissing underfoot / all that separates her / from / you / me / is a slip of a generation / a fistful of decades / in another life / the war that broke you / breaks ten years ahead / and you are the one drowning / you are forgotten / in this life /you rest on the pillow of abstraction / on your passport / the freedom papers of this age / your proximity to the bodies that terrorise hers / the rolled dice of your life / every poem that falls / chandeliered / is about this distance / its heavy head on your lap / its hot laugh on your neck / its doll-like teeth marks / you have never known a violence / worse / than / coincidence /
Beenie Man Asks Who Am I & The Jury’s Still Out
The zeitgeist called and it wants its coins back. Somebody’s gonna pay for what the world did to me. Promise or a warning, interpret as intended. You can’t mic drop your way out of genocide. Tonight I am looking for an audience, another way of saying I am looking for a weapon. Whichever recoils in my general direction. Whichever I mistake for applause. I would keep my friends close but they turn into my enemies. Such is cruelty made tender. Pop culture is the minutiae of my loneliness. Neon behind the eyes. I glow from the inside out. Jangle to the hips. Each nightly simmer. Zim Zimma. Keys to the Bimma. I came. I saw. I left. Black Caesar. Born into anomaly. The Romans become Ar Rum become the dirt that suckles my preened roses. Verse two by three. To the ends of the earth and they will be beaten again. Overcome. Consider, if you can, today’s lone prophecy. Profit I see. Prophet a-sea. Men in and out of water look the same. Suck salt’s marrow with every breath. Water & dark bodies haven’t been on speaking terms for a while now. This, I was born knowing. Now the land, the land knows how to hold a body. Is well practiced. Welcomes our detritus. Our wet & weathered undoing. Particulates all our secrets. Secret defined as: blank cheques, blood promises, birth rights, bruised calves & everything else that leaves its time-stamp on the wrist. Take these keys as gifts.
I cannot give you a home. Take me as gift.
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This time it happened after evening prayer. Qayloola.
Resting. Ice tea through sugared straws. The night a cascade ahead. Then,
a line break.
Hot spray of bullets and reverb and and and and and and
In less than thirty minutes, we/they/the land lose twenty of its children
A car is rammed into a restaurant, opens a bursting sun into a woman’s chest. Then:
a feed, a timeline, a breaking story
and every other way the expendable are condensed into character limits.
The unmournable die long before their hearts stop. Bless their gorgeous simplicity.
It is what it is. I pull inwards. Unwind my coiled gut. Check my phone.
A glass screen mists up in all the worst ways.
Remind me of when WhatsApp became an arena for condolences.
Sneakers lynched from telephone wires. Kerbsides of lung.
Unticked messages like a hand to the hob. Both got that amber tinge that wants me gone.
My father will reply in fifteen minutes, approximately.
A fifteen-minute window where I do not know if he is still alive or not.
He will thank God and his luck respectively. The wink emoji is his favourite.
He deploys it with no sense of irony.
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This time it isn’t him. This time it’s someone else.
Forgive me for always wanting it to be someone else
Heard A Pop & It Wasn’t My Heart (Praise Song for the Shoulder)
for the first bone
In the mood for an unhinging. Wear each bruise like a towel over the shoulder. Fat Joe’s gruff Lean Back eases me out of another day’s mourning. Slide. Roll off yourself like slander heard around town. The neck’s slow meander. Ball to my socket. Eskista Excellence. A shimmy to lend a sacral bounce. A man’s blade is the same length as that of a woman’s. The cage of pulse and lung remains another story. Grows wider still. A boy’s ribcage expands to accommodate this difference. This calcified arithmetic of dirt and dislocation. Sometimes cold. Sometimes not.
for the second
The man at the waiting room hasn’t been able to sleep from its pain. Ever since those Jeddah years. Days that made a mule of him. His back heavy with mutton legs & everything else once alive. His wife would boil the shoulders he brought in a bloody bag. Leave the jelly intact. It’s always softest between the joints.
for the last
Spit thrice over the shoulder if the devil interrupts your prayers. Three being a holy number. When visiting the cemetery, tilt the neck and greet the occupants. Assalamu Alaikum. If He wills it we will follow You soon. They will blow kisses back. Over each shoulder. He who leads the congregations tells us to straighten the row. Touch shoulder to shoulder. Feet to feet. Meet your brother where he ends. An angel on each side. Winged with pen in hand. Think, its infamous chip. A spinning plate of despair. Exit sign marked placeholder. Transverse flick. Can’t Touch This. Side-to-side wonder. Scapula bell and whistle. 360° twirl and drop. A ritual in rotation. I can’t give you the world but you can guess where I keep it. Lord, look how I carry it. Where it leaves its marks.
Of musk & misinterpretation
woke up like which government we worshipping today? / i am worshipping hooyo’s hands / all deep grooves with the years between them / i am worshipping the softness of dirt between toes / i am worshipping everything & everyone in between / in praise of my people’s peoples / all their short change & shortcomings / i lift each one of my tongues / exchange one lungful for another / the salt & peppered barber i walk by on my way to work / who always greets me / mouth flashing like the wet neck of his blade / when it’s time to lock up we talk / unlock the commonality of our language / he speaks of his wayward son / his wife / chronically ill and always leaving / for lebanon / the air there does her some good he says / i do not interrupt nor question its components / air is just air except when it isn’t / i know how difficult it is to breathe / at least i think i do / in passing / he asks if i was born here / when my parents came / i grow careless & ask him the same / watch his face fall slack / his silence is an archive / granddaddy from khan yunis / from tent & dust / from take & give / from running before we even knew what that meant / i forget there are many kinds of leaving / of being left / how hooyo had at least twenty five years / do you know how much living you can fit into twenty five years? / drenched bed sheets / the purity of morning breath / the rub of wrists against wrist / ocean spray on upper lips / look how it falls without shame / without apology / i want to apologise / but i don’t know what for / by day i misquote darwish / by night i burn with misunderstanding / with never quite understanding / if there is a poem to be written about the gossip of outsiders / let it be this one / when grief is too deep for speech/
let it be sung //
hold her precise as a knife / our mantra made molecular / the information age between us / kissing the skin of earlobes / show her the very proof of herself / the screenshots / of our own necessity / an angel in timberlands / dissect our shared joy / our selfish dreams of outlasting / those before us / the gaseous exchange of held sighs/ will never be enough to lift us / but it’s still something / you promise / to wire-tapped hearts / love is a unit of measurement / the break / the unstitch / the beaded membrane of being / surveillance is a kind of romance / keep your eyeZ on me / plot between the night’s corridors / with the urgency of children / conceived in detention centre toilets/ we drive past each other in different languages / we are the side effects of wanting / and the futon is nothing more than tonight’s burial site / something sharp hidden in our pockets /with backs against the wall/ we lean back and laugh / when they say we can only belong to one planet /
Biscotti Boys/ On Men Who Wear Living As Loosely As Their Suits
liban by way of rinkeby by way of knuckle & boot neighbourhood first family on the block the colour of
rusted pennies his wife at the school gate wiping spit & sludge from her shoe
a woman very s l o w l y asks her who she is waiting for
& that is a question with more than one answer
& never quite the right one
salman the second son & his mama’s seventh seal by way of underwater & underemployment
by way of the coastal regions where boys become men become all this quiet become too soon
his only son now has water in the brain
heard you didn’t have to pay so much for treatment here
a gamble that cost all the gold in his wife’s closet
on odd-numbered ramadan night, he prays for deliverance
for solid ground
for something solid
ibrahim by way of fake papers by way of ain shams by way of two years of exhaust fumes & switchblades
engine oil thick as lust the street beggars having less but always enough to know he is less
they need no documentation to be sure of this
the dark of his oiled calves is enough
uthman by way of mowtown moustache by way of mombasa crackle the first to leave
now has a summer home and a second wife a few cousins in the camps but here
here he has a maid who cannot read the payslips she receives
here is not over there where the kids are hyphenated & disrespectful
here is where he can hold his head up high & feel like a man
you must understand to feel like a man is something worth traveling for
is something worth drowning for
coffee & cream
a table with a thousand stories around it
they sit & sip bitter
fresh cuts on their chins fresher still
are the cuts they won’t admit to