She Lived in Shadows by Jan Brown

Five Poems

Jegar-eh Mani

You are my
liver, Bibi jaan cries
when she holds me.
At eighty-three the
kink of her black hair
reaches maybe my
breast bone, but she
stands grounded as
ever. Liver: glandular organ
rich in blood and bile,
filter of all the world’s
toxins and grit, that
slippery fish in her gut
hot with life. Livers
regenerate when cut,
lizard tail of our
fleshy insides. American
friends say Farsi phrases
never translate: you are
my liver is laughable, a
jumbled medical metaphor.
But Bibi jaan
knows better, knows
love not in the trembling
breast but in the sturdy
purple gift beneath her ribs:
you are my liver,
you are my life.

 

Thaw

Days before surgery the ice
storm descended, hardening
the earth; you fastened
crampon teeth to your
snow boots.

“Meet me halfway,”
you’d say, and we’d
thaw by the fire of
the cafe midway
between our houses.
I could always spot you
coming, bouncing
in that blue
knit hat,
red hair swirling.

Remember, your
sister danced circles
round your parents’
snowed-in bungalow,
bursting thrums of
Tradition on the stereo.

Remember, your
brother called us
to the window where
snow transformed—
frozen rain coalescing
to a crust

He broke with a
tossed rock. It sunk
deep down, we watched
in wonder. Rock
visible still through
the glaze

Like red winter-
berries I spied
gleaming, cased in
ice by the back fence.

Like you,
blue in your hospital
gown when they covered
you in cold packs,
preserving, they said,
your brain. Slush
pumped through
veins to
keep you.

When they warmed
you, your bird body
resurfaced: naked
calves so cold I wanted
to shroud in your
grandmother’s blanket.

Your body stirred, but
there was nothing
natural to it
anymore. The only
living thing
in that hospital room
was your blooming hair
and I was afraid to touch it.

Now sun grandstands
at your burial ground,
touching my hands, dirt
home to early skeeters and
groundsel sprouts and
you.

Plants declare themselves
around you. Fiddlehead
coils unfurl at
your feet, your pate
crowned a tangle
of curly dock and
bittercress.
I sit with you each
season as your life
cycles through dirt.

You decompose and
you become
some grating contrast of
natural and unnatural,
leave me holding your
warm hand in my memory,
leave me finding tender
ferns with my fingers.

 

Two-Veined

I met my
body’s blood
when I first fed
on pomegranate
jewels, stung my
mouth with
tart red history.

When cousin hid
clinging to her
mother’s knees,
shrieking She’s a
witch: haunted by
my shadow hair,
my olive
outsider skin,

I roused portraits
of my sister
from our border-
lands, her face cast
in jigsaw frames: hijab
nesting with Welsh
freckles, curving
her American mouth.
I drew our twin
blood into existence.

We would be called
Seyyed, Mohammad’s
kin—had we become
boys, or pure in
lineage. But gender
and a Western mother
soured us for God.

I conjure us
crowns anyway, my
sister and I. We
stamp out
the end of the line
with our two-
veined bodies.

We draw our
own boundaries.
Stir generous
saffron in our
pancake batter,
fold bright
turmeric in stew.
Our finger-
prints stained gold.

 

Infiltration (IV Line Breaks)

Fear roves in me
sticky, gumming
the infusion lines,
my own substance
injected with heparin
to coax a reunion
with my body.

The infusion dances
with my insides:
for a moment,
fear dilutes, but
the flux never
lasts. I know
it will rear again,
constrict to tack
under the skin.

The nurse
spatters it across
her scrubs, fears inking
everything red: can
she smell it on me,
taste it in the air
even? Hot and
flash bright, always
seeking the surface.

Air chokes my lines
in dreams, gripping
my heart. Whenever
the needle swoops in
I keep a punch
clenched in my
numb hand.

By morning it
plumes up in
maroons and greens
to mark me. Leeched
to the skin: it has to
gather somewhere.

 

Venerable Woman

Bibi jaan dictates
the recipe, finger
crooked in the air:
plunge the dried
plums in water;
let them rest—
they traveled
incognito in her
luggage through
Tehran, Dubai,
Seattle, stashed in
emptied plastic
bread bags (unworthy
vessels).

Her coal eyes
crinkle as
she gathers ghost-
plums from
her memory,
tucks them to dry
under shelter
of Cypress boughs.
Can that floral,
supple fragrance
reach her still?
I wonder—
Her nose is vast
as Baba’s, but
studded with
a silver ring,
self-inflicted like
a planted flag.

She commands me
to rinse them
twice: filter out
sediment, grit
from dirt
and plum-
pickers’ hands.
I watch it settle
through the glass.
Above, golden
orbs swell
with life.
With my eyes
flush to the fruit,
that dirt spans
a desert, a
whole earth, and
Bibi jaan’s voice is
everywhere.


Interview with Parisa Emam


by poetry editor Julie Brooks Barbour 

 

Border Crossing: I love how these poems discuss the body through themes of illness, gender, and heritage. The bodies in these poems are strong, preserved, and sometimes soured, and reflect the everyday lives of women. Could you talk further about this focus?

Parisa Emam: I write mostly to wrestle with dissonance, and for me, the body is prime territory for that. I also find it a great landscape for poking holes in my own black-and-white thinking, because bodies can be full of gray. Writing is a meaningful way for me to synthesize contradictory experiences and truths. In “Thaw,” for example, I got to grapple with the spectrum of living and dead. I had always thought there was a clear line between the two, but in witnessing a very dear friend move through coma and brain damage, that line vanished.

In certain points of my life, dissonance narrowed in on illness; in our current political climate, I feel the most tension in having a biracial and bicultural identity. In Farsi, Iranians with mixed heritage are called do-rageh, or two-veined. I grew up feeling that two-veined rift acutely, but I have come to see that my body and identity are actually whole, and the dissonance comes from experiences with the outside world, not from within. My relationship with my sister played a big part in that realization.

Writing about my Bibi jaan has also allowed me to puzzle through the tension of inhabiting identity. She is someone who has always seemed larger-than-life to me. Her magic, and the magic of many women I know, is that they exist in their bodies each day with such tenacity and pride. I am in awe of that.

BC: I’d like to talk about your Bibi jaan a bit more. Throughout these poems, she is not only a source of strength but of knowledge, carrying so much more than the past. In “Jegar-eh Mani,” she is “grounded,” and though it is her liver that is “rich in blood,” so is she. In “Venerable Woman,” she shares a recipe that allows the speaker to view the fruit in a landscape, not just the fruit alone. I think a lot of women feel as they get older that they become useless because they cannot connect to younger generations, but these poems are a testament to what women teach us at every age.

PE: I’m glad to hear that her vitality comes through in the writing. “Venerable Woman” reflects on a summer I spent learning to cook my grandmother’s traditional dishes and attempting to transcribe them into a recipe book, when I was around ten years old. Persian food is notoriously labor-intensive, so we spent whole afternoons together in what felt like a ritualized practice. My Bibi jaan cooks in a way that defies measurement of any sort, and I learned as I was trying to pin down recipes that the art is really in unquantifiable nuances—the shape of oil splatters on a lid, the texture of soaked rice between her fingernails. That art felt almost mystical to me.

In cooking and in many other ways, I view my Bibi jaan as the keeper of our cultural knowledge. While I have never been to Iran, she exists with one foot firmly in both the US and her home country. When I cook khoresht-e aloo—the dish mentioned in the poem—it’s surreal to think that the plums, and the woman who delivered them to me, have seen this place that I haven’t.

Growing up, I assumed Bibi jaan meant grandmother, because that is what my sister and I called her. Later on, I learned the translation is more along the lines of “respected lady of the house” or “venerable woman.” That resonated with me. In line with what you described, older women often aren’t treated with respect or viewed as valuable. Bibi jaan certainly deserves her title.

BC: The value of women is also revealed in “Two-Veined” where the sisters are “soured” like the tart pomegranate at the beginning of the poem. As readers we’re led through the ways in which these women are outsiders, but at the end of the poem, the speaker says, “I conjure us / crowns anyway.” At the end of the poem, these sisters create boundaries of their own, and I love the way that food resurfaces as not only an act of creation, but also identity. Could you talk about the use of female identity in your poems?

PE: I think many women are held to a prescribed narrative of husband, house, kids, and so on. My sister and I have both subverted gender roles in ways that delight me, because that subversion has led to authentic and rich lives. Being “soured” has the negative connotation of something turning acidic or unpalatable, but for me there is also a sense of liberation in being viewed as a sharp contrast from preconceived expectations. Blurring boundaries between cultures has allowed me to transgress boundaries in other areas of my life, especially when it comes to gender.

I was late to the game in recognizing that my sister could relate to many of the outsider feelings I had growing up. She blazed the way in choosing her own path, and that opened up many possibilities for me. She told me once that we are more related to each other than anyone else in the world, including our parents, and that felt sacred to me. When I write about female identity, I carry that reverence and sense of connection.

BC: In what ways has it been liberating for you and for women you know to transgress boundaries of gender?

PE: It’s been liberating in the sense that we can be unapologetically ourselves. I think in some ways, when you defy the gender script, you kind of fall off the map and are gifted with the thrill of charting your own course. When I was diagnosed with a life-altering illness as a teen, people stopped holding me to the same expectations they foisted on other young women around me. That sudden release created space for me to discover what I really did want. I’ve heard from other women, too, that being “othered” in some way opens a door for them to create their own narrative.

BC: I love what you say here about becoming “unapologetically ourselves.” This holds to not only the women and speaker of these poems, but how the imagery allows us to engage with the narratives. I’m especially interested in how color and touch are used in “Thaw” and “Infiltration (IV Line Breaks).” Could you talk more about your use of sensory imagery in these poems?

PE: Writing grabs me when it’s grounded in texture, color, or flavor. I’m a visual and touch-oriented person, and with the death of my friend, it was confusing to know that an intangible spiritual loss had occurred while her body remained preserved for me to see and feel. I wanted to explore that confusion by leaning it up against the natural transformation of the ice storm in “Thaw.” The elements of water held steady, but as they shifted from snow to ice, their meaning changed into something unforgiving. Ice imagery also felt fitting in that you can see what lies beneath the surface of ice, but you can’t reach it. I looked at the same concept with color by layering blue and red, and noticing how a color’s substance differed before and after her coma.

With “Infiltration,” I hoped the reader would viscerally feel the way medical unknowns can elicit a sense of body betrayal. It’s easy to have an abstract understanding that illness is scary, but to know it in your gut is another thing. In this poem, I wanted the imagery and tactile quality of the blood and medical intervention to parallel a fear that illness cannot be contained or tamed, either by the body or by medicine.

BC: These poems really allow us to inhabit the body through your use of sensory imagery while also engaging us in important narratives. Thank you so much for chatting with us about your poems!


Parisa Emam is an adolescent therapist and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Family Therapy Magazine, the anthology Our Bodies, Our Bikes, and Western Washington University’s publications Jeopardy Magazine and Labyrinth Journal.