Guest Poetry Blog Series # 27 – Part Two – This “Constant Self of Being” – Tryphena Yeboah features Mahtem Shifferaw and Ada Limón

Mathem Shifferaw, writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea currently living in the U.S.


I have been described by it, often
seen it rise up the mouths of strangers,
as if to say all things foreign – note: referring
to me, or, my body, as a thing; an object – are
made of war, or: things infested by war.
This thing, I also notice, comes within
language: that which we use to define
our own, or not; the knowing we choose
to acknowledge, that which we ignore;
this thing, is also a fruit: thorns on the outside,
bleeding meat on the inside, quenching
a thirst, a cry, nostalgia for simpler days.
War, I find, is also this: constant hiding,
home within invisibility, or worry, or
brokenness. Not knowing what to do
or say to the grief-stricken. Having to explain,
amidst tears, or bewilderment, the difference
between the immigrant, and the refugee. I am
inclined to think: wretched, once there, now
here – lost. The constant loss, coating our skin
like thin ash. Having to beg – see me, see this
humanness in me. The knowing of our new selves:
as an alien – again, a thing, an object. Having to count
our fears too; that of assimilation, that of
unbelonging, that of a new death, imminent threat.
Knowing the gendered histories of our bodies too,
and shaping a way to forgetfulness – to survive
this thing – note here: not an object, but a
constant self of being.

Mahtem Shifferaw from World Literature Today, May 2018

It’s hard to pick one poet to write about because there are so many of them whose work I admire, and return to over and over again, and in different seasons. I love Mary Oliver’s poems “Wild Geese” and “Worry.” Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” is a memorable one and of course, I’ve been so touched by Kwame Dawes’ “It begins with silence” and “After the biopsy” from his recent poetry collection, Sturge Town. For this Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series, however, I want to highlight the work of two poets I’ve been following for years: Mahtem Shifferaw and Ada Limón.

Last year, I had the pleasure of being a part of Mahtem’s Anaphora Literary Arts workshop, and outside of that, we bonded over conversations about home and identity, our shifting sense of self and the changes in our relationships, our histories and journey to America, and how we carry so much of what happens to us, much more than we realize. There were so many moments during our interaction where I was simply stunned that someone else knew and could articulate a feeling, a fear, that I’ve had but couldn’t quite find the language for it.

It is perhaps precisely what I cherish about Mahtem’s writing—her ability to employ language in an empathetic and thoughtful way. In her poem “War,” Mahtem writes about how the body can be disembodied, that one can so easily be dehumanized simply for being different, foreign, or unfamiliar. With precise and striking language, she interrogates the power dynamics in the relationship between the one who gazes and the subject of the gaze, the one who defines and the subject who takes on that definition. She reflects on the constant urgency and weariness of having to justify, negotiate, resist, and insist on being seen and known for what one is—human.

Mahtem successfully locates the seemingly ordinary things of life, the small interactions and how they are shaped by the impulse to objectify another, the unspoken assumptions and prejudices, and the often quiet and internal wrestling of the immigrant.

In writing about the invisibilities of people, what Mahtem offers the reader is indeed an invitation to pause and see, listen, and learn this otherness, to demystify the imposed strangeness, to love, to love, to love another human.

*     *     *

American poet and U.S.Poet Laureate, Ada Limón. Photo credit: San Marcos Mercury

The Raincoat

When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
by pain. My mom would tell me to sing
songs to her the whole forty-five minute
drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-
five minutes back from physical therapy.
She’d say, even my voice sounded unfettered
by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang,
because I thought she liked it. I never
asked her what she gave up to drive me,
or how her day was before this chore. Today,
at her age, I was driving myself home from yet
another spine appointment, singing along
to some maudlin but solid song on the radio,
and I saw a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.

Ada Limón  from The Carrying, Milkweed Editions, 2018

In her 2022 interview with Vanity Fair, the current United States Poet Laureate, Ada Limón, talked about how she’s intentional with vehemently finding joy in her life. How she can write from grief, love, even anger, but never fear and anxiety—what she terms the most silencing emotions.

I love her poem “The Raincoat” for a good number of reasons, but especially because it reminds me to be grateful, and to not take for granted the relationships I have, the people who show up for me, and all that is sacrificed along the way for me to be here and do what I do.

The more I read Ada’s work, the more I learn about the need to decenter myself, as she puts it, to excuse myself from being the hero of everything. To look outside of myself, outside my window, outside my own bubble of existence, and see other lives, to be lost in the beauty of nature and new wonders, to know other loves, other desires. To have the courage to see another way of being and open myself to it.

The Raincoat” makes me think about the different ways care can look like, and how much it costs us, sometimes. How an act of care can be so simple, unassuming, and mundane. And yet, these small, consistent, selfless gestures are what keep us. We do not simply survive and become. Living and loving are far from being solitary endeavors. There are voices that sustain us, hands that carry us through the storm.

Blog post by Tryphena Yeboah, March 2024


  1. Liz McNally
    Posted March 27, 2024 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    The constant loss, coating our skin
    like thin ash. Having to beg – see me, see this
    humanness in me.
    So poignant, especially now with all these wars raging.
    Limon’s poem gorgeous, I may post it on my mother’s care home door.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 27, 2024 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Hello Liz, me from Portugal! Windy like crazy but fun to be here. Such a poiugnant poem. It echoes your wonderful poem you sent me a few days ago. Huge blessings.

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