“The Wrong Person to Ask” by Marjorie Lotfi is the featured poem of the week.
Image of a Young Girl and a Little Boy (Burij, Gaza, 2014)
but she is so stubborn.
I want to advise her against wearing delicate shoes, but she is very obstinate.
The debris contains a wide range of information that can be known.
and unknowable dangers: sheets of metal ripped
to knife edge, live wires, bloated arms reaching
Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, concealing it in the light.
through the canopy
The area is exposed to the sky, and the remains of structures fall through the trees.
The midday bells ring, reminding us to focus on one specific task at a time.
The sound of rockets fills the air around her as she carries a young child.
Her slender hips were encircled by his legs.
She wore yellow overalls. Similar to a cowboy, his left arm.
She grabs onto her shoulder to stabilize herself or him.
is propelled forward
As his upper body recoils and retreats, his momentum propels his body forward.
The request is to decelerate and backtrack.
She scans the ground for her next movement, her fingers feeling clumsy.
she was trying to grab something
Her unoccupied hand formed a claw shape, as if attempting to grasp an object.
to frighten off what she somehow sees ahead.
Marjorie Lotfi’s debut full-length collection, titled “The Wrong Person to Ask,” is a perceptive and occasionally reserved work. It was one of three recipients of the James Berry Poetry prize in October.
Lotfi’s poems explore the themes of migration and exile. She was born in New Orleans to an Iranian father and American mother and moved to Tehran as a baby. However, she had to leave suddenly during the Iranian revolution with only one suitcase. She has since lived in different parts of the United States, studied law, and now resides in Edinburgh. Lotfi’s diverse cultural background informs her poetry, as seen in her observant depiction of the differences between two grandmothers meeting for the first time in Tehran in 1978. One grandmother speaks only Farsi, her second language learned in school, while the other speaks only English. Lotfi captures the peaceful acceptance of their inability to communicate fully and shares a touching moment that showcases her skillful storytelling.
This week’s featured poem is the first of a pair, with Picture of Girl and Small Boy (Burij, Gaza, 2014) on one page and Boy, Looking Away (Gaza 2015) on the other. Although numbered I and II in the collection, they do not share a single title. The boy in the second poem has a name, but I believe he is not the same child as in the first. I chose the latter because the anonymity of both children adds to the impact of the photograph and brings it closer to those of us who constantly watch videos of civilians in a war zone far from our own lives. It’s also a reminder that the tragedy of war goes beyond individual politics.
The poem portrays the universal impact of war on children by providing detailed descriptions of a girl and a boy. Despite this, they are not stripped of their individuality. The speaker shows compassion towards them and brings them to life, yet they remain unattainable.
The poem has a formal structure of four quatrains, but its language is taken from journalistic writing. It is casual and straightforward. There is a moment where the grammar is not precise (“Like a rodeo rider, his left arm / grips her shoulder to steady himself / or her”) and a potentially overused phrase (“her eyes comb the ground for a next step”). However, these instances actually add depth to the poem. The comparison to a “rodeo rider” creates a sense of disorientation. The boy is not in control, he is being pulled in different directions. The description of his body, with his legs “entwined” around his sister while his torso is pulled away, shows how war can affect even a young and uninjured child. This also implies the impact on childhood itself. The grammatical error of placing “boy” as the subject instead of “arm” is essential to this effect.
Once more, in the fourth stanza image of the girl’s eyes “searching” the ground for the next move, we are reminded of the ground described in the first stanza – “sheets of metal, torn / into sharp edges, electrified wires, swollen arms reaching // for light.” It is a chaotic and dangerous combination that must be carefully navigated and avoided before taking a single step forward. The thought of those “eyes” is enough to make one cringe.
The vulnerability of the girl is centered around her body parts and senses. She is wearing thin shoes, causing her toes to double as combs. Her hair is left exposed to the sky, with debris from buildings falling as potentially dangerous concrete chunks. The attempt to appear normal is ridiculed by the constant midday rockets, a sound that may remind the child of school bells.
The style of having hair pulled tightly into a ponytail is both useful and confident, but also requires the use of all available resources. As she supports the weight of her brother on her narrow hips, the girl is burdened with a maternal responsibility beyond her age. Even when she is at school, she may be studying, playing, or grooming herself. However, her other hand is curled into a claw, seemingly to ward off any perceived danger ahead. Like the boy’s contorted body, the clawed hand is a result of tension and could potentially be used as a weapon.
The poet initially portrays herself as a part of the scene. The poem features three individuals who are all being forced into different directions against their desires. However, Lotfi remains a silent and loyal observer. There is no indulgent self-reflection, as she remains focused on what she witnesses.
The Burij refugee camp, often written as Bureij in English, has been subjected to frequent airstrikes by the Israeli military. In the past month, two freelance journalists named Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour lost their lives in the camp.