Poetry Feature: 2022 Provost Winner Aanaa Felema

Aanaa Felema

I’ve Stopped Trying To Make Celery Taste Good

I hear it in a pop song for the first time as a child—
a vegetable is a vegetable and also a dead weight.
I see it for myself when I’m slightly older.
What a horrible shape to form your mouth into and call a body,
I think to myself, because I am no older than ten years of age.

It will be a long while before I begin to consider:
Seeds, yet to be sown.
Proof of life and new ground,
immunity to the ever-present fires.
Proof of pedigree.

My parents look worried and busy
through the narrow rectangle window. So I wonder about the etymology of
the word ‘hospital’
while sitting in the waiting room.
And though I can’t spell ‘etymology’ yet,
I’m sure it’ll be fine. Google will get me where I need to go.
I’ve been here enough times
to know how to spell out ‘hospital’

But still, I think. What a horrible shape.

Fine. I’ll admit that I’m not above complaining about the smell.
My mother is cutting up celery tonight for my siblings and I watch closely
because at thirteen,
I have terrible knife skills.
I hate celery, I keep telling her. It stinks so bad. I gotta let her know.
As expected, she ignores this.
She’s doing the best she can to accommodate, after all.
Her children have to eat their
strange after-school snack.

I’ve compared the feel of
English in my mouth
to the taste of celery ever since I was young.
I had just learned about metaphor and simile,
and I wanted to try my hand at writing.
With that came chance and opportunity.
For the first time,
I could dismiss the mythologies of my parents’ upbringing.
I could come up with something
of my own.

A brand-new evil, I write in the corners of my math notebook.
Cold syllables cutting the insides
of my cheeks whenever I
utter a word.
I swallow my sentences down
–as sour as they come–
and wince.

Whenever I get caught in a lie, my mother says she ought to cut off my
split-snake tongue.
I know there are consequences that come with
having this sort of power.
I know my words get me into trouble,
and so do hers.
I let her keep saying it.

My paternal grandmother used to enjoy Nutella and jam sandwiches
before she passed on,
and we as children giggled about it together because
who even does that?

Don’t worry. It’s okay.
She didn’t get the chance to know what we had been saying.

I try it for myself, when I’m older.
God, I can’t.
It’s much too sweet
for a mouth like mine.

I learned it then—
the bigamy of a forked tongue
with a language barrier
or an unpleasant meal,
though it was still edible,
Between disgruntled in-laws,

Between the weight of existing
as a third-culture-kid adjacent,
I still can’t get the words out; there is
just negative space. A gap between my front teeth.
Diastema only wide enough to fit a
pocket blade,
which meant a duel.
By word of mouth:
Recess. Front playground. It’s me versus the white kids.
Be there or be square.

In between saying “I’ve lost”
and saying “I keep on losing”
I think our mouths occupy
strange significance—

Guilty consciences
unique harm.

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