POETRY EDITOR JESSICA MARION MODI DISCUSSES "TRIPTYCH" BY SAFIA ELHILLO
Safia Elhillo’s “triptych” contains multiple layers that reveal and disguise themselves with each read. That is, it is one of those amazing poems that always feels like I’m encountering it for the first time.
On first read, I was struck by the simultaneously tender and threatening images throughout:
& i have only ever loved men marked to die reassure me
i watch the wind tangle up the curtains in a way that is not
cruel tell him to push me up against the cinnamon tree
to be kissed watch me disappear into its bark
a boy who made me a wound a door
to open and close he made my eyes & fills
my eyes like a tear or like the hot white sun
On second read, I noticed fragility. The body and material objects are destroyed as the speaker commands “dismantle me for firewood / & with what is left a house.” The room the speaker shares with another becomes grimmer and less visible with “…i let // his mouth open & add / to the dark in the room / with my name.” But perhaps nowhere is fragility more felt than in the poem’s close: “[the boy] who broke the beads i wear around my waist / materials objects my mother says absorb the harm / meant for my body.” The speaker’s body becomes as vulnerable as everything else in the world.
On another read, I was struck by the poem’s deft triangulation of desire. The speaker modulates desire and a fraught relationship with a lover through nature: a tree and autumn; then night air and a dark room; then red sea and hot white sun. This aspect showed me another layer of the title, as I wondered if the triptych was the three sections of the poem; or the speaker, the lover, and desire; or both.
The lack of punctuation and subsequent ambiguity allow readers to pass through the poem from multiple angles. Sometimes, the “him” of the first section is the same as the one in the second and the “boy” third. Sometimes, the boy is someone else. Sometimes, the three sections reflect on three different figures. With each new angle of entry, we see the poem in a different light. As if it’s a crystal hanging in a window, how we see it depends on where we stand, the time of day, our ability to see the way Elhillo does.
Regardless of the reader (or viewer), “triptych” is ever brilliant.