Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 9 • Spring 2004 • Poetry

Shilling Love

Shailja Patel


They never said / they loved us

Those words were not / in any language / spoken by my parents

I love you honey was the dribbled caramel / of Hollywood movies / Dallas / Dynasty / where hot water gushed / at the touch of gleaming taps / electricity surged / 24 hours a day / through skyscrapers banquets obscene as the Pentagon / were mere backdrops / where emotions had no consequences words / cost nothing meant nothing would never / have to be redeemed

My parents / didn't speak / that / language

1975 / 15 Kenyan shillings to the British pound / my mother speaks battle

Storms the bastions of Nairobi's / most exclusive prep schools / shoots our cowering / six-year old bodies like cannonballs / into the all-white classrooms / scales the ramparts of class distinction / around Loreto Convent / where the president / sends his daughter / the foreign diplomats send / their daughters / because my mother's daughters / will / have world-class educations

She falls / regroups / falls and re-groups / in endless assaults on visa officials / who sneer behind their bulletproof windows / at US and British consulates / my mother the general / arms her daughters / to take on every citadel

1977 / 20 Kenyan shillings to the British pound / my father speaks / stoic endurance / he began at 16 the brutal apprenticeship / of a man who takes care of his own / relinquished dreams of / fighter pilot rally driver for the daily crucifixion / of wringing profit from business / my father the foot soldier, bound to an honour / deeper than any currency / you must / finish what you start you must / march until you drop you must / give your life for those / you bring into the world

I try to explain love / in shillings / to those who've never gauged / who gets to leave who has to stay / who breaks free and what they pay / those who've never measured love / by every rung of the ladder / from survival / to choice

A force as grim and determined / as a boot up the backside / a spur that draws blood / a mountaineer's rope / that yanks / relentlessly / up

My parents never say / they love us / they save and count / count and save / the shilling falls against the pound / college fees for overseas students / rise like flood tides / love is a luxury / priced in hard currency / ringed by tariffs / and we devour prospectuses / of ivied buildings smooth lawns vast / libraries the way Jehovah's witnesses / gobble visions of paradise / because we know we'll have to be / twice as good three times as fast four times as driven / with angels powers and principalities on our side just / to get / on the plane

Thirty shillings to the pound fourty shillings to the pound / my parents fight over money late in the night / my father pounds the walls and yells / I can't -- it's impossible -- what do you think I am? / My mother propels us through school tuition exams applications / locks us into rooms to study / keeps an iron grip on the bank books

1982 / gunshots / in the streets of Nairobi / military coup leaders / thunder over the radio / Asian businesses wrecked and looted Asian women raped / after / the government / regains control / we whisper what the coup leaders planned

Round up all the Asians at gunpoint / in the national stadium / strip them of what / they carry march them / 30 miles / elders in wheelchairs / babies in arms / march them 30 miles to the airport / pack them onto any planes / of any foreign airline / tell the pilots / down the rifle barrels / leave / we don't care where you take them / leave

I learn like a stone in my gut that / third-generation Asian Kenyan will never / be Kenyan enough / all my patriotic fervor / will never turn my skin black / as yet another western country / drops a portcullis / of immigration spikes / my mother straps my shoulders back with a belt / to teach me / to stand up straight

50 Kenyan shillings to the pound / we cry from meltdown pressure / of exam after exam where second place is never good enough / they snap / faces taut with fear / you can't be soft / you have to fight / or the world will eat you up

75 Kenyan shillings to the pound / they hug us / tearless stoic at airports / as we board planes for icy alien England / cram instructions into our pockets like talismans / Eat proper meals so you don't get sick / cover your ears against the cold / avoid those muffathias / the students without purpose or values / learn and study / succeed / learn and study / succeed / remember remember remember the cost of your life

they never say / they love us


I watch how I love / I admonish exhort / like a Himalayan guide I / rope my chosen ones / yank them remorselessly up / when they don't even want to be / on the frigging mountain

like a vigilante squad I / scan dark streets for threats I / strategize for war and famine I / slide steel down spines

I watch heat / steam off my skin / when Westerners drop / I love yous into conversation / like blueberries hitting / soft / muffin dough / I convert it to shillings / and I wince

December 2000 / 120 shillings to the British pound / 90 Kenyan shillings to the US dollar / my sister Sneha and I / wait for our parents / at SFO's international terminal

Four hours after / their plane landed / they have not emerged

And we know with the hopeless rage / of third-world citizens / African passport holders / that the sum of their lives and labour / dreams and sacrifice / was measured sifted weighed found / wanting / by the INS

Somewhere deep in the airport's underbelly / in a room rank with fear and despair / my parents / who have travelled / 27 hours / across three continents / to see their children / are interrogated / by immigration officials

My father the footsoldier / numb with exhaustion / is throwing away / all the years / with reckless resolve / telling them / take the passports / take them / stamp them / no readmission EVER / just let me out to see my daughters

My mother the general / dizzy with desperation / cuts him off shouts him down / demands listen to me I'm the one / who filled in the visa forms / in her mind her lip curls she thinks / these Americans / call themselves so advanced so / modern but still / in the year 2000 / they think it must be the husband in charge / they won't let the wife speak

On her face a lifetime / of battle-honed skill and charm / turns like a heat lamp / onto the INS man until he / stretches / yawns / relents / he's tired / it's late / he wants his dinner / and my parents / trained from birth / to offer Indian / hospitality / open their bags and give their sandwiches / to this man / who would have sent them back / without a thought

Sneha and I / in the darkened lobby / watch the empty exit way / our whole American / dream-bought-with-their-lives / hisses mockery around our rigid bodies / we swallow sobs because / they raised us to be tough / they raised us to be fighters and into that / clenched haze / of not / crying

here they come

hunched / over their luggage carts our tiny / fierce / fragile / dogged / indomitable parents

Hugged tight they stink / of 31 hours in transit / hugged tighter we all stink / with the bravado of all the years / pain bitten down on gargantuan hopes / holding on through near-disasters / never ever / giving in / to softness

The stench rises off us / unbearable / of what / was never said

Something / is bursting the walls of my arteries something / is pounding its way up my throat like a volcano / rising / finally / I understand / why I'm a poet

Because I was born to a law / that states / before you claim a word you steep it / in terror and shit / in hope and joy and grief / in labour endurance vision costed out / in decades of your life / you have to sweat and curse it / pray and keen it / crawl and bleed it / with the very marrow / of your bones / you have to earn / its / meaning

Kenyan Indian poet Shailja Patel was 2001 Lambda Slam Champion and 2000 Santa Cruz Slam champion. She performs to standing ovations across the US and UK. Her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, including Bullets and Butterflies: A Queer Slam Anthology, Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, Sow's Ear Poetry Review, Emily Dickinson Award Anthology, and the CD, Best of the Berkeley Slam Poets. Featured in June Jordan's Poetry For The People program at UC Berkeley, her poems are also broadcast frequently on Pacifica Radio and the National Radio Project, and used in colleges, high schools and workshops across the country. Awards include an Outwrite 1999 Poetry Prize and a Voices Of Our Nations Poetry Scholarship. She is a recipient of a Serpent Source Foundation For Women Artists Grant.

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