The philosopher W.V.O. Quine once observed that even our own language is never fixed. “Language is perpetually in flux,” he suggested. “Each of us in learning his [or her] own language depends heavily on analogy, interpreting or fabricating further phrases by analogy with phrases we have learned before.” This seems particularly evident in the poems of Rasheeda Plenty, whose language offers many dualities: the language of the past that is at once in opposition with and a bridge to the present; the language of one’s daily speech in conversation with the more intimate, spiritual language of one’s interiority; and the language that is revealed to loved ones from whom other words are kept hidden. I am struck by the original approach to her subject and the language she uses, which mixes colloquial English and Arabic, seamlessly and—please, know this—without performance. Her poems inhabit scenes and convey spirit. Not spirit in some new-age way, but in the most universal and sincerest form: the unvarnished human spirit. Beyond all of this talk about language, though, she, more importantly, also manages to reveal the vulnerability in the relationships between the figures inhabiting her poems. That is to say, she deals with the issues that we hope poetry will continue to address, drawing analogies—as Quine points out—that help us explain the lives we lead.
—A. Van Jordan
I meet him on the train
to Kansas City and find I’m
scattered because he looks at me
and sits in the empty seat beside mine,
because he turns from his two friends
across the way and asks brokenly,
“The word for this?”
points at the wall then the laptop
to suggest and I say, “You mean plug?
Outlet?” because he smiles,
then looks at me again
and asks, “You’re Muslim?”
and I say, “Yes.” Because his name
is Yaseen—the same as the guy
who courted me for two weeks,
who asks about me every year. Irony.
I smile wider—so does he.
I ask, “Where are you from?”
and he answers, “Morocco.”
Because my stepsister’s in Morocco
and I say, “Oh, my stepsister’s
in Morocco,” and he leans forward—
“Where?” And I laugh,
“I don’t remember. Chefchouan,
near Chefchouan.” Because he laughs,
starts to list off towns. I shake my head
and smile. I really don’t remember.
Because he glances at the attendant
when she comes to check our tickets,
glances at me and says,
“We’re together” and, smiling,
I shake my head, “We’re not.”
Because we’re quiet now. I stare
into my lap, the paper ticket cover
folded and refolded in my hands, and hear
him shift or lean his head back on the rest.
Because I want to hear his voice,
want him to look at me.
Because he looks at me
and doesn’t glance away, asks,
“What do you study?” and I say, “Poetry.”
His brow furrows, he shakes his head,
“What is this word?”
and I search my mind for the Arabic,
“Shi’ir.” Because his face is bright,
brightens more, “You speak Arabic!”
and I laugh, “No. Qaleelan,
a little.” Because he decides
to teach me, “Can you read?
Write?” and I say “yes” to both.
He shifts his kufi, brushes
back dark strands of hair,
says, “That is the hard part.”
Because the attendant passes,
saying, “Dinner reservations?”
and softly he says, “Asha,’ ”
turns to me, “You know
this word?” and I mistake it for Ishaa’.
Because he tells me, “Spell it,” and I forget
the hamza and add a ya’. And he says,
“Ain sheen alif hamza.” And I say,
“Oh, the hamza. I hate the hamza,”
and he laughs, “Okay, Sabaah.
No hamza in this one.”
Because I look into his face, spell
it right, and watch his blooming smile.
I will learn to speak Arabic
on this train heading toward Missouri.
I ask how to say “excuse me”
and he says, “Ismahlee” and I say,
“Ismahlee,” I need to get pass, make
wudhu, salaat, stop talking,
rein myself in. Because I stand
in the restroom, watch
my face in the mirror,
say to my image, “Stop it. Stop,”
but it continues
grinning in spite of the water
washing over it. Because I pray
in my seat and he leans forward
to shield me, hands me
a small zipped Qu’ran
when I am done. Because I open it
to read Sura Naba, settle in my seat,
and he says, “Please, louder.”
And I switch to Sura Bayyina—
Clarity, Allah—raise my voice
two notches, shift toward him
so he can hear. Because his eyes
are on my face, because—even gazing
at the green print, mouth full
of these words—I know this.
The sura ends and I look up.
His lashes brush his lids
and remind me of my brother’s.
Because I look away, Allah, read Naba
under my breath and feel him
watching. I hand him
the Qu’ran to return to his friend.
Because when I lean forward
to say shukran, see him sleeping,
and sit back, Yaseen glances at me
and says, “Afwan.” Smiles,
“I know what you wanted,”
and he did. Because he leaves me.
Tells me to take our two seats,
he’ll sleep in the next row.
Chivalry. I can close my eyes now.
Covered with my jacket,
curled near the window, smiling
into the seat back, I think
I have no right to feel this.
Because I fall asleep thinking I have no right
and wake up knowing.
Because he is still asleep
behind me. Night presses against the glass
and I call my sister, tell her
we’re pulling into Fort Madison
where our train died last time
we both rode Amtrak, where it took
three hours before we began moving
again. Because I’m saying “Insha’Allah,
we won’t get stuck here”
when he wakes up. Because I stay on the phone
as he digs in his bag for his laptop,
glances at me and nods his head
toward the observation car.
I nod back, keep talking. Because I’m asleep
when he returns. Wake up to find
him dozing beside me. Turn away
from his twitch toward wakefulness.
Because I run through my words,
how I shifted toward him, dipped
my head to read Qu’ran near his,
flicked a glance at him, away, then back.
Allah, protect me from myself.
Because before we pull into the station,
Yaseen will give me gum.
And I will say, “Welcome
to Kansas City,” with my back
to him and my gaze out of the window.
And he will say, “It was nice,
talking to you.” Because
we’ll wait for our luggage
in the same area, me standing,
him sitting, and my eyes will skate
around him and his friends. I will say,
“Salaam” at the exit and walk
into the night, slide into my sister’s car
and, after a while, I’ll tell her,
“I met three Moroccan guys
on the train. They’re moving
to Kansas City to find work.”
“They were nice,” I will say.
Because I’ll give him no name,
will think It’s better this way,
and that will be all,
as if I’d not been shaken,
as if, sitting with my sister now,
I’m not still on the train,
his face and mine
two turned halves, the fields
and snow flashing by,
sun in our eyes,
and both of us asking each other,
“How do you say this?
How do you say . . . ”