Self-Portrait With Anxiety & Other Poems

Precious Arinze

Sometimes i am my father’s daughter, but mostly i am his hands

yes, i too, have been left
cradling what silence does to the body –
my tongue, a small animal

trapped in a forest of teeth, able
to demand only what has not been given
freely. & like a song on loop, memory

goes crashing into itself.

i remember the smoke, the smell of burning
cleansing the air, stretched out before me
like an endless tunnel of wind. i remember
his voice
cutting through the heat to find me.
& his hands
that wouldn’t let go when he did. the only
story where he is too afraid to be anything else.
i have been too afraid to be anything else.

a group of otters is called a family.
no one can say for certain what that means –
family, not otters. i have come home
humble as rain. i have come home wild
and vindictive as the sea. i have stolen food
from the mouths of lovers
when i only meant to starve myself. the truth is
i am without grandparents & i fear what void
must come next. funny how death forces us
to forsake our best pretences.

say my name & a shadow appears
in the doorway.
say baby & a dam folds in on itself.
say thanks. say thanks.
say you’re sorry even if you don’t want to.

in my worst dreams, i am still trapped
in childhood’s tomb. i wake to the noise
of sand being shoveled in.

the past, a stray dog that keeps returning
with a new bruise.
how do i admit

i almost loved the dog? i mean, the bruise.
or maybe the smoke. i have not known love
beyond a need to punish someone else

for my foolish desires. & isn’t it funny
how forgiveness does not erase
that which it forgives.

can you hear me? i am pretending as though i could breach this distance & you could understand. there are worse histories than this. i know. i had warm clothes & food no one had to be traded for. the truth is my father loved to build things. my father loved to break things. i cannot remember the last time i made something with my hands. i keep trying to tell you about the fire. my father came running to find me.

Self-portrait with anxiety 

why does it always keep coming back to this
the river     the rain     who is responsible
for the flood this time     my missing hands
the cloying breath spent      waiting for the mercy
of a different sky     & another     & another     &

why is it always the night that goes     vanishing
never me that abandons it     why does every conversation
feel like i am endangering myself

& there is always danger     there is always someone
dying      & not enough love      & light to grieve them back
again     the rain empties a river into my eyelids
a flash of light     illuminates      what lies beyond the window

& there is suddenly the shadow of a tree     there is suddenly
my mother     her head planted in the dust     her feet
trailing the sky for some place to lay us all down

there is always a tree     there is always someone’s mother
planting seeds     even if we are not around to watch them
grow     lightning invented flash fiction     & so did my pills
hold them both responsible for this undoing

i do want to rest someplace     if it isn’t my body
my ex calls     he is worried i might die tomorrow     & now
i am too     not about dying     tomorrow 

i am worried there will be more bruises      to beg forgiveness for
like how deep my need goes     & how unremarkable
what have i made of this relentless echo     prophecy rimmed
in shadow    what will become of my hands

how dense this thing called staying     how majestic
& well-intentioned the bruise     forgive me still     i need to find air
purely my own     uncontaminated yet      to what end
have we lasted this long     tell my hands to come back & hold me

this particular night      like all the ones before it     feels heavy
with all my lifetimes     tenacious     as the ships ferrying captives
towards plantations      when the flood comes     it will be only me
that drowns     only me that gets wet     & my hands
my hands     has anyone seen my hands

The past is not always a door you can walk through 

  1. How late is too early to pull a corpse from its slumber?
  2. Mother says Abraham understood that some sacrifices are necessary.
  3. The lie is that all our dreams are simply inventions. It is not trauma until you give it a name, a scent it can trace back to the sound of your voice.
  4. I knew something was missing, but nothing of what it was or where it went until I woke to find my body locked in the narrow closet of another person’s hunger.
  5. I could taste the heat of him, his meaty hands ushering my mouth into the night.
  6. There are so many reasons to overlook the threat of injuries to the flesh, need being the truest of them.
  7. She said all I had to do was stay there with him and try to be a big girl.
  8. Fear is the line that separates a command from a favour; so is love.
  9. The lie is that no one got what they came for.
  10. Some sacrifices are necessary.
  11. I am what remains after the knife recedes.
  12. Look, the absence of blood is not enough to prove that nothing died.

Precious Arinze writes poems and essays when they are not sitting in Lagos traffic and contemplating the decisions that have led them to make home in this city. Their work has appeared in Kalahari Review, Arts and Africa, The Republic Journal, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Electric Literature, Glass Poetry, and Berlin Quarterly amongst others.


*Illustration: ‘And his hands that wouldn’t let go when he did’ by Sef Adeola.

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