May 23, 2018 17 Comments

Ambalila Hemsell's poem "Passport" appears in Issue No. 47: Hauntings



For the first time in your short life,
Little Egg,
            you are hungry.
You who were born
with a little blue book in your mouth
have the stomach flu
and for two days have refused even water.

On the second night,
hunger is haunting your room,
wraith-like, and holding you
I feel the spikes
in your belly, the spongy
ache of your gums.

But by the third day
you are ready for toast
and on the fourth day,
when you want milk,
you have milk.


I think of the Syrian boy
             I saw in the video—
You are still baby-soft
but I think
             of him anyway,
his tender skeleton

I have known only the outer
edges of hunger, a fight with my father
over unfinished milk. Food stamp milk,
milk of lines and forms, undignified
milk, but still enough milk
for me not to want it.

But I know this:
              How the boy’s father 
              holds him to his chest
              like a hole in it
              and how his mother,
              a tiger in a small cage, 
              throws herself again
              and again against the wall
              of no bread.

All my dreams of war
involve children.
All my dreams
of motherhood
involve war. Birth,
a bloodbath, and then
the sudden knowing
you can kill, if you need to
you can do anything.

I imagine your skeleton.
Close my eyes, ultrasound—
giant head, perfect heart,
little penis waving around
as you somersault
in your fishbowl.

No life is easy
             some bones are
revealed by ultrasound
others by sonic
             boom    some
             boys watch helicopters
             fly low
             dropping anything.


On the day that I made
cupcakes for your first birthday
an American gunship
bombed the hospital in Kunduz.
Today, it is the hospital in Aleppo
as I peel for you, my Goldfish, an orange.

Someone is claiming
this rubble is for you
but you make friends
everywhere we go, O
Jubilant Ambassador,
Open Heart Surgeon,
Atlantic Sturgeon, O
Call to Prayer. You, in Morocco
kissing the ticket-seller
through the ticket booth glass,
you on the lap of every passenger
on every train and
the first day back Stateside
you coo and flash
your gummy grin
at all the hijabi women
working at Target.
The weird fortune
that this foreign-seeming place
is yours, is lost on you.


In the mountains
that run into Mediterranean
              we drive past
those who wait
those who wait for
a boat, as we traipse
across the border
to the rattle
of a cheap rental
dance across
the border
for the stamps
that let us dance back.
These blue books
we carry worth
more than water
more than
life. They wait
in the mountains,
come to the road
to ask for water.

I don’t stop.
have been crying
for hours
and are finally


Your grandmother is trying
for citizenship still.
Reluctantly, but for you.

At sixty-four
she bites her tongue
and weathers
the years-long interrogation
of her intention
to share a continent
with her grandchildren.

Meanwhile, you learn how
to say
thank you
and I give you
an orange just to hear it.

In some villages
the three-year-olds
have lived
entirely without
flour, sugar, salt

and the ocean isn’t deep
enough to keep them
from appearing
in your body.

What their mothers
would do to hand them
an orange.


For you, who were born
in the sea of my blood

with a little blue book
like a hook
in your mouth

with the corned
and calloused hands
of America
steady on the reel

I would throw myself
against the wall
of war but
I can’t find it.


I watch a hawk
collide with a semi-truck.
It looks so inevitable.
At one and a half, you
take great pleasure in
undoing things.
Hawk, Little Hawk,
love-born and lucky,
it damn near killed me
to get you here. By
which I mean, I would
die for you, and I
almost did, but the danger
of getting you born
is the only danger
we’ve borne. You see?


When you try
                to say I love you
                it sounds like

 I know
 get the idea.


I wished you into
this world, so
I cannot say
I didn’t wish
this world upon you

its lopsided wing-beats
its horrors.

I show you that we
belong to each other.
I encourage your many
tiny kindnesses.
I want them to count
for something. I want you
to count something—

I lose count.
For here you are
in your quiet bed.

For no reason at all
you wake and you sleep
to nothing
            but birds.

 Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash



Ambilila HemsellAMBALILA HEMSELL is a writer, educator, and musician from Colorado. She holds an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. She is a former writer-in-residence at InsideOut Literary Arts in Detroit. Her poetry can be found in the American Literary Review, Aquifer, Virga, and Riprap Literary Journal.

Read the other poems, stories, and art from Ruminate's Issue 47: Hauntings. 

17 Responses

Mary McGeever
Mary McGeever

April 13, 2020

Thank you for the gift of your heartfelt words. Thank you.

Madeleine Mysko
Madeleine Mysko

April 13, 2020

Thank you. Stunning, beautiful. Prophetic.

Rachel King
Rachel King

April 13, 2020

Wow, thank you for this beautiful, haunting poem!


February 20, 2019

I have tears running down my cheeks. It is my lunch break, and I am crying. This poem…Oh this poem is just so damn good. Thank you.

Margaret DeRitter
Margaret DeRitter

November 08, 2018

Such a breathtaking, poignant poem.

Keith Moul
Keith Moul

June 05, 2018

Babies and war, war and babies. I ask with you Ambalila, even without your superb poem, what is so hard to understand/feel?

Ann LoLordo
Ann LoLordo

May 30, 2018

Such a confident steady hand; I read to the end and then back again … and again.


May 23, 2018

This. Exquisite ache. Thank you.


May 23, 2018

So beautiful, I can’t see through my tears

M E Metzger
M E Metzger

May 23, 2018

this….. this takes my breath away, and yet gives my breath meaning and power and depth. I am undone. I wail. I hope. I grieve. I hope. I hope to hear your voice more in my world. I NEED to hear your voice more in my world. thank you.. just this: thank you.


May 23, 2018

Wow! I have no words, just feelings, and the words to say that i have no words. Just wow!

B. Jones
B. Jones

May 23, 2018

Thank you for the gift of this poem.

Maggie Morgan-Smith
Maggie Morgan-Smith

May 23, 2018

Painfully beautiful, Lila. ❤️

Steven K Carter
Steven K Carter

May 23, 2018

There are no words and then there are words like these. Mesmerizing, heart wrenching and magical.

Richard Green
Richard Green

May 23, 2018

Deeply moving.

Davis Allen
Davis Allen

May 23, 2018

Wonderful poem!

Sara Triana Mitchell
Sara Triana Mitchell

May 23, 2018

This is the most beautiful thing I have read in so long. Incredible writing, Ambalila.

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