This poem was a finalist for Plough’s 2022 Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award.
When I ask him to cut as’ab
he hesitates, then shudders it gone.
He pulls a stalk away, shows his grandson
how to stomp it down, crack the stalk at the base
so the roots keep growing, shows him oud,
musical knuckle of root-band, bud furrow and leaf scar.
Canines tear and molars grind, we tongue
the sweet sting, spit pulp and pluck string while he
tells us how neighborhood kids spun quarters and
whacked them with a stick of as’ab.
Whoever stuck the spinning quarter got to keep it.
The quarter or the cane I ask, and he laughs.
Then I grew up. He holds the as’ab along one forearm
like an offered prayer, drives the knife down,
peels down the purple-green stalk and spins
one about fellahin who were sucking sugarcane
telling stories all night, couldn’t find their canes
and had to hobble home in the morning and he laughs
and we laugh hard, as hard as the year.
When I ask if I can help he shakes his head
because he once drove a knife down
into his forearm cutting as’ab
and his memory of sweetness with pain is long
and long, as long as the sugarcane.