Elixir Press, 2023
116 pages, $17.00
Review by Linda Scheller
Rooja Mohassessy’s debut poetry collection When Your Sky Runs Into Mine abounds with beauty and emotional power. Winner of the 22nd Elixir Press Poetry Award, this exquisitely crafted book describes the poet’s childhood memories of Iran in the 1980s; the horrors of war, her exile, evolution from devout innocence to mature understanding, and the forces of control that deny to girls and women agency, security, and equality.
When Your Sky Runs Into Mine is also an ekphrastic response to visual art by the poet’s uncle Bahman Mohassess, an artist world-renowned for his paintings, sculptures, and mixed media collages. Images of the artwork that inspired individual poems can be found on Rooja Mohassessy’s website, roojamohassessy.com. One of her uncle’s works of art, “Intoxicated by Verses,” corresponds to a poem of the same name in which a ten-year-old girl sits reading “the book of spells she spreads daily on her knees.” Mohassessy regards the scriptural dictums and religious rapture from the vantage point of maturity, writing
With the full length of her arm she turns
each page from one corner of the magic world
to the next, careful not to scare the sacred,
the gilded accents, little blades suspended,
twinkling over the cursive script.
Thou shalt not recite in a foreign tongue.
She loves the Arab tongue of God, she loves her lips
sliced with surahs, the consonants he thrusts
to the back of her throat, the long vowels
he sustains on her breath. Her incantations soar,
her white chador a floating tent sown
sunny with daisies beaming with childhood.
She pauses to drink at the turquoise bank:
the hand-painted margin of the page hems
her faith and brims with embossed blossoms.
This tender depiction of a young girl’s religious ecstasy reminded me of my own childhood faith and the sweetness of pure belief and awe. The subject’s innocent trust elevates her sense of wonder to a state of euphoria made ethereal by the words “twinkling,” “beaming,” “soar,” and “floating.” The part of this excerpt that most delighted me, “careful not to scare the sacred,” exemplifies Mohassessy’s ingenuity and proficiency with diction. Not only are “scare” and “sacred” comprised of virtually the same letters rearranged, but three of those six words contain a hard ‘c’ which creates a percussive rhythm, and the same three words also contain the consonant ‘r’ which creates a liquid, mellifluous flow of sound.
The third image in the website’s Gallery is a stark depiction of a woman in a black chador, and the poem it inspired, “Death Was Like a Desire” (7-8) was one of the first poems in the book to make an indelible impression on me.
The advent of the gauze cape and black turban
signaled the growing list of God’s mandates.
The gentle nudge under the chin that coaxed us
to look up from our troubles, from dallying
to nothing, no longer sufficed. We must have
been that steeped in sin. We’d raise our heads
in praise of the blended colors of dawn, pull
our chadors over our heads without a second thought,
cup our hands before us, true, we asked mostly
for the cup to pass from us, yet we kissed the cubed dirt
of Karbala and sipped on misfortune. We knew
no doubt we were undeserving—were taught
as much at school and for half a century prior.
But we thought bitterness a remedy…
Here, with poignant images expressed in graceful, intricate language, the repetition of the word “head” conveys the contrast between the colors of dawn and the colorless chador, and this contrast emphasizes the negation of the girls’ individuality and intrinsic value. In the fifth stanza, “cup” is repeated, used initially as a verb connoting entreaty and then as a noun representative of resigned suffering.
Acceptance of a girl’s subordinate place in society and her supposedly sinful nature gradually erode in poems exploring desire and the freedom of expression exhibited by women the speaker observes in her new life in exile. In “The Immigrant and Skin” (37-38) the recently arrived “prepubescent voyeuse” is transfixed by the behavior and attire of a young woman whose green foulard drapes her bare neck, shoulders, and cleavage.
Then the noise that pealed
from the forward thrust of her throat
and ceased, her rouged mouth delayed,
tilted like a goldfish come to feed.
A mouth like that would’ve been taped back home
I had no doubt, without questioning, with or without lipstick.
The shock of discovery and the struggle to adapt to new mores of behavior commingle with guilt since beloved family members remain in Iran. In “The Immigrant and Lament” (41-42) the speaker ponders the pain and abnegation of displacement, writing “Once obsolete, I could lie / about where I’d come from and those / I’d left to die.”
Distance and maturity increase awareness of the injustices and suffering borne by those left behind while simultaneously the cumulative experiences of exile call into question the young emigrant’s essential identity. In“All About Me” (52-53) the speaker recalls an experience in her classroom in France in which the teacher asks the homesick young student to “tell / all about herself.” The poem culminates in French, “I don’t know who I am.”
But you, my O young and foolish soul, forgot
your song, your tongue,
without you, the girl waited and in the minute
remaining of the period, she scribbled,
Je ne sais pas qui je suis.
As acclimation gradually sands the sharp edges of loss, the speaker adopts behaviors to mitigate and reconfigure her pain. Another selection from When Your Sky Runs Into Mine that strongly resonated with me, “Shopping” examines this phenomenon in the context of purchase. The poem ends,
Even so, each time I leave, embracing
a package or two, I feel refurbished,
confident it will smooth over
like a coat of whitewash
or at least identify what is missing.
Listen! Who is crying?
I can barely hear it anymore.
In addition to the difficulties of acculturation, widespread xenophobia afflicts immigrants in America, especially those who are Muslim. The burden of living under suspicion is expressed in the poem “Native,” (76-77) in which the speaker, tired of a neighbor’s simmering resentment, contemplates asking him in for a drink:
Let us toast and feel the draught rip our throats, hit the same gnawing
spot we share in this scorching twilight; it seems no ordinary drink will
wash away our animosity, each hunkering uninsured at home in the heart
of the High Fire Hazard Severity Zone where you stand and brandish your
gun, the American flag leaning to take a strike at the air beyond your deck.
The truth is I’ve grown weary of giving you no reason to shoot. What
shame that I too now listen to the breeze as though it rustled through the
blue oaks to spite me. I wish you’d play along, amiable as a tabula rasa, a still-life.
The poem’s long lines create a breathless urgency, a rush of utterance that corresponds with the speaker’s impatience and exasperation. Mohassessy’s judicious enjambment provides just the right amount of time for readers to envision the tableaux and absorb the intimations conveyed in elegant diction before attention is swept onward to the next, deeper regard.
When Your Sky Runs Into Mine is a collection of powerful and astonishingly beautiful poetry, but it is also far more than that. As a poet who left one culture for a very different one, particularly in respect to the status and treatment of women, Rooja Mohassessy writes from a rare and clearly described perspective informed by her lived experience and weighed with careful deliberation. Vivid and insightful, When Your Sky Runs Into Mine catalyzes the readers’ regard for the history, scope, and condition of rights and freedoms guaranteed to, or withheld from, women and girls.
Linda Scheller is a retired educator and the author of two books of poetry, Fierce Light (FutureCycle Press) and Wind & Children (Main Street Rag Publishing Company). She serves as vice president of Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center and volunteers as a programmer for KCBP Community Radio. Recent honors include Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations, and her manuscript Laurels was shortlisted for the Aryamati Poetry Prize.