Long Narrative Poem

The story behind this poem and a link to the full piece is below.

Amy And Ali Get Married

Our marriage is not just a piece of paper
Our marriage is many pieces of paper

First, a letter via the US Embassy in Bayan,
by appointment. First, a letter with signatures
and stamps vouching Amy is presently
unmarried so able to marry Ali who is allowed
(but will not take) three more wives
after this first marriage, his to Amy

This letter in hand, Amy takes a number
waits under fluorescent light in a big room
before she is redirected to a small room
off to one side, the ladies’ waiting room
which provides women privacy from stares
and which is also mostly ignored. She sits
alone, watching through the doorframe
all the men go to the counters. She calls Ali
to say she doesn’t think anyone will
remember her here. She returns to the big
fluorescent room and the electricity flickers,
the red number counter goes black, the lights
hum back on but no one is counting whose
turn it is

She waits with letter in hand so she can
marry the Lebanese man she didn’t imagine
when she left Illinois five years ago. She waits
among men who shuffle around her to make
their way to a counter where papers are
thumbed. She waits until the red number
counter blinks on and now
she has missed her
turn! She weaves, nudges her way forward,
shows her number
smiles winningly
and waits for the man to look at her letter,
reach for a stamp, sign it so she can chase
the next piece of paper. But the man doesn’t
reach for a stamp or pen. He looks up at Amy who
is still smiling and he says, Go to America, get this
stamped, come back
and I will stamp

Amy leaves the big fluorescent room, walks into
midday winter, calls Ali who arrives in his car, leaves
it running while they sit in the front seat thinking
how to get married now

Read the complete poem: Amy And Ali Get Married Story behind the poem:

One day I sat at the teacher table during lunch and caught the end of Amy’s story about getting married here. The story has a lot of parts. I asked her to retell it. While I listened I thought two things: one, this should be an essay; two, is this mine to tell? But even as Amy was finally standing before a judge and legally marrying Ali, I could see her story in paragraphs and dialogue. I was imagining how many people might love to read the absurdity, not of marrying, but of marrying here, of the many turns you must take to get anything done within this particular bureaucracy. Paperwork snags here. It might be another stamp you need or a particular official who is now traveling or a law that changed two weeks ago. So while many of us haven’t been married in Kuwait, we recognize the wait times, the scavenger hunt, the comic frustration of compiling and re-compiling documents for (seemingly) whim approval. We recognize the exhausted or furious relief at obtaining chased visa or certificate or registration.

I thought about interviewing Amy and Ali, writing their marriage in those blocks of text I saw as Amy spoke. But as I’ve been considering whose story [this] is to tell, I’ve also been thinking about audience and purpose. So when I first thought about writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story, I wondered why their particular paperwork chase appealed to me and why I wanted anyone else to read it and the answer is: I am curious. I like to read and watch and listen to other peoples’ stories because I only get one life. There is a lot of the world I will never see. There are a lot of adventures and routes I won’t take. And the answer is: you are curious too. The purpose of writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story is to show you what it’s like to navigate paperwork. But more. Amy and Ali are a cross-cultural couple who encountered some prejudice as they pursued legal marriage. This is a rich and challenging commitment, choosing to love someone whose family/ religion/ ethnicity/ culture is so different than your own.

As for whether this is my story to tell, I spoke with Amy shortly after that lunch. I rethought my essay approach. Instead, I chose to draft a narrative poem. I chose poetry for the flexibility offered to form and language. I drafted just enough to know the piece could work and then spoke with Amy. I asked permission to write their marriage story. I decided the final piece would be to her and Ali, a wedding gift of sorts. Knowing that helped me choose which details to include. I took some liberty with narrative voice. I had direction too, to trace Amy and Ali’s love over each step. Early in the drafting, I returned to Amy to get a better sequence of events. I spoke with her about using some of my own images in the piece, pulling from my own experience of waiting rooms or government offices here. I did not speak with Ali before or during drafting, relying instead on one version of the story to tell the whole, but I also trusted my intent to honor Amy and Ali with this work. At the end of drafting, I shared the whole piece with Amy, fact-checked and revised a few things and waited for her to read the final version with Ali before sharing here. Ali corrected a piece of information which I included in the poem with an asterisk.

This poem is to Amy and Ali but it is for all of us to read. Both are fine with me sharing this work with you. As I continue to play with this piece, I will share its revisions with Amy and Ali. When/ if the piece it published in some form, it is first to the two of them, with my hope for their good marriage.

One From Africa

When Justin said he’d like to spend Christmas in Kenya, I told him to have fun and asked if he was taking the kids. He said he meant all of us, we should all go to Kenya. I knew that. I didn’t want to go. I had terrible reasons why. Travel isn’t rest. I like our Christmas in Kuwait. We don’t have all our shots. But I left the decision to Justin and he booked our flights with me standing over his shoulder thinking this was iffy at best. The weeks leading to departure were overfull. I wanted a break that looked like me alone in the apartment for days on end, sleeping. I snapped at Justin. I bought gifts and piled them on the dining table, then spent the day of our flight packing suitcases and crying because I wanted to want to go rather than what it was: nudging my body closer to boarding a plane in the middle of the night.

I was supposed to go to Nairobi when I was sixteen. I was going to stay with a missionary family we knew. My head was full of God but I thought I’d hear better in Africa, sitting on a flat rock watching the sunrise. There, God would tell me my whole life. During the months leading up to that summer, I decided I might live in Africa forever. I don’t know what I thought I’d do. Something holy. Maybe I quit trying to hear God clearly in Wisconsin because I was sure He was louder in Africa. But then the trip got nixed and I quit writing to my missionary pen pal because I was mad her anorexia got my God trip cancelled. Her whole family returned to the States for her treatment and I remember thinking, Just eat dammit. In the years following when I’d see  updates from her family, I’d look at this skinny young woman’s picture and think she got the better end despite illness and all I got was an average summer before senior year when I could have been doing so much for the Lord. (Forgive me).

Last spring when my brother told me he’d got a job in Nairobi I thought of my lost God trip. I wrote about it then, surprised by the untapped bitterness. I thought maybe I’d visit my brother, maybe someday, but when Justin bought the tickets and I spent three months thinking it was an awful idea, I couldn’t figure out what was going on in my heart.

When I am in a plane, I yield. I just go with the two possibilities (we land or we don’t) and think how sad for whomever has to clean my apartment should the latter be my fate. On the flight from Ethiopia to Kenya, I thought about who I was twenty years ago and why I thought God would speak louder in Africa. I thought about God’s faithfulness, how he spoke to me in Wisconsin and Colombia and now in Kuwait. I am learning to listen the first time. I am learning to trust. And the plane tilted a little so I could see the earth below, the Kenya I’d missed two decades ago, and God worked my heart in a way I’ve got no words for. I looked at the green land and tears came and tears kept coming the first week here and this the second week – tears for so many things, but also for this: surprise and joy at being here, in Kenya so long after I’d first wanted the land, and the sudden planted desire to be here. I want more.

I am sitting cross-legged in pants dirty with red mud, wanting more. And that is only of God.