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Girls That Never Die: Poems

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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Intimate poems that explore feminine shame and violence and imagine what liberation from these threats might look like, from the award-winning author of The January Children

“Incredibly moving . . . Every single poem is stellar.”—Roxane Gay, author of Difficult Women and Hunger

In Girls That Never Die, award-winning poet Safia Elhillo reinvents the epic to explore Muslim girlhood and shame, the dangers of being a woman, and the myriad violences enacted and imagined against women’s bodies. Drawing from her own life and family histories, as well as cultural myths and news stories about honor killings and genital mutilation, she interlaces the everyday traumas of growing up a girl under patriarchy with magical realist imaginings of rebellion, autonomy, and power.

Elhillo writes a new world: women escape their stonings by birds that carry the rocks away; slain girls grow into two, like the hydra of lore, sprouting too numerous to ever be eradicated; circles of women are deemed holy, protected. Ultimately, Girls That Never Die is about wrestling ourselves from the threats of violence that constrain our lives, and instead looking to freedom and questioning:

[what if i will not die]

[what will govern me then]

ISBN-13: 9780593229484

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Publication Date: 07-12-2022

Pages: 144

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

Sudanese by way of D.C., Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children and Home Is Not a Country and co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me. Winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, the Arab American Book Award, and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, she is also the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation. Her work has appeared in POETRY Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, among others, and has been translated into several languages.

Read an Excerpt


Mold blooms on the yogurt, furring the edges in ancient colors. My body is something I have worn

for other people. Even five years ago
I would not recognize myself today, married, gallon bags

of animal bone and corncobs in the freezer to boil for stock.
I am far away from the cities of my girlhood, cool concrete

of their stairwells. The new therapist wants a list of compliments
I’d give myself on behalf of those who love me,

and all I can come up with is resourceful. For a time I believed myself in love with Orpheus, which only meant I loved

what I could make if I were free from what happened to my body.
That man who would never touch me, kept distant and without danger

by the barriers of fiction. Then I believed the work would save me.
I have no real use now for those Greek myths, their dead girls,

women raped by men and animals. Today the door is locked. Today nobody is outside. Muscle cramping mid-lap in the dark blue water.

Now I embroider flowers in dim colors in my new country of flowers,
clumsy stitches through the stencil of an orchid, remembering

my younger mouth pressed to a flute, unable to release the breath.
I’d liked that he was a musician, fingers long as spring onions.

As a child I ruined my sweaters, the sleeves tugged down to cover my hand before touching any doorknob or handling coins.

Teenaged, loitering, urgently lonely. The cotton t-shirts curled at their sliced hems. Now I am thick-fingered and practical

as my mother and her mother, smell of bleach against ceramic.
Gone is L’s humid little apartment, violent stain on the bathroom tile,

a bottle of crimson nail-polish shattered long ago and leaving streaks like blood. Her dirty living room where I slept

for nights on end, though my own apartment was nearby, cleaner—

I can’t imagine them, the poems that softened the hearts of gods,
the poems that changed anything.

That night, metal of the fire escape against my bare legs, I accepted my first cigarette and she allowed me to tell the entire story

without using the real words. The night cooling and gathered close.
The way nothing ever feels truly clean

in summer. And all I know about Eurydice is that she died. My every other fact about her is about him.


i was born i was planted

at the rupture the root where land became ocean became land

anew i split from my parallel self i split from its shape refusing root in my fallow mouth

the girl i also could have been cleaving my life neatly

& her name / easy / i know the story & my name / taken from a dead woman

all her life / my mother wanted to remember / to fill an aperture with

a girl named for a flower cut jasmine in a bowl

whose oil scents all our longing

our mothers / our mothers’

petals wrung wilting

for their perfume garlands hanging from our necks


Because I am their daughter my body is not mine.
I was raised like fruit, unpeeled & then peeled. Raised to bleed in some man’s bed. I was given my name
& with it my instructions. Pure. Pure.

& is it wasted on me? Every moment I do not touch myself, every moment I leave my body on its back to be a wife while I go somewhere above the room.

I return to the soil & search. I know it’s there. Buried shallow, wrapped in rags dark with old & forgotten rust,
their discarded part. Buried without ceremony,
buried like fallen seeds.

I wonder about the trees: Date palms veined through the fruit with the copper taste of cutting.
Guavas that, when slit, purple dark as raw meat.

I have to wonder, of course, about the blood orange,
about the pomegranate, splayed open, like something that once was alive & remains.

Table of Contents

Final Weeks, 1990 3

Orpheus 6

Profanity 9

How to Say 12

Yasmeen 14

Taxonomy 16

Infibulation Study 19

Pomegranate 21

Pomegranate with Partial Nude 23

Infibulation Study 26

Isha, New York City 28

Memoir 29

On Eid We Slaughter Lambs & I Know Intimately The Color 35

A Rumor 38

Modern Sudanese Poetry 40

Girls That Never Die 42

Bad Girl 43

Self-Portrait Without Stitches 44

The Animal 49

Pastoral 51

The Cairo Apartments 53

Zamalek 55

Geneva 58

Tony Soprano's Tender Machismo 60

Summer 63

Taxonomy 66

Syros 71

Terra Nullius 73

Sudan, TX 75

Taxonomy 77

Border/Softer 79

Ode to My Homegirls 80

Girls That Never Die 85

Elegy 87

1,000 89

Summer Triangle 91

Palimpsest 93

Harder/Border 95

Ode to Gossips 97

Girls That Never Die 101

For My Friends, in Reply to a Question 108

Red Note with a Line by Ol' Dirty Bastard 110

Girls That Never Die 111

Notes 115

Acknowledgments 123