Feature Poem with Judith Beveridge: The H Word

By and | 1 May 2014

There are many levels of identified pain in Omar Sakr’s poem: deprivation, despair, violence, oppression, shame, mortality, the brutal inevitability of loss and disenfranchisement, yet the poem’s interrogation of these issues is often playful and comic, tender and deftly alert to the way language, when used imaginatively, can suddenly make the bottom drop out of preconceived notions.

The poem is structured around a build-up of h-words, these are words with difficult and distressing implications for the speaker. The poet delivers these words with great skill and bravura, often with surprise: ‘Another H-word./The scariest one. Not horror or homicide// or haemorrhage or hate. Not hope./ Home.’ The h-words come layered with implications of mischance and cruelty, of the harm of stereotyping. The ‘hoody’ plays a duel role in the poem, it is both emblem of trouble, yet also supplies mask and comfort, it’s the interface by which the speaker understands their world.

There’s an essential vulnerability in the voice, and the sense of lived, immediate experience is entirely convincing. Every h-word startles, haunts and modulates inventively into the next: ‘It shouldn’t have surprised me, but the day// homo was added to the mix, everything hurt/ just a little bit more. I came to know the word Hell.’ In this poem, Omar Sakr has cleverly set up a structural strategy which enables the reader to imaginatively enter the poem and gradually apprehend the way in which the speaker is emotionally damaged. The value in this poem is how the poet has used humour, structure, language and intimacy of voice to create a truthful and dramatic performance. – JB

The H Word

My suburbs had hoods.
They weren't neighbours - just hoods.

And the kids were the lums born of them.
Hood-lums hood-winked into dark spaces,

into tunnel vision: that this is all there is. 
Just pockmarked streets and bruised knuckles 

for homes. Another H-word. 
The scariest one. Not horror or homicide 

or haemorrhage or hate. Not hope. 

If your home is haemorrhaging kids into open 
graves and closed cell blocks in a flood—

pull the hood up. Hide your face. 
Your feet will still be wet with the harsh 

reds of correctional pens. It's hard to see 
the humour when hunger eats away at your family,

when all you have is stale bread. ‘Put sauce on it,’ 
my cousin would say. It goes down easier. 

Put hoods on the suburbs – they go down easier.
It shouldn't have surprised me, but the day 

homo was added to the mix, everything hurt 
just a little bit more. I came to know the word Hell, 

to feel it beneath my skin. When it gets cold, 
the hoody is still my go-to. Still keeps me warm. 

Sometimes I pull the cords a little too tight 
and sounds are strangled in my throat.

But even if I can't say it my lips still frame it, 
awake or asleep, crooked as hips 

hooked to hooking for a little H 
on the side. The word is: help. The day I die 

I fully expect to look down and find in my chest 
lies a hooded heart, heavy and still.
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