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By Elizabeth Hoover

Ñuul, the teacher says and smacks his knee to show
where the stress falls. Ñuul, the children repeat each
starting at a different time so they sing a sour chord.
Moths at the light sound like newspaper scraping
the pavement in the wind. Ñuul, smack. Ñuul, scrape.
The light pings dark then revives with a crackle.
Ñuul, smack. Ñuul, scrape. It’s late. The children want
to go, to scatter into soccer games or along the sea wall
with their poles and kites. Their voices want to scatter
into English, Arabic, French. Their parents’ language—
their teacher’s—evaporates like foam at the wall.
Findi, the teacher smacks his knee. The room darkens
as the moths gather. Findi, smack. Findi, scrape.
Blue and green, red and purple long vanished
into bleu and verde, rouge and violet so today they learn
the colors their language has left. Sea-foam white, salt white,
dry-skin white, mangrove black, sea black, bruise black,
the bright between the moths, the bright of a ship’s prow,
the dark of the wings, the dark language falls into— Xeesal
the teacher smacks twice. Xeesal the children chant the burn
of bleaching cream. Xeesal, the moths struggle to free
their bellies fused to the light as the children learn
the words for pale, paler, palest, dark, darker, darkest.
Weex, smack. But the X is a hook for the children’s tongues.
Wit, they say, lonely. Weex, the teacher repeats, white. Wit.
Weex. Wit. Weex. Wit. The sea spumes white at the wall
and lonely in the children’s mouths. Weex, smack. Wit, wings
are silk in a ballroom. Weex, smack. Wit, scrape. Wit, smack
and the children giggle at the teacher’s caught tongue.
He can barely see the moths are so thick so he dismisses the class,
and walks home down the French names as shells of burnt moths
fall to the ground in the little dark school.

Added: Monday, July 21, 2014  /  Hoover's poem took Second Place in the Split This Rock 2012 Poetry Contest. We are grateful to Naomi Shihab Nye, judge of the 2012 contest.
Elizabeth Hoover
Courtesy of author.

Elizabeth Hoover’s poetry has appeared in Epoch, The Crab Orchard Review, and The Awl, among others. She received the 2017 Boulevard emerging poetry contest, the 2015 Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize from IthacaLit, and the 2014 StoryQuarterly essay prize. Her book reviews and criticism have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, Tupelo Quarterly, and Prairie Schooner. You can see more of her work at Elizabeth's website.

Other poems by this author