Extract: Abacus of Loss – A Memoir in Verse (Sholeh Wolpé)

Sholeh Wolpé is an Iranian-born poet, playwright and librettist.  Her literary work includes five collections of poetry, several plays, three books of translations, and three anthologies.  Sholeh has lived in Iran, Trinidad and the UK, and presently divides her time between Los Angeles and Barcelona. Sholeh is currently a Writer-in-Residence at the University of California, Irvine.  You can find more of her work at her website, and on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube

With thanks to Sholeh and the University of Arkansas Press, below we have for you an excerpt from Sholeh’s most recent book: Abacus of Loss – A Memoir in Verse.  You can get your copy here

Four BEADS from chapter: FAITH

© Edvarda Braanaas, 2022


Sitting with three open books black with the meandering calligraphy of a “terrorist language” at an American airport is a terrible idea.

But five hours early, what’s a girl to do but risk it, open what she must under the watchful eyes of TSA and cameras that blink when a person of unknown dark curly-hair origin is spotted with undecipherable texts, possibly manuals for mass destruction of something.

A few people pass by, too casually perhaps, and peek at the books, but in the end, it’s a sweeper who soft-shoes his way towards me, a Latino Fred Astaire with fake bushy mustache. He runs his broom to and fro, moving dust closer and closer to my ridiculously high-heeled red shoes, then stops. He pretends to notice me for the first time, puts his small chin on the stick of his broom, gathers his mouth as if around a cut lemon, squints, then asks in Spanish, ¿Que es esto? Greico?

Good move, I think, so you no hablas Ingles, amigo. I look up and give him a sly smile. He parts his lips, slightly. His teeth are corn-yellow. A smoker for sure. But that mustache? It takes all my strength to not reach up and pull. To see if it comes off.

I answer in Spanish, No, this isn’t Greek, it’s Persian poetry.

He lifts his chin, says, ¡Bien! ¡Hablas Español! He then bends over the book for a closer look. I say, this time in English, Poetry, and point to the shape of the couplets. See? I say, A line of Persian poetry consists of two hemistiches separated like this. I point to the blank space between separated texts. He ungathers his lips from their concentrated pose, nods, mumbles something about how he hated memorizing poetry at school, then in perfect accent-less English: Don’t miss your flight.

With that, he turns on his heels and just as deliberately, soft- shoes back, towards some place, over there, broom still in hand, past a door that appears and disappears like an itch, scratched.


I say God is just a vagabond
peddling bombs and swords
and Daddy says he’ll never speak to me again.

Aunt calls on the phone and monologues for hours.
Brothers shake their heads in disbelief.

They ask why, but my answer is in a tongue they refuse.
It is printed on a flag they do not recognize.

A mound of question marks allows greater oxygen than periods and exclamation marks.

I tell Mama, Look, I’m bathed in light.
She says, No, child, it’s the Beloved leaving your soul.


I tell Mama I am leaving religion and its foggy tales.
She points at the wall of books in my room,
says, It’s their fault.


A tempest is brewing in my pen
from which the ink of an “infidel”
is about to spill and stain
the walls of faith.

The turbaned owls of the crescent moon,
the robed bears of the cross who have painted
the sun on the limestone walls of this prison
set fire to the air we breathe.

God weeps behind the mask tattooed on its face.

© Sholeh Wolpé, 2022