Ladan Osman, Poetry


Whiting Awards 2021

Ladan Osman. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan.

Ladan Osman is the author of Exiles of Eden (Coffee House Press, 2019), winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015), winner of the Sillerman Prize. She has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, Cave Canem, the Michener Center, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Osman’s first short film (codirected), Sam Underground, profiled Sam Diaz, a teenage busker who would become the 2020 American Idol. She was the writer for Sun of the Soil, a short documentary on the complicated legacy of Malian emperor Mansa Musa. It was selected for inclusion in the Cannes International PanAfrican Film Festival and the New York African Film Festival. Osman’s directorial debut, The Ascendants, is streaming now on TOPIC. She lives in New York.


A poem from Exiles of Eden:


Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story.

Solaris (1972)

How can I fail outside and inside our home? I decay in our half-life.
How can I fail with my body? How do I stay alone in this half-life?
I started a ghazal about my hope’s stress fracture.
I require rest from your unfocused eyes, my heat,
which is becoming objective and observable.
A friend asks, “What are you waiting for?
The straw that breaks the camel’s back?”
Maybe I am the straw.
Maybe I am hay. I made a list of rhyming words:
bray, flay, array.
They relate to farms, decaying things,
gray days, dismay.
I am recently reckless about making a display
of my unhappiness. Perhaps you may survey it.
Perhaps I may stray from it, go to the wrong home
by accident and say, “Oh! Here already?”
You know I’m fraying.
You don’t try to braid me together.
You don’t notice a tomcat wiggling his hind legs,
ready to gather all my fabric,
his paws over my accidental tassels.
I’ve learned how to be appropriate sitting on my hands
on the couch, not allowed to touch you.
“Sex?” you say, like I asked you to make a carcass our shelter.

I don’t recount my dreams to you
because you’re insulted in most of them.
Remember when I asked you to break into a building?
“Let’s have an adventure, any.”
I dreamed another man was taking me into a locked school.
“Let’s go,” he said. No face, his hand straight behind him.
He was wearing a black peacoat.
Many men wear black wool coats. You have one.
Hell, I have one. I may have been leading myself.

“How long will you live this half-life?”
my mother asks during a phone call when, so absent
of any particular emotion, I couldn’t catch my breath.
She thought I was upset, losing my temper in the street.
It’s months later, and when we talk
she says, “I was so happy today. Does that make sense?
And here I am, sleeping on a bed older than your baby sister.”
I’m not sure what bothers me but my voice gets low
and I repeat myself.
I raise and drop my palate without sound.
“Good-night,” we say, each with something unaddressed,
without allay.

I try to remember half-lives, learned in science rooms,
air dense with iron, vinegar. The process of dating old bones,
old stones. Unstable nuclei, decay by two or more processes.
Exponential death, exponential halving of a life.
My mother has given me something to pursue and solve.
I study the internet:
“The biological half-life of water in a human being is about
7 to 14 days, though this can be altered by his/her behavior.”
This makes me want to fall asleep in the bathtub.
In this house, it’s how we escape each other,
where we find another warm body, moisture,
work a sweat on our brows.

I search doubling time, a related term,
because I hate feeling fractioned.
Kitchens, bowls of water steaming under dough:
How long will it take to grow to twice its size?
Depends on rack placement, heat of the water,
type of bread, whether the house is humid.
This house is only humid in the bathroom,
after a long soak with the door closed. Or else,
in summer. But it’s winter and a long time
before our flesh can rise and get sticky
in hands, on counters, in a proper resting place.