Biting Tongues

I’m trying to be a little more casual about my teaching in various ways, including little bits of video to demonstrate things. Maybe helpful, maybe not? But thought this might amuse y’all — me talking about Amal El-Mohtar’s poem, “Biting Tongues” (which always has really high engagement from my students — they love it). From her collection, _The Honey Month_.

It’s not in the 6-minute video (which is a little more rambly), but in the text I sent them on Slack, I gave as an example of a simple thesis around this: “Amal el-Mohtar uses imagery around sewing and thread to evoke both the domestic sphere women are supposed to live in, but also the gendered violence committed against women in the forms of piercing, cutting, and literally sewing them up.”

Biting Tongues


Speak to us in silk, they say
speak to us in milk,
be pillow–soft, be satin–smooth
be home–spun sugar sweet.
We part our lips. We breathe our breaths.
We bite our tongues and swallow blood
knot stones into our stomachs, heave
and spit red salt where words should be,
stitch shut our mouths with stubborn thread
to spare our tablecloths.
Such a mess! If you can’t say something nice,
if you can’t be honey cinnamon spice
if you can’t be dusky–eyed candy mice
shut the fuck up, you stuck–up bitch
you whore you cunt you slag you witch
where you going dressed like that
red as meat and us so hungry?
What did you think would happen, huh?
What did you think would happen?
We are told
of wolves in the world, and we but girls.
We are told
of girls in the world, and they but wolves
who cannot help themselves.
We are told
to be girls or wolves
be eaten or hungry
but we are never hungry
who make meals of ourselves
who chew the insides of our cheeks,
bleed into our bellies.
We are told
that to be bold is to be bled
that red’s what brings the wolves around
that we’re better off drowned.
They come with axes
cut us to pull the good girls out.
They leave us with our bloodstone bellies
our sewn up mouths, our halted breaths,
and a river for a bed.
Until one of us
with sharpest teeth
and shredded mouth
rips silence from our lips
with a battle–cry kiss, and says
We speak as we are
with tongues of snake and hummingbird
of ocean and of earth
of sky and salt and smoke and fire
of gesture, ink, and ringing bells.
We speak as we are
with bodies various as motion
voices of muscle and music and colour
beautiful bloody mouths.
We paint with tumblebroken words
we sing loud with our speaking hands
unmake the bodies shaped for us
and lip to eye to fingertip
we spill our red–mouth stories out
and listen, taste them on the air

with our forked and biting tongues.


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