Coming up in the Spring 2022 Banipal

Joselyn Michelle Almeida reviews



Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear


Mosab Abu Toha

City Lights Publishers, San Francisco, April 2022.

ISBN 978-0-87286-860-1

Pbk, 144pp, $15.95 / £11.99

eISBN 978-0-87286-888-5.

The diverse texture of sonority


With this breakthrough debut collection Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha, Founder Director of the Edward Said Library in Gaza, joins an extraordinary group of poets, intellectuals, and writers who have given voice to the resilience of the Palestinian people and their continued fight for justice while facing violent and inhuman conditions under Israel’s continued military occupation since the Nakba in 1948. Prior to this collection from San Francisco’s renowned City Lights Publishers (the original publishers of Alan Ginsberg’s revolutionary Howl), Abu Toha has published in journals such as Banipal (Spring 2020) and The Nation, while his activism as a librarian has been covered by the American Library Association, among others. He is working for his MFA at Syracuse University after a year as a scholar-at-risk fellow at Harvard University’s Department of Comparative Literature.

Abu Toha’s work is reminiscent of an elder generation of Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Mourid Barghouti, Fadwa Tuqan, and Salem Jubran, whose lyricism denounces the injustices of Israeli occupation at the same time that they uncover the unwavering strength of memory, language, and love in the Palestinian quest for return. Writing in English as an adopted language, Abu Toha also draws from English literary tradition, and specifically gestures to British Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley to create a poetry of tremendous immediacy and emotional power, which as Coleridge once wrote, “moves the entire soul of man into activity”. Abu Toha’s poetry poignantly underscores the evanescence and fragility of life that is under attack from its very beginning, and, the human toll or “exhaustion”, as he states (120), related to the feat of resisting the dehumanizing hatred of total war, and conditions in which the structural necessities of life that many take for granted, such as drinking water, electricity and internet access, are luxuries. While the elder generation of poets confronted the immediate aftermaths of the Nakba and the later Six Day War of 1967, Abu Toha’s work bears witness to the intensification of Israel’s military aggression in the 21st Century with renewed attacks on Gaza and the West Bank.

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear features 50 poems as well as those that accompany the photographs in the center of the book as a kind of visual poem; there is also an interview with Abu Toha at the end of the collection. The titular poem, “Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear”, a poem dedicated to an ENT doctor who functions as a stand-in for the reader, suggests the diverse texture of the sonority in the poems throughout the book. Like her, the reader is invited to witness the poet’s inner life through poetry and music, “You may encounter songs in Arabic / Poems in English I recite to myself / or a song I chant to the chirping birds on my own backyard” (92).

At the same time, the poem foregrounds how these affective and poetic intimations of beauty are grounded in fragile bodies that can be wounded, maimed, and killed. This reality emerges starkly in “The Wounds”, a poem Abu Toha wrote after Israel’s sustained aggression against Gaza at the beginning of 2009. Describing the aftermath of the attack, the poet writes:

We hurried to the radio, that old, dirty box
that usually vomits
blood and body parts into our ears,
hospital full of burning wounds
moans, a corpse, and a girl missing her leg,
lying on a cot
or a bloody floor.

These unflinching descriptions of the suffering of Palestinians in life under siege approximate Homer, whose own descriptions of death in battle in The Iliad are graphic even by 21st Century standards. Wordsworth’s peaceful Lake District and the idea of poetry as “emotions recollected in tranquility” seem rather distant from a country that military aggression has turned into a battleground. Yet Abu Toha’s focus on the interconnection between the perceiving body and the poetic event, what is “felt in the blood, and felt along the heart, / And passing even into my purer mind”, as Wordsworth wrote in “Tintern Abbey”, intensifies the dynamic between poet and reader, situating the shared embodiment of the verse against the violence and threat of attack that surrounds it.

The shared sound of poetry in the human voice is contrapuntal to the noise of war within polyphonous soundscape that Abu Toha presents in this poem, one that reverberates throughout the collection, and alerts us to the fusion of sound and affect, as when the poet evokes the power of his mother’s voice to heal him, hears his child’s questions in “What is Home?”, memorializes his grandfather’s songs in “My Grandfather Was a Terrorist”, or remembers the friends he has lost, ‘Amar and ‘Ezzat. “‘Amar studied Arabic literature, and he had a beautiful voice, particularly when chanting the Qur’an” (114). The union of sound and affect calls forth poignancy and poiesis at the same time that it underscores the urgency of listening to the ethical demand of the other in the face of the brutal realities of war and injustice, as the poet writes in “A Voice from Beneath”. The Voice calls on the poet “to stop writing heavy poems, / poems that have bombs and corpses, / destroyed houses and shrapnel-covered streets, / lest the words stumble and slip into the bloody potholes” at the same time that it fills the room and street with “screams” from the pain of those wounded and mourned. The poem is a stark presentation of a major motif throughout the book: words are not enough to confront injustice. Abu Toha’s poems invoke a truth articulated generations earlier by Martin Luther King Jr. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly,” King wrote. The crisis in Palestine is a human situation in this “network of mutuality” and brings a corresponding ethical demand for action.

By contrast, the relentless, unmitigated, assaulting noise of the war, which pierces and explodes through daily life destroys the unity of poetic sound and the dialogic relation of the human. In “Palestine A-Z”, the experimental prose poem that opens the collection, the poet observes under the letter “E”: “How easy it becomes to recognize what kind of aircraft it is: an F-16, a helicopter, or a drone? What kind of a bullet it was: from a gunboat, an M-16, a tank, or an Apache? It’s all about the sound” (2). Recognizing them becomes a matter of urgent survival, and even “Children learn their numbers best / when they can count how many homes or schools / were destroyed, how many mothers and fathers / were wounded or thrown into jail” (19). The jarring and lethal sounds of constant war rob silence to the point where the poet reflects in a latter poem, “It’s been noisy for a long time / And I have been looking for a recording / Of silence to play on my old headphones” (“Notebooks” 89).

This yearning for peace is grounded in a connection with the past that refuses erasure of forgetting, and a vision of the future that imagines protection for the children of Palestine. As Abu Toha states in the interview:

“Our grandparents were driven from their homes and cities, and any trace of them has been erased by something else, which is now called Israel. But we, their descendants, were also robbed of our right to dream and think about those places—no, instead, we are forced to live in the nightmares of our own current life. And they are creating more misery for us, wounding us again and again, so that we forget those earlier wounds in the face of fresher wounds.”

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear resists erasure and forgetting to imagine a future for Palestine: it is the “rose . . . among the ruins of the house”, an image of survival that beckons the eternal return of beauty and justice. If, as Shelley wrote at the end of A Defence of Poetry, “The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry,” Abu Toha’s poetry heralds that dawn.

This review is from Banipal 73, Spring 2022, which will be out at the end of April.

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