Nathalie Handal reviews

Ismailia Eclipse

by Khaled Mattawa

‘Ismailia Eclipse’, a collection of poems by Khaled Mattawa Sheep Meadow Press, New York, 1995, pbk, 81pp.

Khaled Mattawa is an exceptional new voice among the poets presently writing in the United States. The penetrating images of his moments in Libya, “I stand in the doorway breathing in the haze/and I’m not home when the electricity/ had just gone out . . .” in ‘Three Kitchens’, (p16), to a language rooted in the American culture, “You remember the joke, right?/ About the guy who wanted/ to build a future but ran out of cement,/ ran out of bricks, tossed around/ by the wheels of fortune . . .” in ‘Letter to Ibrahim’ (p66), give his poetry a profound combination of agony and rapture, pride and grievance. The poems portray two distant worlds, Arab and American, through a harmonious mixture of eastern images and symbols intertwined with America’s universe of lights, television and sidewalks. This first collection, Ismailia Eclipse, carries us into a mind that moves between darkness and light.

Mattawa emigrated in 1979 to the United States from Benghazi, Libya. He was educated in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Indiania University; he taught at California State University, Northridge, went to Princeton University on the Alfred Hodder Fellowship, and is presently in North Carolina getting his doctorate degree.

History is presented throughout Mattawa’s poetry. In the opening poem, ‘History of My Face’, he traces the remains of colonialism in his features: “My lips came with a caravan of slaves”, “the eyebrows I wear” from “those Greeks” and “the Turks brought along my nose”. He tends to mingle different people or moments of history in his poems. In ‘Saniya’s Dreams’, Charlemagne, Queen Sheba, Ferdinand and Isabelle are all present. But at times, some poems are crowded as he names too many people and places. The importance of family in Mattawa’s poetry is a major theme in Arab-American poetry, and a dominating aspect of Arab culture. He does homage to his family, and at the same time the family is the poet’s mirror. Through them he will remember his past, find himself in the present, and then be able to move to a future of his own. By making peace with all that they represent for him, the poet is able to write, invent, live and relive, reality and illusion in his manner. In ‘To His Father: A Biography’, he says

You weren’t startled when you saw me hoveringover you like a ghost; you talked about nothingworth remembering as if you were sure to live this day, or didn’t givea damn, as if to say the past didn’t matter so why should the future. I held you then let you go to face your fate alone. Your future Ialready know. Your past I’ll keep rewriting until it’s true.” (p46)

The image of life and death whether real or imaginary, appears in the poems concerning his relatives. He says in ‘Summertime Cavatinas’, “An olive tree/ bears no fruit/ the year its owner dies./ My grandfather died/ and a gardener brought a basket.” (p11). Then in ‘Two-River Ledger’ this image is present again as he writes, “Here’s my father again,/ drowning in his own water . . ./ What do you make of the dead,/ their voices drifting to outer space,/and the radar we’ve built/ to recapture them?” (p23). Nothing is over for Mattawa because he preserves them and cherishes them. Nothing is over for him because he grows and expands with every death or every birth. . .  

The memories of his childhood are colourful and throbbing. In ‘Growing Up with A Sears Catalog in Benghazi, Libya’, Mattawa describes how he loved to look and fantasise about the models in the catalogue, he says, “How I loved their black nipples/ and their full gray breasts!” and “to make love on the mattress/ on page 1219” (p12). This fantasy is linked to his pulsing desire to discover another country, another world.

However, he ends the poem with the realisation that although exile might bring those fantasies to fruition, one cannot escape the emptiness which also accompanies it. He writes, “In the morning she said/ I talked in my sleep,/ raved at someone,/ kept asking/ “What kind of flower/ you wanted planted/ next to your grave?” (p13). 

He uses details as symbols to represent a place, a culture, a country. In ‘The Bloomingfoods Promise’ he moves from “Moroccan olives crispy with sand” to “falafel mix” and “jars of eggless mayonnaise” (p64) — the details continue endlessly. It is almost like an obsession not to forget or miss anything, a way to camouflage the painful reality of exile. 

Then in one of his most moving poems of growth and remembrance, ‘The Pyramid of Khufu’, Mattawa shows the contradiction of his two worlds. He describes his new life as one which only naturally makes him move forward yet the world he originally belongs to is one which remains still. He writes, “With each step upward/ another was necessary” but “my parents sat/ where I left them” (p18). 

In the title poem ‘Ismailia Eclipse’, the poet in his common narrative language mixes the indifference and miscomprehension of one world with the other. He refuses “to surrender to the chatter/ of businessmen planning the future/ in many tongues, refusing to grieve.” (p54). The poet’s identities and worlds eclipse. He finds himself not here or here but in both places as they unite inside him. 

This unity confirms itself as one finishes reading Ismailia Eclipse. Mattawa finds all the pieces of himself and his origin becomes a memory which breathes inside him and America becomes his breathing . . .  

His honesty, openness, his observation of reality’s calamities and beauties, his noisy and silent world, his ability to be an exile and a native — all these are what gives Mattawa a unique voice. His journey never ceases, his symbols are everywhere, his light is always lit yet he leaves us in suspense with “the morning a promise neither false nor true” (p3).

From Banipal 1 - February 1998

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