Mohja Kahf reviews

Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008

by Sharif S. Elmusa

Northampton, MA, USA: Interlink Books, 2008. 71pp. pbk, $15.00.

Geographies of Light

by Lisa Suhair Majaj

Washington, DC:Web del Sol Association, 2009. 150pp. pbk, $16.95.

A Controlled Burn of Memory

How do I say I cried reading these poetry books without giving the impression that the poems in them abuse pathos, or that I am a weepy basket case? I’m not, and the poems are crafted jewels.

Both are first poetry books; the authors, Palestinian, are Arab Americans, each by a different path. Neither lives in America now; their writings and locations, Elmusa in Qatar and Majaj in Cyprus, speak to global diffusions that influence citizens American and Arab, and that affect Palestinians more, in ways stemming from cataclysms of 1948 and 1967. No wonder each poet evokes Odysseus in epigraphs. The poems travel, now in Majaj’s Beirut, Besharri, and New Hampshire, now in Elmusa’s Paris, Scotland, and Nablus (incidentally, both books pass through Amman’s stonescape).

Majaj’s imagery is thick with vegetation, not just the figs we expect in Arab American poetry and the olive trees that are such symbols for Palestinian poetry, but asphodels and knotted fruit and American farmscapes and the gold-leaf of New England autumns— the latter linked startlingly to the fires of Beirut under siege in “Seasons of Gold, Seasons of Fire.” This organic loam makes her sorrowing tones rich with redemption, like fresh green shoots on the dead stump of a deceased uncle’s lemon tree (“In Season”).We feel the presence of the elder generation in Majaj’s ghosts, grief, and graves, but Majaj’s gratitude makes of this presence a gift, as in the childhood poem “Stone Fence”: “From how many lives? I build myself up as I go.”

In Elmusa’s “Life Was Roughly Right,” the speaker’s cousin Miqdad goes from looking “like a figure in an ancient Egyptian relief/ presenting, with singular delight, an offering to the god” to a man whose “eyelids are now lowered, at half-mast; the few words he utters/ are hieroglyphic fish and birds” after soldiers kick in the door of his house and use him as a human shield. Other poems, such as “The Erasure,” take on these communal losses directly, providing pleasure through crafting a literary conceit rather than via individual portraiture. “In the beginning the Eraser razed the village,” begins the poem describing Israel’s physical excision of the Palestinian landscape; the poet gets playful with the Biblical echo in the penultimate strophe, letting a more contemporary diction break in:
and He saw all that He unmade and, O wow, was it good and, on the sixth day, He took a break.

Majaj and Elmusa include prose poetry. Elmusa’s “Moons and Donkeys,” a long master poem of Gaza centrally placed in the book, breaks into prose in middle sections, as if poetry lines are too fragile for the weight of the coffin being lugged through a checkpoint in that part of the narrative. The casket is too wide for the x-ray device, and “hung between the ambulance and the machine” until the soldiers figure it out. Elmusa leaves us to figure out the implications.With Majaj, it is Rana in labor stuck at the checkpoint unto death for mother and fetus (“These Words”).

Elmusa, in “An Epitaph for a Mass Grave in Sabra and Shatila,” speaks from bodies shoveled by bulldozer into the ground so quickly that “the earth was so dumbfounded—/it could not cry: ‘Enough.’” Majaj memorializes another bulldozer-crushed life in “Rachel Corrie,” notes the dead “infant’s mouth/ slightly open, as if dreaming of a breast” at the Beit Hanoun Massacre (“Shards”), sees in Jenin “the boys cradling a small charred foot” while officialdom insists, eponymously, ominously, “This is not a massacre.” “Cyclones and Seeds” is an obituary for the 14-year-old Samer Suleiman Abu Mayaleh:
they said a heart attack killed the boy
don’t tell me you believe them
that you hadn’t heard
“That’s just a scream,” I hear one of my colleagues, a Zionist, criticizing. No, it’s a careful poem, and Majaj’s voice is anything but a scream.There is no one more precise in grief. Her long master poem is “Fifty Years On/Stones in an Unfinished Wall,” a chary testimonial of the losses of Nakba, a meticulous catalog of villages erased in Jaffa, a counting of the stones, unrelenting, gentle, sad.

Neither are Elmusa’s war poems rants or screams. There is no one more urbane in his despair. Poems here cultivate wry, highly literary defenses against refugee camp degradation, dam up the grief of personal losses while recounting them with control and restraint, war-burned and rhetoric-weary. Elmusa’s poem “To Feel the Humiliation” shows us how unbearable it would be if the speaker went around with his vulnerability to sorrow unrestrained.

Thanks to these two poets, we have poems to add to the Anglophonic literary record of specific massacres, specific Palestinian dignity. This adds to the general store of human dignity. Yes, I know what Adorno said about the impossibility of poetry after the Holocaust (without citing it here to imply that horrors are inter-changeable). Repeatedly, Elmusa and Majaj each declares, through words, the impotence of words before the horror of massacre. Still, we must have these poems: “So what if we’re shouting into a storm” (Majaj, “Cyclones and Seeds”). If many poets in the English language are going to keep churning out solipsistic clever-unclever poems about next to nothing, some skilled poets have got to keep remembrance of the slaughter of our day. And it is hard to keep up, isn’t it? There is not enough poetry to keep up with the slaughtering. We need armies of poets. If, in English, Arab American poets don’t do it, who the hell else are we waiting for? Are the coffers of Anglophone poetry brimming with poems that memorialize the Palestinian dead or create Palestinian life? Yeah, I said “we.” Being of Arab heritage has everything to do with it, and can, and should.

I’m overstating, although not to limit what any poet should write about. But when a poet of Arab descent chooses to retain the identity while writing in a language other than Arabic, certain inevitables arise.They do not need to be addressed in every poem, but some of the work of such a poet will turn to the claims that the Arab root makes on the English-language poet. Elmusa, in “With New Englanders,” addresses how the speaker’s Palestinian background has to be muffled so as not to ruffle the sensibilities of his Bostonian dentist asking nonchalantly about the weather in Palestine.

Majaj’s “Cadence” describes the resistances of a poetry audience to an Arab American woman with a penchant for writing of trees: “Do Arab women do that?” some of them ask, while the Arab American listeners blurt, “We can’t waste time admiring trees!” clamoring for her to defend Arab causes (as I seem to do in the paragraph above). Both Elmusa (“Roots”) and Majaj (“Recognized Futures”) have “name” poems, which examine the meaning of carrying an Arab name into an American provenance, a subgenre linked cross-ethnically to name poems by other US minorities, and begun for Arab American poetry perhaps by Sam Hamod’s “Dying with the Wrong Name” (in Grape Leaves) a now classic examination of the immigration officer’s amputation of the long name of the foreigner. Let no one say they have not heard. Read the poems of Majaj and Elmusa. Later, you may weep.

From Banipal 38 - Arab American Authors

Back to top

Back to all Book Reviews