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We are living at a time when we will feel our hearts break, again and again, at the outrageous actions and words of our present American administration. It has only been a single week since we began fighting the swift and daily executive orders that threaten to dismantle the civility, compassion and democracy that many of us have long held as integral to our lives. We will need emotional and spiritual sustenance to maintain such an arduous battle over time. Poetry can offer such nourishment: it can be a balm to the weary, a challenge to the fearful, and a path to those who need to lead themselves into a deeper level of understanding and communion with others.
Never have I felt this so clearly as in reading the Lebanese poet, Zeina Hashem Beck’s, two new and exquisitely written collections of poems, There Was and How Much There Was, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy as The Laureate’s Choice for smith/doorstop Books (2016) and 3arabi Song, winner of Rattle’s 2016 Chapbook competition. Hashem Beck’s lyrical, incantatory poems delve into one keenly-observant woman’s experiences. Balancing Arabic and English diction, poetry forms, such as ghazals and sestinas against free verse structures, and domestic, everyday joys against the violence simmering outside the doors, Hashem Beck warmly immerses us in the complexity of living in such a turbulent age.
In “Layla,” the opening poem in There Was and How Much There Was, Hashem Beck turns the experience of a 7th century poet, Qays Bin Al Mulawwah, from the romanticized story of the rebuffed male lover (Layla’s father did not allow her to marry him) who “exiled himself into the wilderness, where he spent time composing love poems to her,” into a modern, feminist exploration of Layla’s plight:
I am tired of the love poems Qays keeps
tracing for me in the sand. What a luxury,
to roam mad with love, be punished only
with a tender name — Majnun. The world will always
forgive the foolishness of men. I’m the one who endures
the weight of another in the night. I remind myself
to cup my breasts and say they are mine. My thighs
mine, mine. Sometimes I tell him no, not tonight.
(p.5, There Was and How Much There Was)
This is the opening salvo to Hashem Beck’s rich, complicated collection of poems that sings while it explores the community of women around her and their challenges and joys. It is an intimate glimpse, as in her poem, “Mother: Three Portraits,” where the speaker, the daughter, plumbs the intricacies of her mother’s melancholy. In the third “portrait,” entitled “Portrait of Mother with Washing Machine,” Hashem Beck explores the gulf between mothers and daughters, opening with: “I don’t ask her why she’s crying./She lights a cigarette, talks about the hours//spent slicing the skins of olives/on the balcony in the sun.//She says in her dreams, she always/pulls out her two front teeth.// (I imagine the wound where the roots throbbed.) …” Because the mother cannot fully share her experiences with her daughter, she offers the symbolic testimony of her dreams. The daughter, in turn, tries to fully flesh out and understand her mother’s sadness, using her imagination to picture “the wound where the roots throbbed,” because these roots are also the daughter’s own “roots” as a female and as a relative in a long bloodline of women. In fact, the daughter’s compassionate insight takes over the remainder of the portrait, imagining the mother’s need for release and escape:
Oh how she wants to hold on
to a whale’s fin, plough
an entire ocean on its back.
Or drive her car beyond
the streets of this small town.
But the clothes, they are stuck
in the washing machine.
When I tell her the electricity
would be back soon, she says,
Don’t name your daughter after me.
(p. 8, There Was and How Much There Was)
The choice of couplets in this “portrait” is so fitting, underscoring the dynamic of the two woven women, mother and daughter, sharing the traditional woman’s chore of washing the laundry, all the while feeling the panicked surge of being trapped: “But the clothes, they are stuck…” The poem’s final, devastating line, “Don’t name your daughter after me” asserts the mother’s own sense of her dreams erased, while also pleading with her daughter to allow the next generation of women to have a life of more possibilities. It is a complicated, sad poem, which allows us into the intimate world of Hashem Beck. And, because we are living in a world now that so wants to use nationality, ethnicity, and race as ways to isolate and persecute the “Other,” a poem like this transcends that ignorant sensibility to allow us to examine our own intimate family relationships.
One of Hashem Beck’s incredible poetic strengths lies in the way she can impeccably meld the narrative in her poems to perfect structure. My favorite poem in There Was and How Much There Was is repetitive and song-like, two delicate choruses repeating and moving forward much like the young couple evoked in the lines. “Say Love Say God” is a prayer, an incantation, and a soulful reach to understand “impossible love.” The first stanza invokes both the Bible and the Qur’an, making each an illuminating platform to the sexual intimacy of the entwined couple:
I liked the idea of an impossible love.
I was told a love so different can’t
make children with souls
worth praying for. But those stories
in the Bible and the Qur’an,
love, we knew what they meant.
when you said sin, love, you did not
mean my legs, or the way
you were already inside me.
When you said sin, you meant
how one forgets. Do you remember
how we slept naked? You were there.
(p.23, There Was and How Much There Was)
I love that the speaker is respectful toward their mutual religious backgrounds while also asserting: “But those stories/… love, we knew what they meant,” which is an acknowledgement of how these sacred texts have, historically, always been open for interpretation and understanding. In fact, the speaker allows that her love translates ideologically freighted terms like “sin” in a way that further bonds and unites the couple, one to the other. I also love how the speaker “tests” her love, playfully: right after saying, “When you said sin, you meant/how one forgets,” she tests his memory, saying, “Do you remember/ how we slept naked? You were there.” There is such a sense of looping, a closed circle of a loving union in this poem, which is reinforced by the fact that the first two stanzas, much like a song’s chorus, come round again.
Zeina Hashem Beck’s work could not be more timely nor more evocative of the times we live in. In her book 3arabi Song, the poem “Listen,” about the bombing of a mosque, could have been ripped from recent headlines in both its horror and intensity. What infuses this poem with power is the individualizing of this experience; these aren’t faceless others who live far away who are being bombed. We become caring witnesses in this poem to the speaker’s own terror at the prospect that her brother may have been at the mosque at the time of the bombing:
You’re telling yourself he’s fine. He didn’t go the mosque today.
Again, your mother screams. Your father is running up,
is down, the whole town is down. You call,
praying. You call (the goddamn line),
Try to forget your brother might be —
God. You run to the balcony.
You heard that? Is it?
You shake. Again
a boom; …
(p. 9, 3 Arabi Song)
Hashem Beck’s typography — the poem looks like an hour-glass on the page — reinforces the terror and the intensity of not knowing. Time may have run out for the beloved son and brother, just as the lines of the poem narrow into the claustrophobic neck of the hour glass. All the while, the speaker is trying to convince herself that, of course (God!!), her brother was not there. The typography, narrative, brief use of profanity, dashes, and the italicized thoughts and questions — all coalesce into a terrifying reality for the family members in this poem. It is a poem that humanizes what has become an all-too commonplace violence, that brings it back to the fact that this violence ALWAYS effects the families, the loved ones, the ones left behind. The powerful ramifications of this poem hit home all the more, because we, as the readers, begin to fear and worry, too — and hope that the brother, indeed, will come home to those who love him.
Finally — though I could write a book about the wonders and discoveries I’ve made in Zeina Hashem Beck’s precise, resonant verse, I want to focus on the opening poem, “You Fixed It” in her collection 3arabi Song. I began this by saying how necessary this poet’s beautiful poems are, especially in the chaos and battle of our new world order (disorder?). With the haunting repetition of the phrase “You fixed it” in this poem of the same title, Hashem Beck sings of the growing gravitas of our life’s challenges — and our ability to be resilient, to imagine new strategies for solving our problems, and to persevere in the face of them:
And if the compass broke, you fixed it, fastened
the pencil to it with a rubber band,
and if there was no hot water you fixed it, learnt
to sit on that plastic stool in the bathroom
and count, and if it was too cold outside
you fixed it, and there was the smell of burnt
lemon on the brazier, or the click
click click of the gas heater.
And if you were bored you fixed it, learnt to cut
paper and color the scraps, learnt to write
on the walls, and if you wrote on the walls you
fixed it, scrubbed them with your mother who yelled …
(p. 7, 3arabi Song)
What I love here is the changing nature of the child’s responses to obstacles. First, she is utilitarian, using everyday items to fix a broken compass. Then, she is teaching herself patience in the face of the discomfort of “no hot water.” Finally, she begins to use creativity to fix what is wrong in her world through the deep expressiveness of art and writing, (although, as her mother shows her, she may still have to learn where best to express herself.) Finally, by the poem’s end, the “fixing” strategies learned in childhood begin to be needed in her adult life, trying to cope with inexplicable violence (“window shattered”) or the death of someone she knows, which she “fixes” by “telling stories” about her crusty lahm hi ajeen or Arabic meat pies.
Ultimately, this gifted poet, Zeina Hashem Beck, relates how she fixes what may seem to be the impossible, the larger, global disasters befalling so many: “… and if your country/hardened, if your country hardened you fixed it/ by dipping it in song.” What a challenge to us all! To turn the hardened untruths and hearts of men softer through our poetry, art, “songs!” And, as Zeina Hashem Beck cycles and sings so beautifully in the poems in her two remarkable collections, she offers us a gift, the sustenance of rich words “dipped in song” to aid us in challenging universal/personal journeys ahead.
Sharon Fagan McDermott is a poet and musician who teaches literature at a private high school in Pittsburgh. She has published three chapbooks, including Alley Scatting (Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin) and Bitter Acoustic, winner of the 2011 Jacar Press chapbook competition, chosen by poet Betty Adcock. Fagan McDermott was a 2001 recipient of a Pittsburgh artist award and a 2002 recipient of a PA Council on the Arts award. In 2005, she was awarded the Bellet Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Science award from the University of Pittsburgh. In 2016, she was awarded the Jane L. Scarborough award for teaching excellence at Winchester Thurston School. Her poetry continues to be published in national anthologies and literary journals.