Origin Story by Jess Rizkallah

i was born to refugees,
i was named a miracle still,                    they wait
for something greater than
what i know how to be.

i’m alive, and therefore enough.

i have space for an extra organ
that never came home
and every year the sea levels rise.

or                           i have a twin that never followed me out of the womb,
is still stuck where a shrieking echo
comes down on a mountain village          and the telepathy between us
is a gold thread so warm, it hums.

i’ll never know its language                         older than the polaroids
falling out of my mothers mouth               older than the lute
in my father’s whistle

or                          mama gave birth to me & i came out a hyphen
i was born the big hand on a clock

or                           i was born an arm                with a hand at both ends
taking both lands back at once, like they’re mine

or                           i was born an arm with a hand at both ends
holding a knife                                                    maybe i am a knife,
always spinning                          slicing
at roots and fruits i graft into the hollow
where the ancient humming organ
never made its home.

maybe i am building this organ myself.
maybe this organ will be my country,
where i’m from. no
where i’m really from

where every language is light
pouring out of me. everything it touches
is greater than what i know how to be
& everyone i love
is safe here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite SWANA Poetry Books of 2017 by George Abraham – Poetry Book Reviews

As 2017 comes to a close, I cannot help but reflect upon the words of Kaveh Akbar: “we are living in a Golden Age of poetry.” The poetry world is alive & thriving, but I think there’s further dimensionality to this statement outside of today’s exciting breakthroughs in poetic craft. We are living in a day and age where poetry is becoming increasingly diverse, with poets of color subverting euro-centric norms and traditions; a day and age where my children will grow up actually being able to see themselves in English Literature.

In comprising this list, I have chosen to use the word SWANA, i.e. Southwest Asian/North African, as an identifier to not legitimize the term “Middle East” for its white colonial undertones. I also chose this term because, while there may be some linguistic & cultural threads among SWANA narratives, this term allows space for this unification simultaneous to the complexity of individual narratives, as we are not a monolithic entity. That said, I am proud to present my favorite SWANA poetry books of 2017!

  1. Louder than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan Publishing LLC)

Louder than Hearts, for many reasons, is the perfect starting point for this list. Being an Arab-American reader, I felt like I could both live & die with these poems; the relatability of poems like “Ode To My Non-Arabic Lover,” is very different from that in “3Amto.” In the former, Beck writes, “how will I ever translate my Arab anger, my alliterations, those rough sounds that scratch their way out of my throat, which you will merely find sexy?” and gives voice to an annoyingly familiar fetishization. The latter is a portrait of an elder family member with cancer, and is written in a voice that is eerily familiar, interspersing of Arabic and English throughout phases of sickness & dialogue with different family members. While both pieces left me feeling simultaneously breathless & rebuilt all at once, Beck’s poetry shines in its ability to encompass a versatile array of emotions, which paint a portrait of her experiences which is not only visceral, but human. The urgent drive of this work is felt from the very first poem, “Broken Ghazal: Speaking Arabic,” and the book never loses momentum thereafter. Even through the manuscript’s conclusion, Beck’s imagery never ceases to surprise and captivate; for instance, Beck writes, “for a moment, it seemed the bird was choking, the fish diving upward for air. By this I mean do you see us dance?” at the ending of her piece, “Piano,” which was arguably my favorite in the book. With Louder than Hearts, Zeina Hashem Beck has produced one of the most exciting, dynamic poetry collections I have read in a long, long time.

  1. The January Children by Safia Elhillo (University of Nebraska Press)

“verily everything that is lost will be // given a name & will not come back // but will live forever.” So begins Safia Elhillo’s The January Children – a book I have not been able to stop thinking about since the beginning of the year. Elhillo’s lyrics are haunting in a manner that is both fluid & immortal, weaving across time, and language. From portraits with famous singer Abdelhalim Hafez, to erasures from interviews with members of the Sudanese diaspora, Elhillo gives a multiplicity of languages to diasporic wounds, in a way which questions her very relationship to the English and Arabic languages themselves. Elhillo writes, “the lyrics do not translate// arabic is all verbs for what// stays still in other languages,” and “no language has given me // the rhyme between ocean & // wound that i know to be true,” hence turning questions about giving language to displacement & trauma into questions of language itself. This collection simultaneously develops a lyrical reclamation of self & body, of praise, despite; Elhillo writes “our mouths open & a song falls out   thick// with a saxophone’s syrup” and finds a music amidst the sorrow. In perhaps my favorite work in the book, Elhillo writes “& what is a country but the drawing of a line       i draw thick black lines around my // eyes & they are a country     & thick red lines around my lips & they are a country” & so a reclamation of the body becomes a reclamation of everything the body was born into. The January Children is the type of book that transcends time & space; the type of book that will still be taught in classrooms decades from now; the type of book I will pass onto my children & their children & their children to come.

  1. the magic my body becomes by Jess Rizkallah (University of Arkansas Press)

In a similar spirit to Elhillo’s book, Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes does the work of building countries. Rizkallah writes, “i was born an arm   with a hand at both ends// holding a knife     maybe i am a knife,// always spinning slicing// … // where the ancient humming organ// never made its home.// maybe i am this organ myself.// maybe this organ will be my country,// & everyone i love// is safe here.” The urgency and velocity of Rizkallah’s imagery is not lost at the expense of tender, intimate moments; in one poem of a larger sequence of poems in the voice of her mother, Rizkallah writes, “never forget that softness is strength, unflinching// against the knife     and it is also the knife,” and creates a space in which softness can be a revolution. Softness carries the weight of inherited trauma from the Lebanese Civil War in the family portraits throughout Rizkallah’s manuscript; in “when they ask me who i pray to,” she writes, “saint of the lemon tree his father put there… saint of the blue peaks by the ocean where we began// saint of the way we say what again,” and paints the softness of her family in a light that is nothing less than divinity. But at the core of this manuscript’s heart is the body, in all its imperfection, in all its holy: “Ghada says, the spine is a river the rest of you will always return to.”

  1. I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return by Marwa Helal (No Dear/Small Anchor Press)

Marwa Helal’s debut chapbook, I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return, was such an immaculate success that it sold out within days of releasing. Helal is not afraid to take risks with form, from “)[[:”.’.,:]]( REMIXED,” written after Phil Metres’ abu gharib arias, to “if this was a different kind of story i’d tell you about the sea,” a poem which repeats that phrase for its entirety with different emphasis, and even “poem to be read from right to left,” written in the Arabic – a poetic form Helal invented. Helal’s work not only subverts expectation, but actively resists & decolonizes both the space it takes up and the space it cannot occupy. For instance, in the poem “photographs not taken,” Helal writes “the light the day i left; mezo’s big toe// before i left; all the dawns i slept through// before I left; my own face// looking back at his// before i left,” and constructs a portrait of an inaccessible past; a space which is definable but not constructible in some sense. A similar use of negative space is seen in “the middle east is missing,” which uses the Oulipian beautiful outlaw form to bring an extra dimensionality to the physically missing “the middle east” in this work. Helal’s I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Helal is one of the most brilliant, and necessary voices in American Literature. If you missed your chance to buy this chapbook, stay tuned for her first full-length collection, Invasive species, forthcoming with Nightboat Books.

  1. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books)

“I’ve given this coldness many names   thinking if it had a name it// would have a solution   thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs,” writes Akbar in the titling poem of his manuscript, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient).” This manuscript is divided into 3 sections: Terminal, Hunger, and Irons. The first (Terminal) throws us into the world of the speaker, taking us from an intimate portrait of praying with his father wherein Akbar writes, “I knew only that I wanted// to be like him,// that twilit stripe of father// mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile// hanging in our kitchen, worshipped// as the long faultless tongue of God,” to moments of rage and confusion: “it felt larger than it was, the knife// that pushed through my cheek,” begins Akbar in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly.” Akbar’s voice shines not only in these personal, intimate moments, but even in writing outside the self. His poem, “Heritage,” written for Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who was hanged for killing a man attempting to rape her, gives voice to an erased history: “there is no solace in history   this is a gift// we are given at birth   a pocket we fold into at death   goodbye now you mountain// you armada of flowers… despite all our endlessly rehearsed rituals of mercy     it was you we sent on.” Akbar’s work interacts with spirituality, as it intersects with not only his family and culture, but with addiction as well; his poem “Thirstiness is not Equal Division” begins with the lines, “I swear to God     I swear at God   I won’t// mention what He does to me.” Poems like this and many others in section II (Hunger) are haunting, intimate portraits of addiction & its cyclical, resurgent nature; Akbar writes, “at twenty-four my liver was// already covered in fatty// rot my mother filled a tiny// coffin with picture frames,” and there is never a moment when this urgency is lost on us as readers. As the book draws to a close, Akbar reminds us that sometimes healing is the hardest route of all: “I won’t lie this plague of gratitude// is hard to bear   I was comfortable// in my native pessimism… I had to learn to love people one at a time,” writes Akbar. I am left with no words upon finishing Calling a Wolf a Wolf; it is rare that a single book can haunt, live, and breathe with me as much as this book does. Kaveh himself once said that we were living in a golden age of poetry, and to that I say, “yes, Kaveh Akbar is the golden age of poetry.”

  1. Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan (Southern Illinois University Press)

The word stanza is derived from the Italian word for room; I’d like to think of Charif Shanahan’s book as a collection of rooms, brought under one unified house, wherein the rooms themselves travel fluidly through space, time, and history. Each room is decorated and structured in its own manner; some rooms are even left empty, such as part III of “Homosexuality,” a suite of poems where each is a small vignette of the speaker’s experience in a different city. Some rooms are brief but haunting & beckoning return; for instance, in “Little Saviors,” Shanahan writes, “So many men playing god. // Father left a wounded child// Cavorting in the public bathroom.// So many holes being filled” and creates an entire universe, a specific smallness, in just four lines of text. Shanahan is aware of shifts in perception & landscape as he invites us into each room. In “Self-portrait in Black and White,” he writes, “If I said I did not want to live anymore,// Would you understand that I meant like this?… I see in colors because they are always so much// A part of the problem,” and the entire perceptual universe of this poem is given a new meaning. Many of Shanahan’s poems deal with the intersection of blackness and queerness within the context of SWANA culture. In “Asmar,” a poem written for Safia Elhillo, Shanahan discusses some of the difficulties with internalized colorism: “Our mothers tell us we are not like them: les Africains sont la bas!// Our mothers defend what oppresses them…// Our mothers defend an idea of a self that is not their own.” Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing transcends space in a manner that is both timely and timeless; every time I re-enter this collection, I come out with new meanings and insight. Shanahan’s book is absolutely required reading for everyone reading this list.

  1. Water & Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (Red Hen Press)

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water & Salt is also a manuscript that fluidly travels through space & time, from Palestine where the speaker would “coax fruit from the trees, press it into liquid gold,” to Damascus wherein a poem about a dowry chest, she writes, “paradise, carved meticulously, mother-of-pearl inset into a landscape of wounds,” to Jordan where Tuffaha writes “every day we are picture-perfect in Amman,” and beyond. Tuffaha also travels backwards into history, saying “we travel back so that you can become who you are.” Tuffaha resurrects historical wounds in poems like “Intifada Portrait,” which is about her conversations with a Palestinian friend over coffee; Tuffaha writes, “who can erase those days from the memory of time? The land will never forget our footsteps, pounding against bullets and tear gas. My skin remembers it,” and gives the readers access to memory of an erased history, a history the land will remember even when the body cannot, even when the oppressor writes it into nonexistent. Tuffaha also meditates on the generational distance between these historical wounds in “My Mother Returns to her Childhood Home,” which ends with the lines, “we are not from here anymore. We too will die on foreign shores.” But amidst the memories of diaspora, Tuffaha finds nostalgia, light, and comfort despite the traumas; images of war and displacement are given weight and presence simultaneous to the familiar nostalgia in the smell of zaatar, the grinding of coffee, and the harvest of an olive tree. In one of my favorite poems of the collection, Tuffaha writes, “I love to tell you where I am from. I look forward to the moment when the nine letters I utter evoke a contortionist’s masterpiece on the faces of polite company.” There is power in naming our narratives, in naming history, in giving these things the name they earned, which is not always the name they are given. Tuffaha’s collection is the language diasporic readers, especially of Palestine and Syria, need, today and every day.

  1. My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body by A. T. Halaby (jubilat)

Halaby’s chapbook, My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body, also contemplates the weight and distance of diaspora. Halaby writes, “Lebanon// I can hear your love// I came for your gifts// Take this fury from inside me// I want to be filled with you.” And while there is a longing and desire to belong & to know the separated homeland, Halaby approaches this topic with newfound excitement and wonder; she writes “a beauty I haven’t met// but I’m curious about your form// a ghazal, whirling like a leaf…// a ghazal told me// ghazals are all around me// like a wind storm,” and brings to life a poetic wonder amidst the inaccessibility of home’s sounds. Halaby does the work of making every question about home a question about the body itself; “what does a home do for the body,” Halaby questions. In the opening poem, which is one of my favorites of the entire collection, Halaby writes “these hands// want// Arabic, its body// its everything,” and later continues to say, “I don’t// know// how// to put// Arab// in a // familiar// space.” One of the qualities I love most about Halaby’s chapbook is its ability to make space for softness within the context of diasporic bodies; “Degrees of The Delicate and Body” opens with an image of “the space between// your // lips// as they stop// after my name.// This measurement// of your body// is what I feel// I will// become.” The short line-breaks and fragmentation, in this poem & throughout, force the reader to pause & slow down to take in the narrative in its most authentic form. My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body were part of a limited edition print run of 50. If you missed your chance to get these immaculate poems, stay tuned for Halaby’s forthcoming work; she is most definitely one of the voices within Arab diaspora whom I am most excited about!

  1. Bone Light by Yasmin Belkhyr (Akashic Books/the New-Generation of African Poets Series)

As is usually the case with SWANA people, this too is something to end in light. Bone Light, a chapbook of prose poems from the New-Generation of African Poets Box Set, undeniably positions Yasmin Belkhyr as one of the most urgent, and necessary voices of our diaspora and generation. In one of the most memorable and intense opening poems I’ve read in a while, “Surah Al-Fatiha,” Belkhyr draws us into the world of Bone Light through a portrait of her earliest memory of seeing a goat slaughtered in her house. Like many artists on this list, Belkhyr interacts with distance and diasporic wounds; she writes, “I was sick every visit… I would cry and everyone else would tsk, murmer American. Once, I kissed someone and I’m afraid it ruined the world. I’ve learned that it’s not what you do with the knife – it’s how you hold it after,” and the question of diasporic distance becomes a question of the body. In “Eid Al-Adha,” Belkhyr writes “When I speak of bodies, I mean: there is too much inside of me. I mean, burn the car and all its histories.” The body, within the context of cultural & gendered violences, comes into question through various means, including that of myths and retelling of religious stories; the haunting ending lines of “& the song of the crow shrieks” read, “In myth, they called the dead girl River and she bled and bled and bled.” Belkhyr shines best in her ability to hone in on single moments, albeit wounds or praise, and expand them into an entire universe of complexity. Every word and lack thereof is precise, and not a bit of momentum is lost anywhere throughout this spectacular manuscript. In the final poem, Belkhyr writes, “the story begins and ends here, a mouth unopen, the girl buried as she is born,” and gives voice to historical, ancestral, and ever-present erasure. Belkhyr’s voice is doing the work of country-building, and carrying an ancestral weight despite an active erasure. I will never stop thinking about these poems.

    1. The Future

As this list draws to a close, I want to mention some of the SWANA books I am most looking forward to, rounding out 2017 and entering 2018, are Ruth Awad’s Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press), Noor Hindi’s Diary of a Filthy Woman (Porkbelly Press, 2018), Hazem Fahmy’s Red//Jild//Prayer (Diode Editions, 2018), and 2 chapbooks forthcoming from Leila Chatti: Tunisya-Amrikiya (Bull City Press, 2018), and Ebb (New-Generation African Poets Series, 2018). We are living in a truly exciting era of poetry, and I know there are people reading this list who needed these books as much as I have. Bless every SWANA poet for existing & writing in spite of colonization & everything this language has taken from us. Bless every word, every page fragment, every unsung lullaby that refused to burn.

 

Sukoon Interviews Jess Rizkallah – by Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: Congratulations on winning the 2016 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize! Tell us a little about your collection, and how you came up with the title.

Jess Rizkallah: Thank you so much. The collection is made up of poems I wrote during and after a lot of firsts in my life: first time living away from my family, first loves, first heartbreaks, first loss of someone close to me, and all of that interacting with the inherited stuff that manifested in very new ways for me when held under the stress of entering adulthood. The timing of the acceptance was perfect, too. Right at the end of a lot of things in my life, and right before I moved to a new city and started at a new school. I’m so happy it worked out that way. I’m not used to closure I don’t have to make up myself! I’m very thankful I get to look up to Fady and Hayan after working with them. They helped me come up with the title the magic my body becomes, after a line in one of the poems in the book. At first I was resistant to this title because that’s what it is to be a woman sometimes, feeling sheepish about owning the power of your experience in a world that doesn’t take you seriously when you’re speaking your body and complexities with your own mouth. I thought “is this too feminine of a title?” but then I thought “who cares if it is? if the title turns someone away, they weren’t going to listen to anything I’m saying anyway. it’s not for them anyway.”

RZ:  You posted once on Facebook not too long ago that you didn’t want anyone to ask you what you’ll be doing after you graduate. So… what will you be doing after you graduate?

JR: Betrayal! Just kidding. I don’t know. I’ve been doing publishing and editorial work for eight years now, so hopefully something there. I really hope I’ll make a good teacher. I visited my family recently. While the water simmered on the stove, my Teta went outside and under the full pisces moon, picked rosemary for our tea. I remember thinking “why the fuck do I live so far away from my family?” The scarier the world gets, the more frequent that thought is.

 RZ:  You mention that your poetry has appeared, among other places, on your mother’s fridge. Tell us a little about your family’s response to your creative path/growth. This question comes from my personal Lebanese experience of the cliché that most every Lebanese parent dreams of seeing their child grow into a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

JR: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the (upheld binary) difference between Lebanese sons and Lebanese daughters, and my being one of two daughters in a son-less nuclear family is impossible to divorce from my answer because I’ve found it tied to every expectation someone has had for me. Gender is always a shadow trailing behind my name: it’s a pretty traditional Lebanese thing to think that this is just a cute thing I’m doing to pass the time until a doctor or whatever wants to marry me. I’m lucky enough that I can recognize this and laugh in its face, instead of letting it hinder me. This is because my mother supports me and countered every sexist lesson the world tried to teach me. In turn the rest of my family has become supportive, too. (for which I’m grateful and full of love.) Busting your ass to prove yourself feels like an Arab kid rite of passage. To answer your question more directly: I do think my parents held a small hope that writing would just be a hobby, but I literally have no other skills, so writing was always going to be it whether anyone liked it or not. There were definitely a lot of “or not” periods growing up but overall and overwhelmingly, I always felt supported by the only people it really mattered to be supported by. I also feel really lucky that my family lets me share their stories inside my own. This was a hard answer to phrase, I don’t want to make anyone mad, but I feel it is important to be honest, and I know you must know what I mean.

RZ: Lebanon or USA?

JR: Both.

RZ: What are you reading right now and why?

JR: Right now I’m reading The Whale by Philip Hoare because whales are the most fascinating creatures on the planet, I’m convinced they’re aliens. They feel too cosmic to grace us with their presence on Earth, yet here they are and I want to get a closer look.

RZ:  Who are your biggest literary and artistic influences?

JR: Sandra Cisneros, Kevin Devine, Lady Lamb, Lynda Barry, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Safia Elhillo, Tiffany Mallery, Ada Limón, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, Franny Choi, so many friends, so many witchy creative femmes on the internet.

RZ:  Crayons or ink?

JR: Ink

RZ: How important are literary journals in your opinion and/or experience?

They’re so important. I want to know what everyone is saying and feeling at all times because otherwise I don’t know how I would get out of bed and face the world we’re all trying to fight for. I’ve made so many friends in the poetry community through the network of literary magazines we all read and contribute to.

RZ:  Why Pizza Pi Press?

JR: I can’t sit still, I always need to be making things and I always need to be collaborating with other people. I wrote Pizza Pi Press on the back of a messy zine I made in college, kind of as a joke. Like “ha! it looks like this silly thing came out on a press!” but then I kept getting more ambitious and my friends wanted to join in and now it’s my favorite thing to be part of and I hope we continue to grow and remain a platform that amplifies those who feel silenced elsewhere. Also, I really love pizza.

RZ:  What advice/insight would you be compelled to offer other young writers?

JR: Read as much as you write, maybe even more. Read people of color. Don’t be mean to yourself. Write even when people around you make you feel like you’re wasting your time. Keep a journal with you at all times and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not always writing pages and pages of work. Even just a thought a day is an entire world you’ve recorded and that’s so cool if you think about all the possibilities waiting to shoot off into a million synapses as you turn that thought over in your head before going back to the page. Think of your journal as an archive and every word an artifact of substantial magnitude. Don’t stress out about getting published – social media makes imposter syndrome feel more urgent than it used to be, but social media doesn’t show us all the nights where even our favorite writers feel stuck or defeated or sad or on their seventeenth straight episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Flaming Hot Cheeto Dust stuck to their face.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

JR: I just threw all of the contents of my closet and desk into the middle of the room and I’m not leaving my apartment until it is once again habitable and just as ready for this new season as I am. Thank you so much for making room for me at Sukoon.

 

 

 

 

 

Two poems by jess rizkallah

i haven’t forgotten

mar charbel is the scary one
resting a bloody hand on your
child’s shoulder when you
forget to keep a promise

clears his throat before you can
step out on your word

stays dressed in black

once ate his own smile but
never swallowed

i like him most.

he still hums
to the pulse
in my wrist.

i kept him with his contemporaries
all beads on a string, my own congregation.

the plastic confining him chipped at the corner, a reminder
of his ability to dart between pulse & phosphene
while i slept. the string loose, then broken

he stays compact,
like a syllable
even while religion fades
into muscle memory.

call this faith, finally. and the body, a prayer
to feel guilty about whispering into the night.

moonstones charging,
warm by the window.

still. i am everything
i’ve ever believed in even if
i don’t believe it anymore.

part of me always
chipped at the corner

give me the flute & sing
after fairuz & gibran

origin is an apple jam jarred to make wine,
put in the ground but always comes up vinegar
when picked at the skin of where the earth
spit you out before you were you
but after the flute started playing.

hands are the etymology of prayer
i turn mine slowly in the morning sunlight
through my window. i watch the rings hug
my fingers. my knuckles hairs grow back
slower now, but i still have this inheritance
from a man who sang to his fig trees
and raised his voice at a woman sprung
from the shadow of a tree full of switches

and all i can ever do is brew coffee for the
mild mannered and write stories
that don’t belong to me

i come from love that didn’t always know the right way.

a cracked seed aware of its cyanide. bruised fruit.
preserves or vinegar, depending on the light.

his body pushes up tomatoes
wherever her hands waver this too,
a type of apology i listen for
until that flute in me stops.