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.

 

Four poems by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Dhayaa

In my language
the word for loss is a wide open cry,
a gaping endless possibility.
In English loss sounds to me like one shuddering blow to the heart,
all sorrow and absence hemmed in,
falling into a neatly rounded hole,
such tidy finality.

In my language
the word for loss is a long vowel stretched
taut and anchored between behemoth consonants, reverberating—
a dervish word
whirling on itself
in infinite emptiness
the widening gyre,
the eternal motion of grief.

Eating the Earth

And to the flour
add water, only
a thin stream whispering gathered
rains of a reticent winter.

And to the flour add oil, only
a glistening thread snaking through
ridges and ravines of what
sifts through your fingers,
what sinks, moist and burdened
between your palms.

And in the kneading
hinge forward, let the weight
of what you carry on your shoulders,
the luster of your language, shade
of your story press into the dough.

And to the dough bring
the signature of your fingertips, stretch
the canvas before you, summer linen
of wheat and autumn velvet of olive oil,
smooth like a map
of silence and fragrance,
of invisible terrains of memory.

And on the dough let the green leaves
fall, drenched
sumac stars flickering among them
shards of onion in their midst.

Scatter them as the wind would
or gather them in the center of this earth
and fold them into the tender embrace
of the dough, cool and soft beneath their bodies.

And make a parcel of the dough,
filled with foraged souvenirs,
fold them in, and then again,
let their silhouettes gaze back at you.
Recall found treasures of hillside
wandering; flint, thorn
blossom and a hoopoe
feather carried home in your skirt.

And to the flames surrender
the bread, gift of your hands.
Grasp its tender edges and turn it
as the heat strafes and chars
this landscape you have caressed.
Some grandmothers sing as they bake,
others speak prayers.

And let the edges bristle to the color
of earth, let the skin of the bread scar.
The song of zaatar simmering
in its native oil rises up
and time evaporates. You are young
again, it is spring
in the greening valley.

*zaatar – wild thyme native to the Levant

Intifada Portrait
for Ramzi

I have a Palestinian friend
who drinks coffee with me once in a while
and tells me stories of the Intifada.

“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.”

I grew up watching it on the news,
the nightly accounting of young broken bones,
the women in sensible skirts
and the boys in kuffiyehs
who all woke up one morning and had enough.

I have a Palestinian friend
who lived that rainy winter
stone to stone
who swayed over the hairpin edge of death
who shouldn’t even be here today
to talk about it.

I have a Palestinian friend
whose eyes are like two pools of olive
oil about to ignite.
They swarm with stars as he tells me
about his Intifada portrait.

“The Israeli soldiers showed it to me in jail.
They have cameras that can get a close up
of every pore in your skin!
Shit! Is that really me?
I was flying
above the black smoke
from the burning tires…”

He leans over his coffee cup,
“…a stone in my clenched fist,
ready to strike!”

His eyes narrow now,
his voice drops to a low rumble.
“Who is going to erase that
from their memory?”

Gone to Feed the Roses

“More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

Unseasonably warm today, and green
pierces through January earth saturated,
earth that shifts like a lover, wrestling silent
nightmares deep into darkness.

Four years ago we embraced, sleep-
walking through the moonlit square,
four years ago our slogans were winter
coats and our throats were bonfires.
How our words dissolve in tear gas,
how the thorn of who our neighbors are
pierces without warning. What
happens next is only human.

Unseasonably light today, no clouds to obscure
glass eye of the sun staring at us
docile winter-worn wanting
for anything that tastes of spring —
we’ll sip poison if it’s served in pretty teacups.

What is that poem? Something about roses,
I can’t recall but I know a woman wrote it.
I know it as a mother
knows in her bone marrow
that a child who has gone missing from the street
hasn’t just turned the corner to chase after a stray ball
but has been taken,
knows in her bone marrow,
with the dirty fingernails grip of certainty,
that the child will
not return breathing.

I can’t remember the poem
about roses and witness,
the delirium of all that perfume
ornamental blades of thorns
petals like mouths writhing muted
for the fallen as they scatter,
trampled underfoot.

I know she was a woman,
that poet who wrote of roses,
just as a woman marched to the edge
of memory, four years after
a dream soured into nightmare
with a wreath of roses,
her words trickling out of her head
a rose-red poem spilling on the streets of her city.

in memory of poet Shaymaa Sabbagh, poet of Alexandria, killed on the 4th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.