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.

 

Ali

By Zeina Hashem Beck

He wasn’t a beggar,
just someone who asked
for a smoke and talked to himself.
His right hand traced sentences
into broken circles
near his tilted head,
his eyes had seen
beyond language, couldn’t find
their way back. His cigarette,

 

always hanging at a certain
angle between his lips,
almost parallel to his nose,
was his only anchor to the real world.

 

The people at West House
would sometimes give him a free haircut.
No one knew where he slept.
I think we believed he didn’t,
that he just ceased to exist
beyond the corner.

 

We never saw him seated,
just a familiar pedestrian
who roamed the same
side of the street every day,
as if the distance
between Abu Naji and Universal were
the whole Mediterranean sea.
He walked and walked yet stayed
in place. Or maybe he didn’t.

 

One day he pointed to a car,
said it was a Russian tank, named
the year it was manufactured.
Sometimes he gave random lectures
about communism.
We said hello or we didn’t,
he replied or he didn’t.

 

There were rumors
he was a professor gone mad,
that his whole family was killed
before him during the war,
but no one really knew anything
for sure about him, except that he was
as much a part of Bliss Street
as the students, the sidewalk, the fast food,
that he was one of the possible
definitions of the city.

 

Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck

Lost to the News
Lost to the News By Nouf Semari, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

By Rewa Zeinati

Cities of longing, memory, love and war

RZ: Your first poetry collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and will be published in August 2014 by the Backwaters Press, in Omaha, Nebraska. It was selected as a winning manuscript by notable poet Lola Haskins. You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your individual poems have been published widely and frequently in many distinguished journals across the US. You are on the editorial board of All Roads Will Lead You Home, a new online literary journal by VAC poetry. A mother of two, founder of PUNCH, a monthly open-mic poetry evening, and runner of poetry workshops for adults and children (in Dubai, UAE.) What drives you on?

ZHB: With both poetry and motherhood, one doesn’t know what the driving force is exactly. You just go with it, almost instinctively. The love, the passion, the intuition, and the obsession are there. But one doesn’t know why/how they are there to start with.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all is intuitive (and immediate) in poetry and motherhood. You also learn these things, because they are things you do, not just feel. So, you get up every day, you feed, bathe, and dress your children, and you talk to them, and you play with them, and you love them and hug them, and they drive you crazy, and you are exhausted, and you need a break, and you hope you don’t lose it by the end of the day. In poetry too, it’s about the day-to-day work on something you love: I try to read every day, and think about writing every day, and I revise, and sometimes I obsess, and the poems can drive me crazy as well.

I have to point out though, since I’ve started this simile, that motherhood and poetry aren’t similar in all aspects, and that they don’t always co-exist. Motherhood is something you do with your kids, whereas poetry is something you do alone. Sometimes I abandon my kids for my poems, and sometimes I abandon my poems for my kids. But now I’m digressing. Have I somehow answered the question? I guess I love them (my kids and poetry), and try to be there for them every day.

RZ: Your book To Live in Autumn is set in, and is about, Beirut. You being a Tripoli-native and childhood resident of Tripoli (Lebanon), why Beirut?

ZHB: When I left Beirut in 2006 after having lived there for six years, the poems just kept coming, out of nostalgia, I think. It was like I was summoning the city back to me in writing. After some time, I realized Beirut was a recurrent theme in my poetry, and I took the decision to write the book with the working title Re-membering Beirut. The process took years, during which I also wrote about other things/places (Tripoli among them), but those poems didn’t go into the book. I want to note that some poems in To Live in Autumn are a mixture of Beirut and Tripoli. “Nocturne,” for example, is one of them. “The Old Building” is heavily based on the building I lived in as a child in Tripoli, and the last poem of the book, “Spring,” brings Tripoli into the picture as well.

But why did Beirut keep coming to me in the first place? Probably because I spent my university years there, and those were formative and exciting years for me. Beirut is an inspiring city, and it was new and unfamiliar to me, the eighteen-year-old from Tripoli. It gave me poetry readings, theater, literature (that’s what I was studying), dance, streets, new friends, chaos, and of course, political unrest. So naturally, when I left the city that I had grown to love so much, I felt that longing for it, which I think triggered the writing. The poems in the book eventually moved beyond mere longing and nostalgia of course.

RZ: What do you think makes a good poem?

ZHB: I don’t think there’s an objective list of criteria for a good poem. I’ll tell you what would make me love a poem though: its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar (and vice-versa), its ability to move me (immediately!), and this urge I get of wanting to read it over and over again.

RZ: Do you think poetry and fiction are at all related?

ZHB: Aren’t all art forms somehow related? Good fiction and good poetry should both have the ability to amaze the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, I’ve noticed that the books I like are the ones with good details, surprising images, and condensed language, all of which are also necessary in poetry. On the other hand, poetry too, is fictional, in its reinvention of the world around us.

RZ: Can good writing be taught?

ZHB: I think you are either born a writer (among other things), or you aren’t. If you do have that innate ability (and better yet, an irresistible urge) to write, then you can definitely learn to write better. The best way to do that is by reading, reading, and reading good writing. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from fellow writers you trust, then that helps as well.
6- You’ve recently begun exploring writing in your native tongue, Arabic. How is that different from writing in English, apart from the obvious, of course.

I’ve only just started to flirt with Arabic. I haven’t been writing in Arabic long enough for me to be able to formulate similarities and differences. For now, the creative process feels the same to me in both languages.

RZ: What is your writing process? Are you a morning writer? An after-midnight poet?

ZHB: When I became a mother, I also became a write-whenever-you-can poet. So, when my kids are at school, I do most of my reading and writing in the morning. When they’re on vacation, I do that when they’re not killing each other. But nothing is that systematic of course, and a lot of poems come at unexpected times, as long as I’ve warmed up for them. The writing process you mention is, for me, about this warming up. It involves reading, getting some quiet time, and observing. If I do this every day, the poems will eventually come.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

ZHB: Toward my second collection, I hope.

RZ: The concept of literary journals for Arab writers writing in English is a foreign one. How did you first learn about it, considering that you have resided in the Arab region all your life.

ZHB: When I was a graduate assistant at AUB, a professor of mine gave me the CLMP directory to help him look for potential journals for his poetry. He showed me what to look for in a journal, and explained things like what simultaneous submissions and SASE mean. I ended up ordering my own copy of the directory, going online, and checking out the journals in there that appealed to me, the kind of poetry they publish, and their guidelines. Back then, many didn’t have online submission managers yet (I’m happy that one can now submit to almost any journal online). That same professor also directed me to pw.org, which was also a helpful resource.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

ZHB: Literary journals are vital. They give contemporary writers the chance to showcase their work, and they are where all the good new writing is! I learn a lot about fellow poets from literary magazines, and when I like a poet’s work, I usually end up ordering his/her book.

RZ: What advice would you give promising writers?

ZHB: Read Bukowski’s poem, “so you wanna be a writer,” which starts this way:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.”

Read that poem, then: read (read, read), write, revise, submit, learn to accept rejection, and repeat all previous steps, as long as it’s “bursting out of you.”