Culture

Where we begin: Poetry forged from conflict

Review

BEIRUT: Given the explosion of the Beirut-based blogosphere that occurred last summer, when scores of online diaries appeared immediately after Israel's bombardment and blockade began, it was only a matter of time before publishing houses harnessed the pain, anxiety and rage of those visceral electronic missives into books about the 34-day war.

A year on, the amount of cultural product made in response to the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 continues to accrue. Technology has largely determined the pace of media used - first came the blogs, then the videos, then the more material artworks in photographs, sculptures, installations and paintings. The books - those painstakingly slow, labor-intensive and archaic things - have been trickling in for months.

Saqi Books brought out the anthology "Lebanon, Lebanon" in what was, on a publishing schedule, lightening-quick turnaround time. Mazen Kerbaj and Laure Ghorayeb each produced books compiling their war-time blogs. The London-based group Lebanon United published "A Lost Summer: Postcards from Lebanon" in time for the Arab Book Fair in Beirut this past spring. The political analyses, like the documentary films, are taking shape at a time when the story of Lebanon's discontent has no end in sight, a fraught predicament for any author. Fiction with any pretense for perspicacity will probably take a few more years to gestate. In the meantime, there's poetry, with Kamal Boullata and Kathy Engel's "We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon," published by Interlink Books, as the latest litany of artistic responses bound between two covers.

"We Begin Here" is, in fact, two books in one. It brings an older anthology of poems, "And Not Surrender: American Poets on Lebanon," back into print and pairs that collection of verse written in response to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon with a second written in response to the war in 2006.

In the summer of 1982, Boullata and Engel were both doing a writers' residency at the Blue Mountain Center in Blue Mountain Lake, New York. They decided to organize a series of poetry readings to protest against the invasion. Those readings eventually coalesced into a book, the core of which dealt with the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.

Skip ahead 24 years and Boullata and Engel had lost touch. With the outbreak of another war in Lebanon, they reconnected and decided to reproduce the book, with substantial additions - less protest, more posterity.

"We Begin Here" goes broad where "And Not Surrender" remained tightly focused. It is a volume of poetry, Boullata writes in his introduction, that registers reactions to "the serial wars ravaging the peoples of the Middle East" - Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq - but it also presents a long list of poems that grapple, at root, with art's ability to confront atrocity in a manner that is somehow meaningful. Other disasters creep in from the margins - Hurricane Katrina, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Rwanda, Darfur. The mother of all 20th century travesties does not go unmentioned. The point, it seems, is not only to document trauma but to find words capable of healing, mourning, becoming human in the aftermath of crimes against humanity.

"We make our art in relation to one another," writes Engel in her preface, "what we can control and what is beyond our capacity - the geography of living and dying ... We begin here. We make these poems, imperfect, finding our way, in gratitude, in reverence, in grief and resistance, building, for places and people, ashes to breath, for Palestine, for Lebanon, for meaning, for us all." Heavy stuff.

"We Begin Here" clocks in at nearly 300 pages and the new material seriously dwarfs the old. Close to 100 poems crack open the summer of 2006, or events thereabouts, starting with Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Speak Out," which offers general invective against the US's so-called global war on terror. There are other heavy hitters featured as well, including Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Rich, who imagines the predicament of Lebanon's internally displaced - "I've told you, let's try to sleep in this funny camp / All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking / above us to somewhere." Then, with a gracefully agile line break, shames those who watched the war and did nothing by turning to those same refugees - "Don't let your faces turn to stone / Don't stop asking me why."

Rich's piece is as creative and probing as some of her best work, but the real gems embedded in "We Begin Here" are the poems written by names less established in the Western literary canon, such as Lisa Suhair Majaj ("The Coffin Maker Speaks"), Elmaz Abinader ("Shouldering the Sky"), D.H. Melhem ("Boy in a Hospital") and Suheir Hammad, a performance poet with mounting regional and international recognition and the author of "Born Palestinian, Born Black" and "Zaatar Diva," among other books.

Hammad's three-poem progression - "break," "break (clustered)" and "break (word)" - rocks the entire collection, not only with its ferocious wordplay but also with its ability to get out of the specificities that weigh other poems in the anthology down. Hammad doesn't ape the pose of a thoughtful poet sitting at a desk reflecting on media images of a war far away. She doesn't talk about her horror as she casts her eyes over a photograph of a kid's mangled body. Rather, she transforms the entirety of her endeavor - poetry written in response to atrocity - into a body, the poem, and a reflection on the body, her own. "here is the poem," she writes in "break," in her characteristically capitalized-letterless verse, "i left a long time ago / remember stubble remember unwanted remember touch / i can't remember where i left my body / poem needs form lungs need / air memory needs loss i need / to translate my body because it is profane."

"break" jumps from city to city, from New York to Gaza to Bombay to Brooklyn. A break, literally, for Tel Aviv reads: "get your own damn poem / build a grammar with something other than bones." Where many of the poems in "We Begin Here" falter in readings that are too literal, too obvious in their aghast position, Hammad digs deep and comes up with an explosive piece of literature wrecked with the stuff of life.

Any poetic gesture about Beirut under siege ultimately courts comparison to Mahmoud Darwish's "Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982." Few could come out favorably against Darwish's riveting, uncompromising and relentless book-length rumination. But Hammad comes awfully close. She takes the same raw rage that fueled the early days of the blogosphere and turns it into something crafted and considered, something to endure.

"We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon," edited by Kamal Boullata and Kathy Engel, is out now from Interlink Books.

 

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