Culture

Girl's got verbs

Review

BEIRUT: Hind Shoufani celebrated the publication of her first poetry collection with a raucous launch party earlier this month at Art Lounge, a fashionably disheveled gallery that doubles as bar and boutique in the industrial district of Karantina. DJs, artists, musicians and performers all contributed their time, talent and energy to creating a vibe outrageous enough to match that of Shoufani's work.

"More Light Than Death Could Bear" is a loud book - a ranting, raving, stomping, flailing, wild-curls-everywhere and two-middle-fingers-to-the-world kind of book.

Shoufani takes more than 40 poems and sifts them into three sections - "Of Palestine and Other Shrapnel," "The Scent of Yasmine" and "Sleeping Alone in Beirut." Throughout the collection she cranks the emotional volume demonstrably high. The force of Shoufani's anger strikes numerous targets -  men, taxis, traffic, Israel, lovers who leave, who are cowardly and who fail.

Every outward attack is balanced by an inward reflection. The vitriol and acerbic humor of "Asphalt Wars," for example, Shoufani's deliciously nasty takedown of Beiruti car culture, is productively undercut by, say, the poet's delicate and smoothly sustained mourning for her mother. A hard shell surrounds a soft core. The title of the collection combines a dedication to Shoufani's sister Noor ("Light" in Arabic) with the name of a poem to their mother Yasmine, "More Life Than Death Could Bear."

A Palestinian filmmaker who pledges allegiance to the neighborhood of Ras Beirut, and professes boundless love for glitter and the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, Shoufani never did any formal training in poetry and it shows. (She studied film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and teaches writing and production at the Lebanese American University.)

Her verse isn't refined or carefully crafted. She doesn't mess with rhyme, rhythm and meter, and she doesn't muck around in archaic forms like sonnets or sestinas. Her collection reads not like studied literary practice but ritual purging.

By her own account, Shoufani writes poems with her morning coffee, when she returns home late at night and when she needs to vent. One of the earlier selections in "More Light Than Death Could Bear," dated 2005 in New York, opens with the line: "I cannot write when I am happy." The sources of Shoufani's unhappiness are both personal and political. If one reads her book backward, starting at the end and flipping left to the beginning, the poems' subjects progress by section from independent being to family entity to sociopolitical milieu.

This works better than reading the book properly from start to finish. To begin with Shoufani's open letter to the state of Israel - the first poem, "On Trial," that kicks off unsubtly with "I blame you" - risks losing readers with little appetite for big, bad invective. Shoufani's poetry convulses with nth-generation fury and frustration over the loss of and longing for Palestine, but her most creative expressions are those that filter the grand narrative through intimately lived experience.

"More Light Than Death Could Bear" rings true when it delves into the angst and agony of a young, feisty, intelligent and ambitious woman finding her way in a world that is dumb, cruel and indifferent.

In this, Shoufani gives voice to an elusive demographic that needs, and could benefit from, her volume. The people in her poetic universe are thirsting, lusting, sexually experienced beings who think, work, fight and struggle with pleasure and pain alike. Shoufani's world is, thankfully, far from prim.

In terms of form, her line-breaks are not uniformly brilliant but they do give meaningful weight to her words. Her poetry runs on high-voltage verbs that charge verse after verse with action - visceral and expressive. Shoufani also knows how to tweak a bone-chilling ending. She tacks powerful kickers onto the last lines of her poems and on more than one occasion those final sentiments, weirdly like the last couplet in an old-fashioned sonnet, recast the entire meaning of the preceding structure.

The poem "Too Many Taxis," for example, spills over just 12 lines. "Solace might be found / in strange cities that glitter / stretching to the skies / oblivious," she writes, pegging the verse to Dubai in 2006. "The towers are frivolous dreams / of mad nomads, who / like me, / occupy themselves / with useless miracles / to escape life / and / my need to hurt you."

The poem "Female Fierce," written in Beirut in 2001, seems like a feminist call to arms, a cry for unity in the sisterhood, until you reach the end, where Shoufani takes all the women she has condensed into terse lines and banishes them, bids them farewell. "Questionnaire," the first selection in "The Scent of Yasmine," orchestrates the most haunting ending of all, with a line break that falls to the final word, "mother."

Scattered throughout the collection are requisite references to Virginia Woolf and George Elliot - a strong feminist lineage that serves to bolster, channel and direct Shoufani's anger. There are times when her lines veer off into the la-la land of pop music - "I lose the maps of my life when you go away" sounds, at best, like a lyric for a lost Sade song. But one cannot quibble with the sheer creativity Shoufani summons to wrestle with Beirut.

"Asphalt Wars" fills six pages with biting observations of the Beirut street. Shoufani's verse takes those time-honored odes to the city's schizophrenia - such as Nadia Tueni's poem for Beirut casting the Lebanese capital as a woman both sacred and profane - and kicks them up a notch or two.

"Beirut, your sea still violent, your lovers silent, / while your defeated people still lie / talk of religion / to themselves, to me / to our children / they lie / while painted whores from / Kaslik to Verdun / spread their legs / all the way to Dubai."

Then there are the cars: Shoufani describes "the honking screams of volatile cars ... raucous cars violent cars jumpy cars ... storming cars whizzing cars squeaky bumpy cars ... shiny packages of status ... black tinted important Mr. cars," all followed by a full round of fulminating curses - your mother, your sister, your god and so on.

Gritty, tough, pained and explosive, these lines have the savory taste of triumphant poetic language.

Hind Shoufani's poetry collection "More Light Than Death Could Bear" is published by Xanadu with support from IndyAct. For more information, please check out www.xanaduart.com

 

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