Book Reviews

Let’s face it, there are plenty of poetry books (and chapbooks and broadsides) out there, and it’s hard to sort through them all. Our crack staff of correspondents is always on the lookout for the work that stands out, and we plan to compile their findings here. Let us know what you think, and what you’re reading.

The Butterfly’s Burden
by Mahmoud Darwish
Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah
(Copper Canyon Press)

“There’s a love walking on two silken feet / happy with its estrangement in the streets.”

If I had to capture the essence of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in one brief passage, these are the verses I would choose. They are from the poem “Low Sky” in the latest collection of the wonderful Palestinian poet’s work, The Butterfly’s Burden. The translator from the Arabic, Fady Joudah, compiled three of Darwish’s books in this collection: The Stranger’s Bed, A State of Siege, and Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done. The result is a collection of poems that reads as one would ‘read’ a butterfly’s wings; what one encounters is elusive, heart-breaking, wistful, yet hopeful. This is all the more true because The Butterfly’s Burden is a bilingual edition: the Arabic on the left, presumably illegible to many western readers, appears mysterious and lovely.

Once upon a time, in the days of the Sufis—Islamic mystics whose poetry flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries—Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi composed these lines: “say who / I am. Say I / am You.”  The Sufis believed in the merging of identities: we are all one, for we are one in God. Skipping ahead to the 20th century, we see Mahmoud Darwish exclaim, “how much of me is you, my love / how often! Who am I!” In Darwish’s poetry, too, identities shift and merge. But Darwish’s weaving together of selves is not the divine one of the Sufis: rather, it has to do with an irreparable loss of self, and with a yearning for an undefined, and perhaps indefinable, other, who at times seems long lost, at times, just within the poet’s reach.

For, let us not forget: Mahmoud Darwish is a poet of exile. And, being a poet of exile, he has no choice but to be a poet of loss. He spent most of his life far from his homeland, living in Lebanon, France, Egypt, and other countries. Interestingly, the poems in this collection were all published after 1996, the year of his return to Palestine. But the sense of exile and nostalgia remains as strong as ever. He writes:

I
won’t return to my name in the wilderness, never
never
never.

When one has lost so much, love has no choice but to follow suit. Throughout Darwish’s work, we witness lovers torn apart by circumstance. Such passages are all the more heart-wrenching because Darwish’s language (and Joudah’s translation) is so quiet, so simple and unassuming:

What will we do with love? you said
while we were packing our suitcases
do we take it with us, or hang it in the closet?
I said: let it go wherever it wants
it has already outgrown our collar and spread

Though many poems in the collection allude to the Israeli occupation of Palestine—or rather, to its consequences—most are not overtly political. Rather, Mahmoud Darwish is one who often contemplates, and questions, through a myriad of thoughts and images, what it means to be in a state of exile, and what it does to one’s identity. He asks, “what / will we do without exile, and a long night / that stares at the water?” or recalls, “How often have I picked lilies / secretly off your fence. How often were you / a meaning and its image at treetops.”

“State of Siege,” a book-length poem placed in the middle of the collection is an exception to that, showing an angrier side to Darwish. The images and characters are those of war and siege: tanks, guns, bombs, soldiers, martyrs, guards, and mothers grieving for their sons. Much of the poem may be considered controversial. For instance, he writes, “(To a killer:) If you’d contemplated the victim’s face / and thought, you would have remembered your mother in the gas / chamber, you would have liberated yourself from the rifle’s wisdom.” Agree or disagree with such statements as we may, few will deny the moving portraits of mothers who’ve lost their sons:

If you’re not a rain my love
be a tree
soaked with fertility… be a tree
and if you’re not a tree my love
be a stone
soaked with humidity… be a stone
and if you’re not a stone my love
be a moon
in the lover’s sleep… be a moon
(that’s what a woman said
to her son at his funeral)

Even in “State of Siege,” Darwish ultimately yearns for peace. He writes, “When the fighter planes disappear, the doves fly / white, white.”

This potentially discomfiting, albeit powerful, poem is framed by the work we are more used to when we think of Darwish: nostalgic and lovely—love-ly. The majority focuses on the human being, on our hopes and fears, our essence, rather than on the horrible things we can do to one another. It presents images that set our conscience and imagination free: lapis lazuli, lilac nights, olive trees, birds, moons, bodies of water. I end this review with a passage that brings together many of these images, a passage that reminds us that, despite everything that has been lost and may never be regained, Mahmoud Darwish is ultimately a poet of hope:

Another day will come, a womanly day
songlike in gesture, lapis in greeting
and in phrase. All things will be feminine outside
the past. Water will flow from rock’s bosom.
No dust, no drought, no defeat.
And a dove will sleep in the afternoon in an abandoned
combat tank if it doesn’t find a small nest
in the lovers’ bed…

Post Scriptum: Mahmoud Darwish passed away on August 9, 2008. May he now rest in the peace he so longed for. Looking, in our minds, toward his grave in Palestine, we may see many butterflies there.

1. Coleman Barks with John Moyne, The Essential Rumi. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 276.

by Deniz Perin

_______________

John Godfrey
City of Corners
(Wave)

John Godfrey’s latest book of poems, City of Corners, just out from Wave Books, is concerned with poetry in its purest form: no gimmicks, just words on the page. The front cover is plain. The back cover isn’t littered with pithy blurbs or weighty testimonials. City of Corners, Godfrey’s ninth book of poetry, is what it is—95 pages of short, mostly single-page poems, un-divided by sections. With this collection, Godfrey brings the reader into a city full of shadows, circumspect curbs and corners. It is a city that is in an eternal state of darkness; when the characters do find themselves in the light, they seem uncomfortable and ready to flee back into the shadows. But the darkness isn’t murky or menacing; City of Corners is not a book about fear, but a book expressing the rawest conditions of humanity—love, sex, and survival.

Godfrey’s lack of punctuation adds to these raw emotions—sentences can begin and end anywhere. Each line can be its own separate sentiment, or that same line can be coupled with lines above or below to form an entirely different thought. Consider this example from “Doorstops”:

Restlessness is a sort of payment
for all the moments that fail to transport
The women lining the stairs are biased
and she hides in one palm the gold gaming chip
Never ignore her song and dance
What she needs is a devoted gorilla
who might better read for her
the drunken romantic from the drunken man
At no loss to her eloquence

Godfrey’s capitalization hints to places where sentences may end and begin, but a period could follow “payment” in the first line just as easily as one could come after “transport.” Another method Godfrey uses to allow his readers to manipulate the meanings of the words on the page is to end in sudden or in unexpected places:

She sees herself scurry and hide
She claps an eye before white lines
and lives on up close
to where the beautiful king

When I first read these last lines from “Comes with Galore,” I turned the page expecting to read what the beautiful king does. But the next page offered only the beginning of a new poem, leaving me hanging. Some readers may not like such open-endedness—not to worry, many poems do “end” beautifully, like this ending from “Ebb,” one of my favorites:

I have scraped together with thieves
I remember incredibly hard nipples
It is sobering to ebb
I bear it all to go on, chance of a whirl
But it’s still only a breast
The harm to yourself mild

In addition to the sharp corners of urban life, the natural tension and passion between a man and a woman also comes through in City of Corners. An unnamed woman, referred to simply as “she” or “her” appears in nearly every poem. She is half exotic-eccentric, half sexy-intellect; a woman whose constants are lipsticks, decaled nails and weave kits; a woman with “rare engine in her cheek.” A woman who “throws a split glance past him/ The elevator she draws upward with her/ past yellow teeth and shoes on doorsills;” a “fireball” “too beautiful for a guardian/ and too potent for a juvenile.” Despite the varied descriptions of this woman, the speaker of these poems knows too well:

Everyone else leaves
I need you again
Loudness of your heels

John Godfrey’s carefully placed words create a surreal world for the poetry lover to get lost in. If you want linear, straightforward meaning, then this probably isn’t for you. City of Corners is to be enjoyed by those who enjoy originality of thought and vision—readers who can see the glory of a line like “What she needs is a devoted gorilla.”

I leave you now with some of my other favorites:

Satisfy me that you/ have salami grease chin

Weapons pose the problems downstairs

I do not recoil from puce shoe cigarette burn

Odors that rise from underground rivers/ and descend on me like a crew of angels

And finally:

I compute body parts with dye on them/ They reconstitute and greet me in the courtyard

by Tana Jean Welch
________________

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Catherine Pierce

Famous Last Words

(Saturnalia)

Famous Last Words, Catherine Pierce’s first book of poetry, fell into my hands by way of a consolation prize from Saturnalia Books who sent a copy of the winning entry of the 2007 Saturnalia Book Prize to all the losers (of the prize). I do appreciate when the organizers of contests do this—I feel like I’ve gotten something in exchange for my twenty-five dollar entry fee and receiving a copy of the winning book allows me to decide if the judge’s aesthetics were in proper working order. I read the winning book and ask: am I angry this manuscript was chosen over mine?

In the case of Pierce, the clear answer is “no.” I opened randomly to “This Is Not an Elegy,” and after reading that single poem concluded there was no reason to feel ashamed. The poem was jarring and mysterious yet elegant and meaningful. Most of the poems in the middle section of the book, garnered a similar response. Poems like “Fat Tuesday” and “Retrospect” convey longing and desire, while others like “Memphis” and “Adolescence” speak to the darkness settling in the universal pit of all our stomachs. Take these last lines from “Instinct:”

We sleep next to each other,

roll over at three a.m. and startle

at the weight that balances our bed. We could

spend a lifetime circling, sniffing each other out,

and then turn to meet a dark, clawed creature

we’ve never seen but know like we know

our bones. Nothing can alter our course. We are animals

of habit. We shut our bodies down together,

wake each morning gutted and hungry.

“Instinct” recognizes the truth about relationships without offering remorse or solution, and Pierce poses a situation the reader will have to accept as natural; our relationships move by instinct, so experiencing what the speaker has experienced is no reason to feel failure.

Most of the poems are examinations of the past, elegies for what was—written without a tone of regret. In “Perseids,” for example, the speaker remembers a cornfield rendezvous:

And I realized

nothing just then. Death there,

amid the high swaying corn, under slow

rockets of light, with you warm next to me

against the summer chill held

no appeal. Here was no August epiphany.

But we drank our beer.

————————————–

This was just one night. Everything

slower than expected.

“Perseids” elegantly reveals how inspiration and love can’t be forced, how every meteor shower can’t be the voice of God, no matter how badly we want it to be.

These poems come from the book’s second, and strongest, section, which is almost 40 pages long and book-ended by two smaller 7 page sections. The first of these contains silly love poems addressed to abstractions; for example, “Love Poem to Sinister Moments” or “Love Poem to a Blank Space.” These poems are clever and cute, but clever and cute done well. The language is tight and precise. Personally, if it weren’t for the middle section of the book, I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. Like Emily Dickinson, I expect a poem to knock my head off. A “Love Poem to the Phrase Let’s Get Coffee” just can’t hit that hard, though it does garnish a chuckle: “You know the difference / between short and tall, / skim and 2 percent. / You call the shots / in unmistakable code.” Of course, laughter is good—especially when presented as an aperitif.

The book’s third section comes on a little stronger. The titles of these poems are quoted from the dead; hence the book’s title. These poems, both humorous and tender, reflect on the specific death of the quoted speaker but also reveal a universal truth about the ephemeral nature of life. The last poem of the book, the best in this section, entitled “Don’t Let it End like This. Tell Them I Said Something” (the last words of Pancho Villa), attempts to think of “better” last lines the dying Villa could’ve said. After going over the possibilities, the speaker concludes:

It is too much responsibility.

In making words, we make a life. We cannot

give you the conclusion you wanted.

——————

But we cannot help but imagine. Forgive us—

our efforts are not for you. You understand

the need for the right words. How else

can we live forever? How else

can we write ourselves in?

Thus, Pierce’s book eloquently ends with commentary on the ability of words to create life after death—a brilliant ending for a book that examines the past as a method for understanding the self and the future.

by Tana Jean Welch

2 comments

  1. Hell0-

    This is Carmen Abrego with Arte Público Press, the oldest and largest publisher of U.S. Hispanic Literature based at the University of Houston.

    Paraíso portátil/Portable Paradise is a forthcoming title that would be a perfect literary work to bring to the attention of your online audience. Acclaimed Salvadoran writer Mario Bencastro examines themes of war, dislocation, and longing in this bilingual collection of stories, poetry, and one novella.

    This title has a publication date of March 31, 2010. If you would be interested in a review copy, or would like to be put in touch with the authors, please feel free to contact me.

    Thank you,
    Carmen Peña Abrego
    carpen@uh.edu
    Marketing Coordinator
    713-743-2999

    • Hi Carmen,

      We would love to see a review copy of Bencastro’s book. Thank you for offering. We won’t be able to review it for our upcoming issue, but we will consider it for the issue after that. You can send it to the following address:

      Poetry International
      Department of English and Comparative Literature
      San Diego State University
      5500 Campanile Drive
      San Diego, CA 92182-6020

      Best wishes,
      Lisa Grove

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