Tea In Heliopolis by Hedy Habra
(Press 53, Winston-Salem, N.C., 2013)
Memory, detail and questions about belonging are to this poet’s artistic sensibility what caesura and line break are to her poetics. The memories are eidetic, a quality that burns off even a whiff of sentimentality.
The poems dehisce a painterliness that gives them a tactile and olfactory sensibility.
There’s nothing here that challenges or redefines what we understand of poetics, but her work represents a very high order of what we do understand.
The prose poem "Mobilis in Mobili" is so well turned and intellectualized that I wished for many more. More than her lyrics, it liberates the poet’s fabulist and surrealist inclinations, the facility of her imagination:
“…I find myself scribbling in concentric circles as if I were an insect lost inside a rosebud whirling like a dervish caught in a jinn’s bottle…”
Rootedness, we see in Tea In Heliopolis, may have less to do with place than with a state of mind, a willingness and an ability to send down roots. It calls to mind two sets of experience from my own childhood. From the age of eight I was often in close contact with Sicilian-American culture. The culture itself was distinctive and pervasive, but I remember very little actual nostalgia for Sicily. Later I encountered Irish-American culture in Hell’s Kitchen, and there the sense of place, even among those who had not been born in Ireland, was pronounced. Obviously these two cultures, which sometimes clashed in the New World, were coming from a very different emotional place, the Irish nostalgic, the Sicilians decidedly not.
In Tea In Heliopolis poetry is conveying memories and feelings from the Middle East to the new world, not by recall, as might be the case with music or painting or craft, but by an alchemy of sensibilities. The reader is witness. But the reader is more than that. The alchemy requires the reader’s participation. In some ways the reader is the elixir that assures the success of the ennoblement of a Middle Eastern sensibility by its experience of America.
This is precisely the process often missing in American political and societal life. Americans who are not direct participants in this transfer of sensibility are often alienated by it and become hostile to it. Tea In Heliopolis is proof of the power of poetry to shed light and instill empathy where politics fails; it is proof of not only the relevance of poetry but its essentiality.
We don’t read good poetry, we take part in it. If we read it, we stand aside from it, we become judgmental and miss its power to distil our own experiences. Poetry is alchemical, transformational. It doesn’t merely delight us or enlighten us, it changes us. If we refuse to enter into this process, then we lose out to our own reductionist commitment to pigeonholing our experiences in order to get on top of them. In this way we get over on ourselves. Poetry returns us to ourselves. If all language expresses a kind of homesickness, Heliopolis posits that home and, by extension, all our homes, the ones we were born remembering.
Habra’s habit is to fit a metrical and prosodical form to her intellection and imagery. If that should seem inconsequential, remember that many poets content themselves with a kind of characteristic form which they feel steps out of the way of their inquiries. It’s a judgment call. Habra is an artist—the cover art is hers— so the appearance of a poem on a page is clearly a major concern. To not let form get in the way is one thing, noble in itself, but to put form to its highest use is a higher calling, and it is what Habra consistently achieves.
If memory is going to play a premier role in a body of work it must somehow succeed in becoming our own memory; we must be able to enter it, to wander its streets and bedrooms, to touch upon its conversations; otherwise we remain clinical observers. That is the inevitably litmus test of Habra’s project, and no decision can be rendered until the end of the book, which is itself an interesting feat, because it is the poet’s biography that gives the book its structure. What then is the verdict? Have we inhabited the memories?
Inherent in elegiac poetry is a backflow of poetic resource; Habra’s poetry is remarkable for infusing the elegiac with her exuberant accommodation to her new circumstances. She speaks with not only an American accent but an American enthusiasm. Tea In Heliopolis is not about a past in Lebanon and Egypt, it’s about recognitions and epiphanies experienced there but bearing new fruits in North America. It reminds us that vines famous for their fruits in Europe often exceed themselves in America.
Perhaps because of her settings, perhaps not, I often thought of C.P. Cavafy while reading Tea In Heliopolis. The cordial conversation is there but largely without the historical references and concerns. Habra doesn’t depend on her reader to know much more than she herself is willing to tell.
There is in this poetry the songfulness of a girl skipping and dancing as if the sun struck her very differently from the way it strikes everyone else, as if we really have nothing better to do than listen and watch, although we might pretend otherwise. There is a playfulness that is at times ecstatic:
the song of the orphans
the song of the fishermen’s nets
the song of the abandoned house
the song of the goat living in a palace…
What does the girl see that we can no longer see? What does the sunlight show her that eludes us? How has she retained this youth when we must leave it behind? The answers are of course in the nature of poetry itself. The poet does retain what most of us lose, the poet does resist her gifts being taught out of her pedagogically, the poet insists on seeing what she sees and not what she has been told to see. Here in a the title poem the poet speaks to her mother:
Baguettes edge your paintings
with antique patina.
For years, bent over your canvas,
your youth was all painted,
Habra is a rhapsode, not in the sense of Hart Crane’s often hieratic voice, but in the sense of one whose memories are so keen, so pungent that it is still possible to become drunk on them after the passage of many years. The feat of her book is that we too become tipsy.
Djelloul Marbrook is the author of two poetry books, Far from Algiers (2008, Kent State University Press, winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry) and Brushstrokes and Glances (2010, Deerbrook Editions), both reviewed in Prairie Schooner. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Orbis (UK), From the Fishouse, Oberon, The Same, Reed, Fledgling Rag, Poets Against the War, Poemeleon, Van Gogh's Ear Anthology, Atticus Review, Taos Poetry Journal and Daylight Burglary, among others. The latest of his four books of fiction is Guest Boy (2012, Mira Publishing House CLC, Leeds, UK), to be followed by the rest of the trilogy in 2014. A retired newspaper editor and U.S. Navy veteran, he lives in New York’s mid-Hudson valley with his wife Marilyn and maintains a lively Facebook presence.
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