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"The Note Held Strong" Poetry as the Language of Arrival
By Lisa Suhair Majaj
In The Country Of My Dreams
by Elmaz Abinader
Oakland: Sufi Warrior Publishing, 1999
Elmaz Abinader is a writer whose words resonate, finding home deep inside our bones. A performance artist, essayist and novelist as well as a poet, Abinader brings to the written page the energy of the spoken word, the flame of passion, the current of commingled celebration and grief. Her previous book, “Children of the Roojme: A Family's Journey” (1997), distilled this flame into a poignant family narrative. In her long-awaited volume of poetry, “In the Country of My Dreams,” Abinader speaks in a voice rooted deeply in family, history, politics, landscape, and a poet's finely tuned perception, interweaving Arab, Arab-American, and other contexts in a music of fierce resonance and beauty.
The two sections of the book, “Arabic Music” and “Mooring in the Quiet,” are roughly divided between poems focused on Arab and Arab-American experiences and histories, and poems evoking other emotions and experiences, set in various landscapes. (Like other Arab-American writers, such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Abinader brings to her writing a breadth of travel experience.)
But these two sections are linked by an uncompromising engagement with the world and all its histories, and by a penetrating awareness of the self in the world. In “Rest in Reason and Move in Passion,” Abinader exhorts, “Be afraid only of what holds/ you still … Stand away from it. Give into your passion, let/ it move you onto rocky waters and into dark/ unknown nights. You will discover waves/ and stars.” This willingness to explore the terrain of living, with all its waves and stars, informs every line in this book, giving rise to poems of fierce passion, quiet grief and lyrical beauty.
The title poem, “In the Country of My Dreams,” is dedicated to Khalil Gibran and Marcel Khalife, Lebanese artists whose poetry and music have linked Arabs and Arab Americans across the century. In this poem, images of Lebanon are juxtaposed: immigrant memories of a land where “apricots are as big/as oranges and as bright as the sun” and “Christ once walked its hillsides” confront newspaper reports of a warring, violent land where “a fire burns, …wicked and consuming.” But for Abinader, it is Lebanon 's poets and artists that define this “country of [her] dreams” and of her own heritage. “From the edge/ of the sea, it's our poets who set sail,” she writes. “To produce such warriors as these:/ Gibran and Khalife, takes a soil luscious/ and fertile. A fact the books overlooked;/ the newspapers failed to see.”
A poet whose words and artistic presence inspires and challenges, Abinader is herself one of these cultural warriors. Drawing strength from this heritage of “the note held strong/ the stroke of the painter, the string of the oud, / the beat of the drum,” Abinader speaks out with a voice grounded in both Lebanese and American landscapes. Her voice is timbered with the undertone of what is sustained, what is left behind, and what is created anew in a new place. “I look into a mirror and see/ a thousand mirrors behind me,” she writes in “New Year's Morning.” “A vast history, an unknown life/ begins.”
The problem concerning how to express this vastness provides an implicit focus of many of these poems. “How can I press an ear to the night/ to bring/ its wind inside of me,” Abinader asks in “The 4:05 a.m.” For a poet, this is the constant question: how can one open oneself so fully to the world that a language can be found to hold its immensity? The answer, Abinader suggests, is to focus on the moment of perception and articulation — not the finished product, the fixed memory, but the dynamic moment of art. As she tells us in “Pleasure is Freedom-song,” “The pleasure is in the writing.” Or, as she writes in “Places We've Been, Places We're Going,” “What we have brought / Are the curves of our faces… / Each day we examine our faces in the glass. / Looking for what our hands can do.”
What Abinader's hands and voice do is shape a poetry that is informed by familial and communal legacies, by the workings of history, but that is, nonetheless, deeply personal, completely her own. “I borrow nothing and have neither my mother's/ nor father's hands,” she writes in the book's concluding poem. Yet, her writing is leavened by the awareness — sometimes tender, sometimes fierce — that we are all part of something larger than ourselves. The lines traced by her hands delineate a story that becomes clearer each time an Arab-American writer publishes, each time an Arab-American artist paints or a musician plays or sings. It is a story we receive like “letters from home” — a story whose language we are finally coming to know. AJ