It is January 5, 1998 in the poet’s Upper West Side, New York City apartment. The afternoon breathes with her steps as she makes her way to the chair where we will eventually have an organic talk about this organic poem, "Country." I observe her traveling movements, and her dark reflective expressions bring me back to when I first read her lines, bring me back to the many moments when I heard the dead awaken in her new book, published by Cross-Cultural Communications, 1998. I look at her profile as she sits and see many poets inside of her. I observe her further allowing what I know of her and her work to pass through my mind without constraint or pause. She was born in Brooklyn of Lebanese ancestry. Her publications have been numerous, from her poetry books which include "Notes on 94th Street," "Children of the House Afire," and "Rest in Love," to her novel, "Blight," to her literary criticism, "Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice" (nominated for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies) and "Heroism in the New Black Poetry" (won an American Book Award). She has written a musical drama, has been published in countless journals and taught many poetry workshops. Her initials, like her work, leave us guessing, for they are not easily definable. D.H. Melhem’s work is experimental. However, one cannot close the book without realizing that the poet has a clear vision of her visions. Her words stop, pause, fly. She shows us that "what we can’t see exists."
Throughout our talk I saw Melhem leave - gone when speaking about something that captured her. She often looked away to the past - looking back while facing forward. Her face would recite the stories of many cultures and realities. Her gestures would point to many directions. Her intonations and expressions continuously shifted as she laughed, and then would regain this common seriousness in her eyes, especially when she spoke about the state of America. However, Melhem’s face was never as illumined as when she spoke about her beloved mother.
HANDAL: When did poetry become a center in your life?
MELHEM: Poetry was a center in my life very early. I started writing when I was eight years old. I would sit by the window and write. I was an only child, and although I enjoyed being with my parents, I also enjoyed being by myself. I had friends, but I loved sitting by the window eating my dried apricots, prunes, figs. I love dried fruits, probably part of my Arab-American heritage.
I would look out the window and see what was there and beyond, see the tops of other buildings. We lived in Brooklyn and the buildings were not very tall, especially if you lived on the fourth floor. I could see the clouds, hear the boat whistles from the river, and that was a very dream-like situation for me. I identified closely with my mother who was poetic, who was a poet herself although she didn’t have time to express the poetry that was in her. My mother’s published works are in "Rest in Love." I mean that’s all that remains. So being at home was always pleasant because being at home, especially when I was little, meant being with my mother, that she was somewhere in the house and she was always this a benign presence.
HANDAL: Who are the writers you read growing up, who influenced you?
MELHEM: When I was very young, I read Longfellow, Robert Frost. My mother would read to me from Whittier. She taught me piano and French, often by way of memorizing the poems in French. My father would recite classical Arabic poems to me. I loved them, they were so musical. There was lots of music in the house for I had aunts and uncles who sang. And also my father would recite and sing hymns in Arabic and in English in an incantatory style. Somehow, this incantatory style, plus the musicality of the poetry, I think, predisposed me to the musicality of Black poetry. I believe that the sources may very well have been there.
HANDAL: You speak about a "golden past" and a while later you question "what is retrieved?" Do you think more is retrieved than lost and is it more important to retrieve or to build from a new foundation altogether? How important is it finally to retrieve since all changes anyway?
MELHEM: Everything changes anyway, but there are certain fundamentals. Santayana said if we forget the past we are condemned to relive it. The past can help us. It can also hinder us. It is what we bring to it that counts. The past can offer us values. It can offer us stability, can offer us good or bad values. At this point in American history and in the history of the world, because American history is being imposed on the rest of the world, I think that we need to retrieve some of the good things, namely, this wonderful sense of freedom that our forefathers brought with them. I do not mean the freedom that was imposed on the Native Americans, because you can argue that this was a freedom for only a certain group of people. I am talking about in the idealistic sense - the Bill of Rights, The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the kind of individual liberties that this country is supposedly built on. I think that liberty is indivisible and it really has to be protected at all points. For example, I just heard that in Oklahoma City, the site of this terrible bombing, that Günter Grass’s "The Tin Drum" is being taken off the video shelves. I think the book itself is also being banned, and this is going to be an important case. I heard a reporter saying, "This is just one book and so why is it so important?" Well, if it just one book, it can be ten books, a hundred books, any book, and you really have to fight that kind of imposition. I haven’t seen the movie. It is an old German movie, I think, from 1979, but I read the book and I think it is important. A magnificent book. If they can do it to Günter Grass, they can do it to Aristotle, Shakespeare, Mahmoud Darwish. They could do it to anybody.
So what we must retrieve and hold on to is the sense of liberty, the sense of respect for everybody. We fought a civil war here that was suppose to solve the slavery problem. Well, it didn’t. It took many years and then it took the whole Civil Rights Movement to reinforce it, and the fight still goes on. Values have to be retrieved. We have to hold on to them very carefully, very delicately. They are fragile.
HANDAL: "I learned from my grandmother / to save the string that ties / the past..." Do you think saving is also what enables us to move? How much should be saved without it causing some sort of chaos or confusion in the present...for memory as vital as it is, as valuable and human as it is, as much as it defines us, memory has also proven never to forget even what should be forgotten? Speak about saving...
MELHEM: Saving. I did literally learn to save string. My grandmother taught me to save string, and I have little piles of itBonce in a while I do use them. We must save the past, but what do we save, exactly? We must inspect the past and inspect our own hearts and lives - what is valuable? The past is repository of many things, good and bad, although people usually are not this rational. But we can try to be. If we look to the past and say, well, we do not care for the family these days, but in the past we did - is that worth saving? I personally think it is worth saving. I don’t believe the family should become an oppressive entity, but generally a family is a wonderful way of maintaining cultures, values, although values often need to be changed a little. They need to be modified; we don’t have to throw them out. We can look to the past for culture and see where cultures are different, where they are wholesome, nourishing, and also where they coincide. We must not save merely for the sake of saving. But for example, in architecture, we have been tearing down some of our grandest buildings. The destruction of our Pennsylvania Station, for example, was a catastrophe. Architects need old buildings to study. They need these buildings to remind us of those who came before us and that beauty is diverse. Thus, just as we look at people of all nations and see the beauty of their diversity, we can look at different kinds of buildings and see their beauty and what was functional and admired in the past. Some things are worth preserving. It’s like self-respect, because if we respect the good things in our past, we are respecting the good things that exist in us.
HANDAL: Remaining in that same line of thought, you write, "You read history, caring / where people are from." From "Rest in Love" to "Country" you are true to ancestry. Why is it so important to know where we come from, where the world is from? According to you, is it an ultimate necessity and is literature that meeting place?
MELHEM: You are absolutely correct. Literature is that meeting-place. Literature is part of culture, culture is that meeting-place. We must care where people come from in order to respect the fact that they have origins, they have parents and grandparents, they have music, dancing, poetry. There is great pleasure in diversity.
HANDAL: So in this collection, "Country," which in many ways could be called an ode to America, you seem to be saying as much as America gives, America takes. You write that the American dream "trades the dream of we / for the dream of me;" and in the last sentence of the book you write, "We didn’t buy much of anything. / We made what we needed." So you are telling us that America gives us everything but it wasn’t just given to us, we worked for it, and so this generous field becomes a point.
MELHEM: The country gives and it takes. We have to work at the dream. The dream is there but it is not being given to us on a platter. It is being offered as a possibility, and some people have to work much harder than others for it, and that is wrong. But it is a possibility, and that’s one of the things dancing before us somewhere on the road. What I liked about Mac, this farmer, this most unusual person my son wanted me to meet for the poemBMac embodied for me individualism combined with a sense of community. He was an excellent neighbor - he fixed the barn roof of a neighbor - he was interested in the arts, and when he talked about his childhood, he said, "We made what we needed." His statement just reverberated - this is America, this is America devoid of the struggle for conspicuous consumption, to make a lot of money, to own twenty of everything, which most do not have of course, but that is the goal. Mac is not the greedy, horrible America that some people think of us as being. To make what you need shows that you have skill, that you have developed your hands, you have developed your individuality. It shows that you are not concerned with multiples of everything. Just take care of your needs, and what you need includes art and a sense of being part of a community, and a good friend.
Nathalie Handal is a poet and author of several essays. She is currently working on an anthology of Arab-American poets.
This article appeared in Vol. 4, No. 22 (Winter 1998).
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