Geopoetics of Palestine
Sharif S. Elmusa, Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008, Northhampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2008. pp71
Gaza is a cage,
barb-wired on the inland sides;
the sea mostly off limits.
-- Sharif Elmusa
In this slim and elegant poetry book, we encounter the cultural topography of the Palestine issue, from the opening philosophical poem, "What Makes the Man?", to the anecdotal "The Faisal-Jesus Bust" and passing through lyrical snapshots of Palestinian landscape, of life in Gaza and Nablus, but also scenes of Palestinian lives in the Diaspora.
Unlike the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish or the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef--whose poems are lyrical recording of what is happening to their dispossessed people--Elmusa's poetry replaces chronology and history with memory and geography. He camouflages his yearning for a lost homeland by jokes at times and by stoicism at others. His humour is not exactly black; it embodies what Russian critics have dubbed as "laughing through one's tears". When he bears courageously a tragic destiny, the emotions are not spelled out but lurk behind the words.
The poetry itself alternates between the short lyric that comes to a surprising and thought- provoking finale on one hand (as in "Snapshots"), and the longish narrative poem on the other hand, made up of varied scenes stitched together (as in "Moons and Donkeys").
As a refugee himself who has been denied his homeland, his home village Abbasiyya, and who has lived in camps, Sharif Elmusa speaks of forced migration as a lived experience. In his "Flawed Landscape", he uses biblical language to open the family saga: "And it came to pass,/ we lost the war and became a nation of refugees." He portrays life in the camp and the relocation of the family, the father's grief, the mother's stories about the past, and "The living dreamed--the dreams of the wounded."
In another poem entitled "In the Refugee Camp", the poet describes the architecture of such concentration-camp dwellings: "The huts were made of mud and hay,/their thin roods feared the rain,/and walls slouched like humbled men." Here the housing units and the people who inhabit them seem to be conflated. They share fear and are humiliated. As in Edgar Allan Poe's "House of Usher," the family and the mansion are conflated and the fall of the one seems to parallel the fall of the other. The poetic persona in this setting waits for something to happen, "and nothing from heaven fell/in my crescent hands." The finale of this poem again takes us to biblical genesis:
Ah, how I cursed Adam and Eve
and the One who made them refugees.
The poet moves from the elevated style of the sacred texts and philosophical pondering to everyday language and even child-like dialogue, similar to Blake's Songs of Innocence, in "The Little Prince and the Air Force Pilot". The exchange in the poem reads today as if juxtaposed with what is happening in Gaza now:
"You should have seen the imploded children
you have killed in your last air raid"
. . . .
"I did not mean to kill children
when I dropped the bombs"
. . . .
"If you had not meant to kill them,
why then, did you let your bombs fall
on a tall building full of apartments?"
"The Little Prince" ends up, as in Saint- Exupéry's tale, saying that "the logic of grown- ups is odd, isn't it?". The poet as hakawati telling this story and ending up with a rhetorical question corresponds to Elmusa as a thinker, challenging his reader not only to condemn a certain logic but also to ponder human nature in the following poem which is one long poetic sentence:
What makes the man
like an uncertain river,
what to have for dinner
which film to see
when he last had a haircut--
what makes this man
close one eye
through the scope of his rifle
and become the most precise,
the most direct of animals?
While resistance poets of Palestine and elsewhere tend to write overtly political poems to mobilise their audience, Elmusa, in contrast composes poems that are descriptive of and reflective on politics; he avoids platform poetry. Whether writing on a massacre as in "An Epitaph for a Mass Grave in Sabra and Chatila" or about war in "To Feel the Humiliation", Elmusa opts for calm and detailed depictions that are more effective than screaming horror.
The hyperbole we encounter in militant poetry is presented in a an innovative and startling metaphor when the poet speaks about the humiliation of dispossession. Having described the death toll, the prisoners of war, and the women addressing the unresponsive heavens in a minimalist language, Elmusa ends up by showing the enormity of humiliation in a closing stanza:
To feel the humiliation,
to touch the grief of each
I would have to become a monster
With many hearts.
Elmusa's strategy in resisting stereotypes is to humanise the Palestinians who tend to be depicted in the media as either heroes or villains, victims or terrorists. He presents the Palestinians not as larger-than-life characters, but as fallible persons--vulnerable and fragile like most of us. The poet gives us portraits of ordinary Palestinians, of cousin Miqdad who did well in the rich Gulf and built a house only to have soldiers bang on his door and stick their guns in his back, of talented Hussein who left school owing to a lack of means and learned carpentry instead, of Nablus men congregating in cafés, and of boys clapping and chanting in a bus "like birds singing/to make themselves visible/in the cage."
Elmusa uses autobiographical shreds to construct poems. We encounter his daughter as she learns words. In "She Fans the Word' dedicated to Karmah, Elmusa writes a beautiful concrete poem, a poem whose layout on the page resembles the action of fanning. It also captures the leaning process of articulation and language acquisition:
round and full
on the raw tongue
of the child.
. . . .
. . . .
She fans the word
as a peacock fans
as a man his windfall,
unsure of having,
afraid of losing it.
Elmusa's son also figures as a child in "Like Early Man", this time not as a speaker but as a listener: "Reading Layth a story,/I watch its magic dissolve/in the white of his smile/in the blue of his faraway eyes./One day he will figure out the moral." This poem is followed by another that is clearly intended for a beloved spouse who is away. The poetic persona is suffering from insomnia lying on a bed with two pillows and wondering on which of the pillows the beloved in her distant bed is sleeping. Recalling affectionate intimacies, he ends up by wishing to have his head nestle next to hers on "one pillow."
However, the most hilarious of the poems is a self-portrait entitled "Roots" in which Elmusa answers--with his epigraph citing twentieth- century Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef's "Home is where people can read your name correctly on the tombstone"--Shakespeare's famous question (as pronounced by Juliet) "What's in a name?". The poet tells us that his parents called him "Sharif Said Hussein Elmusa/and on and on--a caravan of names". However, when he came to the US the name was found cumbersome so Uncle Sam "yanked out grandfather/downsized father/even before old age/to an initial S./Then the editors finished the job, excised the atavistic S."
In the Arab world, name and surname are not enough for identity purposes and one needs three names (including father's name) and sometimes four (including the names of father and grandfather). Thus, when the poet visits Arab countries the security controls require his the full name: "They never fail/to ask about my father's name;/and I savor enunciating it:/Said Hussein." The poet goes on humorously about the Israeli gatekeepers who ask not only for his full name, but also for an entire kinship chart: "They don't let go/until they had dug up,/among other things, the names of my birth place, the village their fathers/and grandfather had taken/and reconfigured, dwellings and names;/until they had dug up my known lineage/right down to the clan."
In the final poem of the collection entitled "Homeward Bound," where home is an actual home but can also be read as the homeland, the poet describes his tired legs going home as those of a peasant walking for hours to make it to his house. He depicts the diverse people on the platform of the station where he is taking an evening train with his body looking forward to relaxation: "It pricks up/its ears to listen for the sweet rumble/of the train. It craves the wide bed,/and the absent woman to crawl beside."
This poem also includes a parable, though--as is typical of Elmusa--he leaves the interpretation to the reader by raising a question rather than offering an answer. In the third stanza, the poetic personal describes what he sees:
Trying to lean against a wall
I see a file of ants running fiercely
Up and down along a crack in the cement.
The ones crawling down haul tiny pieces
Of straw; the ones ascending aim for the store.
Their dark bodies shiny under a strong light,
Touch on the run. None lingers or strays.
What drives them, patience or hope?
Don't their legs balk?
This might very well be not only a poem about home in the physical sense or a homeland in the metaphorical sense, but also an allegory of man's homelessness in the world and yet his continual striving to make it home. With this reading, the last poem in the collection joins the first poem to underscore the nature of man.
Reviewed by Ferial J. Ghazoul
By Ferial J. Ghazou