Category: Lebanon

Interlitq’s Interview Series: Shahé Mankerian, Author of History of Forgetfulness, interviewed by David Garyan


Shahé Mankerian

Interlitq’s Interview Series:

Shahé Mankerian

Author of History of Forgetfulness

Click here to read Ed Bedford’s review of Mankerian’s collection in The Indiependent
Click here to read Christopher Atamian’s review in The Mirror Spectator

 

DG: Like Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, who published their first collections of poetry later in life—at forty and forty-four, respectively—you released History of Forgetfulness, at a point where most poets would’ve perhaps already released two or three titles. Given the serious nature of your topic, what would’ve been lost had you attempted to write this book earlier, and how did your experiences ultimately help make this the cohesive, engaging, yet entertaining work that it is?

SM: First, the journey to publish a poetry book in the U.S. is a crapshoot nightmare. You probably have a better chance of hitting the jackpot in Vegas than getting a publisher to notice your unsolicited manuscript or win a “first book” competition. For two decades, I kept resubmitting my manuscript. It was a finalist to four prestigious awards: the Bibby First Book Competition, the Crab Orchard Poetry Open Competition, the Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Award, and the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. It was always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Hence, I didn’t release a book in my thirties or forties because I kept making U-turns when I hit dead-end streets, and I was too stubborn to self-publish. The silver lining was this: in the span of 20 years, I kept sending steady stream of poems to various journals, and a good number got published. I kept finetuning orphaned poems with my writing group. Otherwise, I rearranged poems or added newer ones to the manuscript. Since I experienced the Lebanese Civil War in my preteens, the focus of my manuscript remained consistent: to chronicle the war from the lens of a child and use the recollection of an adult.

DG: Which poem in the collection is your favorite, why, and was it composed earlier or later in the writing process?

SM: It’s like asking a teacher to pick his favorite student. Every student has the likelihood to surprise you and become your favorite on any given day. Having said that, the title of the book, History of Forgetfulness, comes from a poem that I wrote in 2010. It’s situated toward the end of the book. Oddly, it’s a poem that does not take place in Beirut. As a whole, it captures the beginning stages of my mother’s battle with dementia in America. The poem feels misplaced. It pulls readers out of the mayhem of Beirut and places them in Mama’s car somewhere in Los Angeles. It is a poem that captures the reluctant loss of memory, a compact scenic hopscotch of a woman who forgets the mundane, humdrum of life. Yet, the last three lines capture the essence of the poem and the book: “She can’t sleep at night / because when she closes her eyes, / she remembers everything.” It gives me goose bumps every time I read the poem because it captures the genesis of my mother’s journey into the bleak world of dementia. An early reading of the poem at the Skylight Bookstore can be seen on YouTube.

DG: Is there a poem whose composition presented particular challenges, perhaps because of the events surrounding them, perhaps also because of your own memory—what you remembered and what you couldn’t remember?

SM: The first poem of the book is entitled “Educating the Son.” It was written circa 2005 when I was writing my dissertation under the guidance of Dr. Timothy Steele, who is considered one of the major New Formalist practitioners. Influenced by his attention to meter, I wrote this particular poem in iambic tetrameter like Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” or Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Both the form and subject matter created a number of challenges. It was the summer of 2004 when I started writing the first draft. At that time, I had converted the garage of my parents’ house into my working and sleeping quarters. I was cooped up in a space with no AC during the midsummer heatwave in Pasadena. Delirium set in as I tried to untangle the meter of the poem. The form controlled the storytelling. The image of the boy working at a morgue appeared unexpectedly. Buried deep in biblical undertones, he demanded my full attention as he struggled with the question of life and death. The poem ends with a twisted homage to Luke 24:5, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And the reverberating answer is, He lives.

DG: In the poem, “Bibliophile,” the speaker recalls a father breaking his wife’s tooth “with the spine of a book.” It’s a dramatic, yet at the same time calm scene, as the mother has “goosebumps but no signs of quiver.” At the end, the speaker wants to scream “I hate your fuckin’ books!” It doesn’t happen. They say never to equate the speaker with the poet, but in this case, the challenge is more formidable. How “personal” is this poem and what were those books the father so enjoyed?

SM: First, I must say, my reverence for books comes from my father. He created an atmosphere full of Armenian and English books in our Beirut apartment. In Father’s personal library, you might’ve found Siamanto’s book of poems squeezed next to a novel by Somerset Maugham. I grew up in a world without daytime TV or videogames, and boredom was king. I turned to books because they were there.


Atom Yarchanian, better known by his pen name, “Siamanto.”
He was executed at the age of 37 by Ottoman authorities during the Armenian Genocide.

Before writing this poem, I remember seeing the famous quote by Bertolt Brecht on a bookmark: “Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon.” It dawned on me that I can manipulate Brecht statement into something truly violent, a situation where a book actually becomes a weapon of a hungry man, my father, who victimizes my mother in the kitchen. As a child, I had witnessed my father turning over the kitchen table in a state of rage. I remember my mother’s shocking silence. I was too young to understand the root of my father’s rage. I could only predict, and I do so in the poem. Yet, Brecht allowed me to use an object—a weaponry—of reverence in our home as the means to victimize a loved one.

DG: There are two poems in this collection, “Lord’s Prayer: Age 8,” and “Lord’s Prayer: Age 28,” both in the first part of the book, but separated by some pages; with respect to the former, it’s a work full of highly original images, reflected in the fearful imagination of an eight year old, while the latter is equally powerful, and yet it remains fearful while also attempting to project a sense of strength that comes with adulthood. Can you talk about these works, and also how growing up in a warzone affected your personal and creative development in later years?

SM: These are coded poems, loaded with the burden of trauma. Growing up in a war-torn city, children became the scapegoat of adult frustration and fear. Rewriting the Lord’s Prayer was an attempt to give these scarred children the sacred power to protest.

I migrated to America at the age of 12. The trauma of war didn’t miraculously dissipate in the Promised Land. Wearing Levi’s and Nike didn’t magically erase the scars. During my formative years, I avoided writing about the war. I was derailed by the poems of Charles Bukowski—like every crazed poet in Los Angeles. Then, I took Ron Koertge’s poetry classes at Pasadena City College, which provided two important tools to shape my writing. First, he kept repeating, “Make each line of your poem filmable.” And I realized: “What’s more cinematic than war?” Second, a subtle seismic shift occurred when the poet La Loca visited Koertge’s class. After I shared one of my poems, she suggested I read The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano. Reading Galeano’s work made all the difference. I realized the scars that I have collected as a child can blossom into poems. Stephen King said, “That’s all history is, after all, scar tissue.”

DG: Women, along with the nurturing qualities of motherhood, are a frequent theme in your work. In “The City of Lost Children,” the narrator speaks of the woman’s skirt as a safe haven from the danger and violence of his surroundings. In “The Sniper as Cupid,” on the other hand, it’s the man saving the woman. Along with a discussion of those poems, what were the differences, if any, in how men dealt with the conflict as opposed to women?

SM: The poem “The City of Lost Children” reminds the reader the absurdity of going to school during a civil war. “Boys couldn’t / play in the same playground as girls.” Yet, as we were hiding in shelters, and bombs were destroying our city, the wall between girls and boys detonated. In the subterranean world, children collectively hid to stay alive. We played, ate, and slept together on the concrete floor of the shelter. Mothers and fathers sat on blankets, played pinochle, drank Armenian coffee, and told racy jokes to pass time. Above ground, when bombings ceased, we returned to our old ways. Fathers went to work. Mothers pretended to be dutiful wives. Teachers divided boys and girls in separate playgrounds or kept them seated apart in classrooms. This was a failed experiment that made us crave the opposite sex even more.

“The Sniper as Cupid” pays homage to that failed experiment. Under the most unlikely circumstance, a sniper becomes the catalyst to blossom love. Unfortunately, the fastest way to erase gender differences is to create a war. When a community is under attack, the walls between men and women dissipates quickly because the struggle to stay alive transcends gender differences.

DG: Have you traveled to Lebanon in recent years? If so, how has it changed since the events you describe in the book? If not, would you like to visit?

SM: I left Lebanon in 1979 and traveled back 22 years later, in the summer, before 9/11. After 15 years of war, Beirut exuded a sense of rejuvenation and resiliency. The bloody period between 1975 to 1990 seemed lost in the collective memory of the people. Bakeries and seafront cafés were back in business. The beaches looked crowded. Taxis honked their horns incessantly. Patchy buildings with shrapnel-ridden balconies were the only reminders of the past. I visited my neighborhood, the apartment building of my childhood, my school, my father’s grocery store, the railroad bridge, the church, the mosque … places that reappear in my poems. I also visited Bsharri, the birth village and the final resting place of Khalil Gibran, the great Lebanese-American poet. This was a pilgrimage of sorts, to see the paintings and the handwritten manuscripts in his museum. As a poet, I feel a strange affinity to Gibran because he also left Lebanon at the age of 12 and immigrated to the United States. The first section of my book starts with a quote by the poet: “If the other person injures you, you may forget the injury; / but if you injure him, you will always remember.”

DG: You’re the principal at St. Gregory Alfred & Marguerite Hovsepian School. How does your work in this capacity inform your creative life?

SM: It helps that I work at a school where creativity reigns supreme. It also helps that I teach language arts and writing to the 8th grade graduating class. At least one period a day, I am in the classroom reading my favorites: Saroyan, de Saint-Exupéry, Cisneros, Nikki Grimes, Bukowski, and Bashō. Poetic expression lives in our classroom. My students are familiar with contemporary Armenian-American poets who we consider our friends. We memorize and recite poems by Aram Saroyan, Gregory Djanikian, Peter Balakian, Diana Der Hovanessian, David Kherdian, Lola Koundakjian, Lory Bedikian, Alan Semerdjian, Alene Terzian-Zeitounian, Arminé Iknadossian, Nancy Agabian, Arthur Kayzakian, Alina Gregorian, Arto Vaun, and Tina Demirdjian. When I assign writing prompts, I write with them. They see me writing on the white board; they witness my struggles. I keep writing, erasing, and rewriting. They point out my grammatical mistakes, clumsy line breaks, unnecessary wordiness. We listen to jazz as we scribble words. They get irritated with me; I get irritated with them. We argue; we laugh. We watch strange movies together. I repeat Ron Koertge’s mantra: “Make each line of your writing cinematic.” They listen. They don’t listen. It’s the best job in the world for a writer.

DG: You’re a board member for the International Armenian Literary Alliance. Can you talk about this organization, some of its upcoming projects, and your involvement in it?

SM: The International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA) has been one of the great blessings in my life. It’s been so rewarding to work with a group of like-minded individuals who love the arts and literature. Under the leadership of Olivia Katrandjian, we have created an alliance that celebrates writers. We foster the development and distribution of Armenian literature in the English language. Last summer, I had the pleasure of directing our inaugural Mentorship program. We paired 11 accomplished mentors with 11 magnificent mentees. Alan Semerdjian also spearheaded our inaugural Young Armenian Poets Awards, an annual contest that recognizes and provides a platform for exciting new Armenian writers between the ages of 14-18. Both events will return in 2022. Nancy Agabian & JP Der Boghossian are planning a Queer Armenian Literature event in 2022. Since we work closely with the Armenian Institute in London, we can foresee several collaborations with them.

Most importantly, please become a member of IALA. The annual membership gains you access to craft talks, panels, workshops, mentoring programs, and peer feedback groups. Since we recently attained our 501c3 charitable status, your donations will be tax deductible. You will find all the membership information by clicking here.

DG: What can we expect going forward—are you thinking about new poems?

I have most of the poems ready for my next two manuscript. History of Forgetfulness is the first volume of a trilogy. The second volume will chronicle my family’s challenges and mishaps in America as immigrants. These are the early years in the “Promised Land.” Again, the poems are viewed using the lens of a child and the recollection of an adult. Finally, the third volume will deal with the perpetual question of homelessness or being uprooted. Hopefully, the journey to find a publisher for these books will become easier now that I have my first book in circulation. Finally, I cannot thank Isabelle Kenyon enough, the editor at Fly on the Wall Press, for taking a chance on my work. I never thought my first book would be published in the United Kingdom. I guess the British like to take risks in literature. Without a doubt, I have been fortunate.

 

About Shahé Mankerian

Shahé Mankerian is the principal of St. Gregory Hovsepian School in Pasadena and the director of mentorship at the International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA). He has been the co-director of the Los Angeles Writing Project. He is also the recipient of the Los Angeles Music Center’s BRAVO Award, which recognizes teachers for innovation in arts education. His debut poetry collection, History of Forgetfulness, was published by Fly on the Wall Press, on October 22, 2021. The manuscript has been a finalist at the Bibby First Book Competition, the Crab Orchard Poetry Open Competition, the Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Award, and the White Pine Press Poetry Prize.

The Stillness That Follows, a poem by Pėrla Kantarjian

24/11/2020
Beirut, Lebanon

 

The Stillness That Follows

in memoriam.
I Hishadag.

the scene unfolds
in echoes.

listen to the silence—
in the name of Glory.

the sacrifice has been performed—
the pomegranate slit in half.

a thin smear of blood
runs in the midst of the heart as though river
shouldering the awakening
of the let-down dead,
liquidated.

our earth has yet to soak up
the fallen bones and flesh—if she can.

in my dreams i hear the brittle splintering
of their somatic minerals; the calcium phosphate,
the collagen, the muscle tissue, all in their prime,
decomposing into food for the Empire
of their birthright.

each of the fallen thousands, entireties of
their existences, reduced
into their names and years,
turned keepsake, left to desiccate
upon epitaph.

but in the gentle Caucasian updraft, their seeds
now disperse over the mesocarp,
inner wall of the fruit,
turned land.

and in a few years we will see them
putting forth shoots,
taking root in the ancestral
land once again,
and forevermore.

this is Divine law.

Dedicated to the fallen souls of the six weeks long war over the Armenian region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), launched by Azerbaijan and Turkey on the 27th of September, 2020.

 

About Pėrla Kantarjian

Pėrla Kantarjian is a Lebanese-Armenian writer, journalist, editor, and literature instructor, from Beirut. Her written works have been published on numerous platforms, including Rebelle Society, Bookstr, Annahar Newspaper, The Armenian Weekly, WalQalam.org, and Elephant Journal.

 

Ridicule, a poem by Omar Sabbagh


Omar Sabbagh

05/09/2020

 

Ridicule

For my first lover

I don’t mind the fact that I’m ridiculous in bed.
I try my best, of course, still a virgin in my head,
And a brother to nothing more.  In fact, I dread
The fact that I’m so ridiculous in bed, wishing
Only for a svelte and better-bodied way of things.
I cannot help the fact that I’m ridiculous in bed,
Though I try to please my lover, being well-read.
But being well-read is nothing more than that:
I’m ridiculous in bed, of course, and that’s that.
Perhaps the ridicule, which is apposite and pertaining,
Puts me off?  But I don’t think that’s quite true:
Nothing puts a man off, of course, except his due.
All that said, I try my best to please my lover,
By teasing her with yet another hit like this, or cover.

 

About Omar Sabbagh

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic.  From 2006 to the present his poetry has appeared in many prestigious venues, such as: Agenda, Banipal, Kenyon Review Online, PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, Stand, The Moth, The Reader Magazine, The Warwick Review, The Wolf, (T&F) New Writing, New Humanist, Two Thirds North, and Acumen, among many others.  His first collection and his fourth collection are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17).  His 5th collection, But It Was An Important Failure, was published with Cinnamon Press at the start of 2020.  His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile, was published with Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016; and he has published much short fiction, some of it prize-winning.  A study on the oeuvre of Professor Fiona Sampson, Reading Fiona Sampson, was published with Anthem Press in July 2020.  His Dubai novella, Minutes from the Miracle City was published with Fairlight Books in July 2019.  He has published scholarly essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, Hilaire Belloc, George Steiner, and others; as well as on many contemporary poets.  Many of these works are collated in, To My Mind, Or, Kinbotes: Essays on Literature, published with Whisk(e)y Tit in 2020.  He holds a BA in PPE from Oxford; three MA’s, all from the University of London, in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy; and a PhD in English Literature from KCL.  He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB), from 2011-2013.  Presently, he teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where he is Associate Professor of English.

A Spoiled Son, a poem by Omar Sabbagh

 

A Spoiled Son

Let me start with grief, the browned and brittle leaf
Trod upon.  That’s an arch and telling place to start the reed
Of knowing me at my source, rooted to the earth
I tread upon, daily, complicit with a longing, and a curse.

Or, I might start with youth, a long and forlorn thing
I wished for, not knowing it was gone – bereft, or thieved
In one of many hidden, arcane gambits, set to prolong
The pain a well-made ghost’s needless of and never

To feel, having given up the boast, the erstwhile gift of
Life among the living.  Or then, I might ask to be freed
Of this name I don’t quite take to – the noun, yes,
But metered wide and metered far beyond the felling adjective.

Lines of verse might start with grief, sure, caprice, a slander,
But soon begin to feel themselves, born to evaporate, turning wind into water.

 

About Omar Sabbagh

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic.  From 2006 to the present his poetry has appeared in many prestigious venues, such as: Agenda, Banipal, Kenyon Review Online, PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, Stand, The Moth, The Reader Magazine, The Warwick Review, The Wolf, (T&F) New Writing, New Humanist, Two Thirds North, and Acumen, among many others.  His first collection and his fourth collection are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17).  His 5th collection, But It Was An Important Failure, was published with Cinnamon Press at the start of 2020.  His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile, was published with Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016; and he has published much short fiction, some of it prize-winning.  A study on the oeuvre of Professor Fiona Sampson, Reading Fiona Sampson, was published with Anthem Press in July 2020.  His Dubai novella, Minutes from the Miracle City was published with Fairlight Books in July 2019.  He has published scholarly essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, Hilaire Belloc, George Steiner, and others; as well as on many contemporary poets.  Many of these works are collated in, To My Mind, Or, Kinbotes: Essays on Literature, published with Whisk(e)y Tit in 2020.  He holds a BA in PPE from Oxford; three MA’s, all from the University of London, in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy; and a PhD in English Literature from KCL.  He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB), from 2011-2013.  Presently, he teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where he is Associate Professor of English.

Of Loss and Gain: Reading Fiona Sampson’s Come Down (Corsair, 2020), an article by Omar Sabbagh


Omar Sabbagh

27/08/2020

 

Of Loss and Gain: Reading Fiona Sampson’s Come Down (Corsair, 2020)

By Omar Sabbagh

The opening, prefatory poem of Fiona Sampson’s Come Down, is aptly titled ‘Come Down’; the closing poem, just beyond the major second partition of the book, ‘Come Down’, is titled ‘Surfacing.’  Leaving aside for the immediate present the contents of these two poems, their thematic, titular intents immediately signal to the reader a feature that is resolutely redolent across the collection, namely, the romance trope of loss and gain.  In his The Secular Scripture Northrop Frye argued that the genre of romance narrative was a secular transliteration from the Christian mythos of having to descend in order to then ascend – whether we might mean by this, the notion of Christ descending in order to rise (again), or the more common sensical notion that no value is attained without some risk of loss, some vulnerability, or sacrifice.  And this notion of loss and gain, among some other reading directions I hope to deploy in this essay, is lived out in the very dedication of the whole book under discussion here: ‘For My Families.’  The literal, obvious sense of this last phrase refers (as within the forthcoming collection of verse) to many different familiars, whether they are Sampson’s immigrant ancestors, her adoptive family, the family which orphaned her, or indeed the familiar grounds of her intellectual itinerary, such as her deep familiarity with Mary Shelley, and so on.  However, those literal demarcations made, I’d like to argue, opening here, that close attention to the plural may be even more rewarding to the critical eye.  First, because, even given the gloss above, a dedication in the plural like this to her ‘families’ arrests the reader for the quite overt reason that on the surface at least it seems to be a counter-intuitive phrase – family, in so far as it is family, would seem to have to be by definition a unity that is unitive.   In any event, arrested thus, the critical reader may come to understand, if after reading the pursuant book, that the oneness intended by the notion of family, is sundered into the fallen state of the many.  In Platonic terms (and a few allusions to Plato will follow below), it is a falling from originary oneness that is known, but not seen, to the many that is seen alone, mere shadows of the truth.  This notion of falling from grace, so to speak, doesn’t need a Christian glossing, necessarily, and I would like to argue the Platonic reading is even more rewarding.  Dispersal and its retrieval are of the essence (so to speak) of this collection, and one way in particular this is so, and one way I hope to highlight, is the sense that all knowledge or knowing (falling) is after all (according to one Platonic notion) sheer remembrance of what was originarily known.  The other aspects, which are and will prove to be in my reading deeply cognate, have to do with different modalities of this kind of dialectical movement, such as the vagaries of absent and present motherhoods, among other directions through the collection.

The first, prefatory poem ‘Come Down’ speaks of two movements of a river, ‘contrary and conjoined.’  Apart from the formal or structural synecdoche here, indicating the many overt or implicit dialectical movements in the collection’s poems, something I have dealt with elsewhere, the ‘two movements crossing’ each other are interesting in the light of what was said above, in so far as the movement of the running water is now a plural, a river into rivers.  In this opening, eponymous poem, ‘the shock of self’, which is ‘like memory’ ‘drowns’ the persona of the poem, being ‘cold enough.’  At the end of the poem ‘sky’ finds itself ‘stepping’ out of that same river.  The middle and the ending thus join as contraries, two movements within a single poem, a poem within which ‘two movements’ are named, included.  It’s this kind of serpentine felicity that typifies the sensibility behind this collection.  Falling into knowledge, coming down into verse, is not a dichotomous movement from originary oneness to dispersal and manyness alone.  The family resemblances within this poem and then across the collection play with senses of belonging and of longing for the same, with different results at times, but also with results book-wide that tally and dovetail at the least, making, as it were, oneness and manyness analogies of each other – as much, we will see, as vertical and horizontal movements are made so, too.  Indeed, broadly-speaking, I intend to sample the collection strategically to put flesh upon these few theses, mostly moving chronologically through the book – as though to indicate that even moving in such a chronological manner, the vertical, illuminative intents can still be evinced with ease.

The first material poem, ‘Deaf’ lives-out what has just been argued, while still catching or latching onto the prefatory poem preceding it.  First, we have the thematic argument of loss and gain, when the poet speaks of the world’s ‘hidden places / under trees beyond the lights / darkness falling from your feet / so deep you could fall through it…’  Under trees, hidden, we have lights, which are then darkness from the poet’s feet, which are ‘so deep.’  Which is to say, two operative puns or homonyms enact much more than what seems to be being said on the surface.  The feet are literal feet as much as the poet’s measures.  And the depth is both into darkness, the world out there, and the depth of the poet’s sensibility, falling through it, or her own feet, and so on.  But a second, truly telling note, is how the title, ‘Deaf’ is made to come full circle as well as not so, belonging as much as still longing, in the final stanza:

the dark tongue of the world

rising up through you as you
fall dear self dear
lonely self falling silently
mouthing through sound

Apart from the conjoined contrary movements of falling and rising, which are overt, it is interesting to note that in this poem a manner of argument is ignited and will be retrieved across the collection.  And this is the notion of how, as per one of the titles of this collection has it, the ‘noumenal’ depth rears its head through from the depths onto the surface – if, if you like, only momentarily – onto the world of words and presences, the appearing world of, as another title in the collection has it, ‘phenomena.’  I hope to put more flesh on this particular reading direction as I gloss other samples from the book below.

The next poem, in many sections, ‘Lady of the Sea’, picks up on aspects of the two poems preceding, already discussed, familial in the resemblances.  First, the almost liturgical opening of ‘Deaf’, with question and response, is mirrored in this subsequent poem in its first section:

she does not
regard us her
regard is drawn
back from us

far back
among the centuries
where she comes
from and where

she is going

Here’s the living ‘systole’ and ‘diastole’ of later in this book, the Socratic movement; but it’s also, I think, fair to say that the Platonic movement of knowledge, coming (down) into such, as being remembrance of the whole (of it), is also implicit in some the paradoxical phrasings across these limpid lines.   As will be detailed elsewhere, at times the poet truly does eradicate chronology, for all the chronological movement of her lines, in favor some kind of illuminative, or epiphanic moment, in or on which all things are gathered – and even if this last can only ever be expressed from left to right and down the page.  That said, in part ‘II’ of this poem, loss and gain gains more momentum, as the poet beseeches: ‘…could she / move among us / then or what // would be broken / and fired again.’  Or, in part ‘III’ we read of: ‘shrilling between / glass comes / the tone the sweet // stone rings…’  Tonality out of shrilling is enough said: we don’t even need the argument of sweetness from stone.  In the pursuant ‘Frankenstein’s Golem’ there is a very similar movement and play between loss and gain, the pejorative and the positive.  Indeed, the next poem, titled very closely to the last, ‘Modern Prometheus’ is even richer ground from which to till or mine some of my presiding theses.

Despite the agonistic and indeed, in one sense at least, antagonistic ending: ‘and dawn reveals a man / he recognizes / he can’t meet / the one he turns away from’ – we read earlier in this poem of some of the gains of waking into fallenness, waking with the gift, as it were, of fire and thus symbolically at least of technique.  Pinioned to a rock, you might say, we read of this modern Prometheus that ‘…something is changing / his mind / he squints / wrestling darkness / tries to understand’… ‘his pupil stings / his iris winces’… ‘…understanding / only a little / and misunderstanding / a little more / the clockwork universe / like a dream / of knowledge.’  The dream of that latter gain is a product of the sacrifice, sure.  But something I may pick up on later is this notion of the ‘clockwork universe’.  It suggests (as in Paley) a deism of sorts, highly pertinent of course to the novel, Frankenstein – the idea, that is, of a sort of ‘watchmaker’ leaving off the watch now made.  Because in a way this is another dialectical sense, or direction, peopling the book.  The chronological experience (which is, I suppose, clockwork) can be sublimated or indeed, sublated, into something richer than such fallenness.

‘Noumenon’, we now can see, or will do presently, is a beautiful piece in the collection that is also highly indicative of the overriding and overarching sensibility at hand.  The special type of loss and gain I intend to elucidate can be read out of the final three lines of this poem: ‘as wide wet words the night / speaks about itself snow / speaking the words for night.’  By the overt logic of this poem, as titled, the night is the depth of reality or the real (noumenal and unreachable), and the wet words, snow melting, indicate the apparent phenomenal surface touched by and/or fired by the depth in question.  Words in a language, as for structuralism (and beyond) after Freud, are endlessly associative as they map desire, also inevitably unsatiated.  But these commonplaces of theory are only the backdrop, of course, to the way they’re lived in and through the body of the verse – as they are, too, through the very similar intents in ‘The Nature of Gothic’ a bit further on in this collection’s depths:

…the roof
of the world
perhaps expects
some gravity
to open in us
reflection
or answer but
stone shifts
endlessly
into itself
it disappears
and reappears
like hours that slip
out of mind

The slippage here from the mind in language, goes out of mind, in perhaps more than one or two senses.  This kind of slippage, which belongs, so to speak, especially to the point-like present, is aptly discussed as well in the argumentative movement, which is implicitly vertiginous, of the later, ‘Vertigo’.

Then, in ‘Boat Lane’, a poem for Sampson’s adoptive father, there are new and cognate ways the above is instantiated:

where my grandparents
live time

without end
they watch me
following the lane
that leads towards
them and away

under pale
oak trees
whose branches
make a cage
filled with lights

The Platonic idea, already broached, by which chronology or the world of the many is recouped by the oneness of some transcendent formal place, is evident here again.  But this last is perhaps the least interesting point to be made.  Note how the line-break above, after ‘live time’ enlivens a series of synergetic senses to emerge.  First, there’s the common phrase of ‘living time without end’, as in, being immemorial.  But the line-break also permits the notion of how these ancestors live time in toto!  Thirdly, and perhaps the most rewarding sense is the idea, following the idiom of time meaning prison time, that they live in time, or chronology, like a ‘cage’; and yet, as we see, moving on, that ‘cage’ is ‘filled with lights’ – strangely, you might say, or in fact, not so, in the context of much of the work in this collection.  However, there is a more intimate concern in this poem, about Sampson’s adoptive father, which I think proves even more redolent to the book as a whole.  Later in this poem, ‘Boat Lane’ we read of ‘the sea’ as it ‘murmurs loss’.  And we duly assume the loss at hand or in question is the absence of the biological parent or parents.  This loss, though, is counteracted by the way the persona of this poem ‘floats’ from ‘the open / night window / a scrappy moth / among the stars // that see themselves/ reflected / and afloat / in infinite water.’  The loss, the deathly mutability, the moth, chooses as its reflector the stars, which see themselves, below, down below, in water, which is infinite, and so on.  But more pressingly, out of stated loss, comes its contrary again, a touch further on, when the persona announces, ‘I’m no / lost child.’  Indeed, this winning is a direct contrary to the earlier ‘tideline’ calling the persona ‘out of sleep / wild child / wild child.’  After these few mentioned movements, among many in this long poem, we close with a kind of musical gathering-in of threads:

I’m following
my father
who belongs
to marsh water
and to the sea

Here, the poet is following the familiar in the vicinity and also the that which is, perhaps, just shy of reach.  And in so far as they conjoin, it is once again like a fruitful analogizing of oneness, belonging, and the dispersive manyness of longing for that same.  Indeed, the same closing note playing with notes of closure, closes ‘Cold War Afternoon’:

then ah the wind
says
as it fills
my arms and
empties
them remember
this remember
you who
are carried away
on the wind

The homeliness of the wind (that ‘ah’) that fills her arms, also empties, carrying away – but the doubling of memory seems in a dim manner to join or at least analogize these two contrarily conjoined movements.

As in other parts of this collection, coming full circle is evinced again between the opening and closing of ‘Line, Manticore’, with a repetition of the opening line: ‘The line that is a creature.’  However, this creatureliness, or fallenness, is redressed by the lines about this literal line in stone, especially by the way in which such fallen status is shared by all: ‘we can’t witness / such austere design / being fallen together / into life together.’  Here, austerity seems loosened by what Sampson calls in a 2007 collection a ‘common prayer.’  But what may make this note more interesting is how in the sixth section of ‘Line, Manticore’, the final one in which the opening line repeats itself, we read, closing, of ‘… this marriage contract / between man and beast / who are one flesh holy / and fallen.’  There’s a oneness of humanism here, but also a very modernist humanism, as the whole totalizes itself through the way in which it is anchored to the earth, transcending into its true humane purport only by recognizing itself as falling short of such, and so on.

The dialectic of belonging and longing, so urgent a concern in this collection, plays out also in the idioms of motherhood.  Sampson was an adoptive child, and much like one of her heroines, Mary Shelley, she’d a sometime absent mother.  A few poems in the collection pick up on this, in different ways.  Indeed, the opening epigraph of this essay is the opening stanza of ‘Earthenware.’  The earthbound ‘O’ is both the missing matrix, absent as naught, and the earthing of this naming, ‘O’, this ‘loving motherhood’ which, here as there, gives birth to her creatures.  Which is to say, another mildly playful movement of loss and gain.  Indeed, it might be pertinent to ask, if only rhetorically: would Mary Shelley or Sampson have been or become as prolific creative artists without the lack in question, the challenge of it, so to speak?  And this poem, like some sampled above, also plays with intersections of the vertical and horizontal, of the chronological passing point-like present into the past and the illuminative gambit stilling, capturing that mutability, via the inexorably demanding movements of words in verse.

‘Mother as Eurydice’ ends with a fragmentation, as below:

her gaze was
a blue
burning gasp

terrifying     perfect     gone

But the missing links of this dispersive ending, are also at-one with earlier parts of the poem, where the above ‘blue / burning’ is initiated by the deployment of a mother figure as a ‘flame’ that ‘flickers’ and which might ‘burn out.’  This, it goes without saying, could be both allusive to an empirical, biographical, very early experience, or indeed, withhold a more staple symbolic burden, to do with the retrieval and the care for memory or the immemorial.  Similarly, in ‘Juno’s Dream’, in another mythological transliteration, that is: ‘… her bones make / a white sickle / as her skull / fills with roots.’  The conjoined contraries here connote quite clearly.

The nine parts of ‘Wild Equinox’ start with an immediate version, again, of loss and gain:

I

These days are still
cold the line of feeling
working its way thinly
up so we might touch
a pulse almost to life
or make the heart inside
an egg echo itself or
hear ants underfoot
raising their secret cities.

Indeed, the dark, deep reaches alluded to here, the way we might even try to ‘hear’ the ants building their urban settings, mirrors the later notion – toying between the known and the unknown, the apparent and its propping depths – of how it is that a ‘valley’, that dip and depth, speaks only through the more reachable presences such as: ‘each tree /and fencepost – / and since you’re here / also to speak / through you.’  The well-nigh impossibility that proves possible, if only, if ever, momentarily is indicated as well in part ‘VI’, where the earlier mention of prayer is recouped: ‘you have to pray / although you can’t // but still the valves / of the magnolia / wrench / themselves upwards.’  If anything, this is another deistic hope in the wake of theism, noting as we do the watchmaker’s ‘valves’ and how they ‘wrench.’   And the ending of ‘Wild Equinox’ gathers some pertaining threads inwards, now outwards again, as per the second epigraph used for this essay.

Concluding now with some remarks about the second, shorter partition of the book, ‘Come Down’, a long poem dedicated to Sampson’s ‘immigrant ancestors’, the first thing to note is that this second section’s epigraph speaks of the knowledge of being ‘born’ into ‘“otherness”’.   This of course duly indicates belonging, dwelling, but perhaps only, or partially, the kind that inheres in longing for the same.  Unitive, this long poem begins with a ‘narrowing’ again, retrieving the same notion from the prefatory ‘Come Down’, but also recoups that first poem by the way in which the reader will by now have gained a good sense of the aeration of Sampson’s imaginary, seeing, thus, a second retrieval or recognition, which is that this collection of earthward tread is indeed ‘contrary’ to any narrowing of mindset or feeling.  Which is to say, again: the structure of analogizing unity and manyness, as they ‘catch’ upon each other.  Indeed, in this poem the ‘hooves’, which are ‘traces’ of horses out there turn, in more than one sense, of course, into ‘the blood that gallops / in your ears.’  ‘[O]r are those hooves / beyond the river / almost out of sight.’  That ‘almost’ is pivotal, turning as it does that which is known, here, present, upon that which is perhaps just ‘beyond.’  And this subtle idea is mimicked in other parts of the poem, where the poet indicates ways in which she individuates via the process of the verse in search of roots, earth and belonging:

but you were neither

here nor anywhere
the valley didn’t
know you yet
although you’ve always
known the light lying

along the top field.

As per the last epigraph atop this essay, taken from the ending of ‘Come Down’, the eradication of chronology is illuminated in what are, I suppose, the staple ways of recollecting what is perhaps immemorial.  However, towards that ending, we read of:

not ancestors but first comers
stumbling down

who believed in
the valley knowing already
its sly light
between leaves

It’s not only the intended sense of how her ancestors, recollected here, were ‘always here / in the body’s / forethought and its heft’ – but that the earlier ‘lying’ light cited above, is mapped onto this light, ‘sly’.  It’s as if the poet wishes to indicate the necessary duplicity of trying (and perhaps failing, or falling short of full success) to illuminate the past in an attempt to eradicate its pastness, attempting to gain out of loss.  And in this final poem about ‘the good earth’ of the aboriginal Australia of Sampson’s immigrant ancestors, the earthbound digging of the verse into a sense of belonging alludes directly to Heaney’s ‘Digging’, as much as it does with the above, ‘heft.’  But the slyness of the light, the slyness ‘between’ the ‘leaves’ of this book, is only as sly as time passing us by.  In short, the artistry of this collection sometimes needs a certain, sure-handed artifice to find the home the artist finds anyway, endlessly.  As elsewhere in Sampson’s work, there is an almost mystic attempt to relay time as it passes, but that same time, you might say, timing itself.

 

About Omar Sabbagh

Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic.  From 2006 to the present his poetry has appeared in many prestigious venues, such as: Agenda, Banipal, Kenyon Review Online, PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, Stand, The Moth, The Reader Magazine, The Warwick Review, The Wolf, (T&F) New Writing, New Humanist, Two Thirds North, and Acumen, among many others.  His first collection and his fourth collection are, respectively: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and To The Middle of Love (Cinnamon Press, 2010/17).  His 5th collection, But It Was An Important Failure, was published with Cinnamon Press at the start of 2020.  His Beirut novella, Via Negativa: A Parable of Exile, was published with Liquorice Fish Books in March 2016; and he has published much short fiction, some of it prize-winning.  A study on the oeuvre of Professor Fiona Sampson, Reading Fiona Sampson, was published with Anthem Press in July 2020.  His Dubai novella, Minutes from the Miracle City was published with Fairlight Books in July 2019.  He has published scholarly essays on George Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, G.K. Chesterton, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Conrad, Lytton Strachey, T.S. Eliot, Basil Bunting, Hilaire Belloc, George Steiner, and others; as well as on many contemporary poets.  Many of these works are collated in, To My Mind, Or, Kinbotes: Essays on Literature, published with Whisk(e)y Tit in 2020.  He holds a BA in PPE from Oxford; three MA’s, all from the University of London, in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy; and a PhD in English Literature from KCL.  He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB), from 2011-2013.  Presently, he teaches at the American University in Dubai (AUD), where he is Associate Professor of English.