Friday, November 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: E-Mails from Scheherazad

After I read The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf, I had to read more from this author. (I wrote here about how much I loved that novel, and how I felt a sisterhood with Kahf in spite of our different backgrounds and different religions.)

I was not disappointed by her book of poetry, E-mails from Scheherazad. From the first poem, "Voyager Dust," Kahf writes beautifully about what it is like to be from more than one place, describing helping her mother wash her scarves:

She'd hold one end, my brother or I the other,
and we'd stretch the wet georgette and shake it out
We'd dash, my brother or I, under the canopy,
its soft spray on our faces like the ash
of debris after the destruction of a city,
its citizens driven out across the earth.
We never knew
it was voyager dust.

Some of the poems are funny, such as "My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears," or the title poem, "E-mail from Scheherezad," in which we learn that she and Shahrayar aren't together any more, but that she is still telling stories; after all...

You must remember: Where I come from,
Words are to die for.

In a couple of other funny poems, she imagines the Odalisques from all the paintings in the museums of the world jumping down and expressing their views about the Orientalism they represent.

Others of the poems made me cry, such as "Snowfall on the Colossal Ruins," where Kahf describes snow falling in Amman on thousands of Iraqi refugees sleeping in the Roman amphitheater

nightly, this winter of the year 2000,
this tenth winter of the sanctions.
The proud, the dignified,
the ones you might have met in gracious homes
by appointment, bringing with you flowers,
fruit, or any small token,
to avoid arriving empty-handed...

In "The Fork in the Road" Kahf explores the idea that the immigrant has to choose between her two homes, either going to Syria to find the memories of her grandfather or to a graveyard near Indianapolis to look for

the little white coffin,
the boy with the blue
Mediterranean eyes,
the one we lost in the new world

and could not stop to find.

She ends this poem with a two-line stanza: "Which do you want, choose./ You only get one journey."

In "The Passing There," she tells about being chased out of an Indiana field by a farmer as she was playing there with her brother.

The man who owned the field was no Robert Frost
although he spoke colloquial. "Git
off my property," he shouted, "Or I'll-"
The rest of what he said I do not care
to repeat. It expressed his concerns
about our religion and ethnic origin.
He had a rifle. We went on home.

She goes on to imagine a watchman back in Syria chasing children out of a vineyard, yelling at them using their names, and

our parallel-universe Syrian selves among them,
hearing their names called among the others,
Yaman and Mohja, running home
and getting there, skin bright, panting,
getting home.

I read this poem aloud to my family and had to stop several times because the tears were choking me, so perfect is the description of being from two places:

My brother knows this song:
How we have been running
to leap the gulch between two worlds, each
with its claim. Impossible for us
to choose one over the other,
and the passing there
makes all the difference.

I think, though, that in spite of all these poems that I love, my favorite is "Finding Poems for My Students," in which she describes choosing poems to read in class:

I run to you, pockets full of poems.
I select: This poem will help you pass a test.
Here is one that is no help at all,
but is beautiful; take it, take it.

She doesn't mind that her students don't always appreciate the offerings she has worked so hard to bring them, because she imagines one day that those poems may resurface for them, and be exactly what they need. As Mohja Kahf's poems have been for me.

I want to quote pages and pages of this book, but instead, I will send you to buy your own copy.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at Becky's Book Reviews.


Janet said...

This sounds like a very nourishing book. I love the way your post weaves through the poems, and I love where you end up.

Mary Lee said...

"Here is one that is no help at all,
but is beautiful; take it, take it."

Ah...the joys of poetry! Thank you for the gift of this post today!

Tabatha said...

Great post! I will have to get my hands on that book.


author amok said...

Thank you for sending me to this post, Ruth (I am reading it ten years late). I love the poem you shared about the children in the fields -- here in the US and back in Syria. Nothing has changed, it seems.