Sunday, February 08, 2009

Khaled Mattawa, AMORISCO: To Enter Another World

Narrative, whether as prose or poetry, can paint another world in vivid colors, and can transport the emotions into new places, new situations. But how can a writer perform the complex alchemy of assisting the reader to let go of the existing self, in order to sample another tongue entirely?

Rarely leaving the English language, but twisting the verse forms and the continuities and jumps of imagery, Libyan-born Khaled Mattawa calls forth an edgily foreign experience in the poems of AMORISCO (Ausable Press). The opening poem, "Against Ether," scrambles for sense:

With my certainties, I assemble the elements.

A burned suit, the earth's gloved hand
a book made of petals.

Daylight evaporates before our eyes.

From there, the poem moves in and out of person and place, even alphabet and vowel. And the final stanza is deceptively neat:

In his farm my father grows what the seasons let him.

This is how he plants his crops:

He takes off his hat
and lets the rain talk to him.
He holds a fistful of dirt
and pleads with it.

Much later in the collection, Mattawa speaks more directly, in "The In-Between":

I don't want either side of this river.
I don't want my life to be the ferry
bridging its banks.

The jagged clashes of matter-of-fact language with phrases torn and collaged into the work evenutally, for me, painted a clarity around what it is to transpose from one culture into another: You leave behind significant pieces of yourself in the "other place" and you suffer whiplash of the soul, repeatedly.


The relative who wronged you
you've already mistreated twice.
Say now the alkaline words of forgiveness,
and yes, go ahead and weep out the blows
you've received and recklesssly thrown
until supplication is all that pegs you to life.

And when you rise, know that you are not
worthy of disdain or affection, but that
from now on you'll have to tighten your fists
on the last embers of love.

After such dark fire in so many of the poems, the pair that are addressed to a missing child in one's life sit in the later part of the book like unexpectedly tender fruit; here is a passage I particularly like from "Bedtime Reading for the Unborn Child":

Night girl, night girl
your book is full now.
You have drawn all the pictures.
You have seen many weepers.
Stars held your sky in place and moons
floated on your lakes and washed them.

Mattawa's careful paintings balloon into massive murals in the concluding piece, a 14-page sequence of long-lined stanzas called "East of Carthage: An Idyll." It's addressed to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, and sizzles with embers, smoke, and sensuous extensions into the present. A burnt-sand odyssey of risk and regret, it's worth reading multiple times, especially aloud, for the woven rhythms and tastes:

The deserts they crossed, the plains east
or north of here fall like sands from my hands.

Um Bsisi, I want to call them, citizens of a protracted destiny,
native and stranger, prodigal and peasant --

And finally, the words reach the distant waters of the sea:

At last they set to sail. They slaughter a rooster,
douse blood on the Dido figurehead adorning the prow,
The seadog opens a canvas bag and pulls out a hookah.

There is much of love in this slim volume -- and much also of longing and of the soreness of the journey.

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