3arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck
Review and Interview by Issam Zineh
Zeina Hashem Beck’s 3arabi Song is a collection of 17 poems of deep intimacy. The individual poems come together as an exploration of grief and joy. There is a tremendous sense of place and our relationship to it: longing, homecoming, comfort, exile, return. There is a specific version of discovery in this work. It is not quite sudden revelation. It is more closely what song often reveals as completely understood truth, if not yet articulated until that exact moment of utterance.
The collection opens with “You Fixed It,” a kind of ode that introduces key themes which appear throughout the remainder of the book. These issues—familial intimacy; private and collective sorrow; a distinct and simultaneously equivocal sense of identity (for example, in terms of relationship to one’s country); a very particular kind of steadfastness; the power of music to sustain (and subvert)—are only some of the vast richness that gets treatment throughout this engaging book.
These ideas are quietly but fully on display as the poem lists the ways in which the unnamed “you” overcomes the most existential of difficulties (often disguised as the domestic and the mundane). It is no accident that the first challenge is fundamentally one of orientation:
And if the compass broke you fixed it, fastened
the pencil to it with a rubber band
The struggles of daily living accrue, and it is in the how of this accumulation where Hashem Beck’s genius lies—the musical coexistence of beauty and struggle brought to bear on the page (and through the spoken word). The poem’s ending is the point of departure for everything that comes in later poems:
and if your sorrow hardened you fixed it
by dipping it in sea water, and if your country
hardened, if your country hardened you fixed it by dipping it in song.
3arabi Song not only rewards through its language and imagery, but in its poetic forms. The collection’s five ghazals skillfully contend with ancestry and remembrance (“Ghazal: The Dead”), displacement (“Ghazal: This Hijra,” “Ghazal: Back Home”), and personal and national identity (“This Country: Ghazal for Abdel Halim Hafez,” “Ghazal: Samira Tawfiq Sings a Love Poem”). Hashem Beck beautifully memorializes the renowned Arabic singer and actress Sabah (“…Not mourning with a ‘u’.” Yes, the thing that shines.”) in “Pantoum for Sabbouha,” one of several poems in which she pays tribute to divas of the Arab world, including Fairuz, Umm Kulthum, and others:
I imitated the walk, the hands
back then, the way she dared to say batata.
‘I had no fear of age, of death,’
she could’ve said in an interview, ‘No fear of men.’
3arabi Song is enhanced by, but not beholden to, the traditional forms. Perhaps two of the most interesting poems in the collection in terms of both content and structure are “Listen” and “Naming Things.” In “Listen,” we find ourselves part of a family dealing in real-time with the possibility their son and brother has been killed by an explosion at the local mosque. The imagery is stunning:
the mosque, this Friday,
the laundry, the domes of
boys’ arms, the sumac … The Chiclets in the street.
… The sea, still. The children, the figs almost bursting.
Additionally, the power of the poem generates in no small part from its form. Centered on the page, the poem’s two sections appear as two hourglasses stacked upon one another, each mirroring the other, each section narrowing to a point and expanding again. The composition excellently serves as visual metaphor for the pinpoint focus that can occur during the instant of tragedy, while symbolizing the disintegration of time and the vacillation and alternative realities we create during times of trauma to avoid acceptance.
In “Naming Things (for refugees, September 2015),” Hashem Beck deals with the issue of our times, the “our” being at minimum the global diaspora, a population that continues to grow predominantly due to ravages of endless war and the climate crisis. Formally, this long poem centered on the refugee crisis connects its stanzas through repetition. Lyrical power and drama are amplified by this approach (below are the first and last lines of the initial stanzas):
we saw them on the railway,
[. . .] on their wings.
[. . .] about our cat
[ . . .]
It also uses English, written Arabic, transliterated Arabic, and “Arabizi”, which reinforces the inextricable relationship between the multiple cultures and sensibilities in these poems:
do not fit those
this escape this
so much in my 3arabi depends
on ra7eel on
a5 ya baba
And while not radically experimental in form, “Naming Things” is innovative in how it brings together formal elements and languages to create an unrelenting litany of harmony and disruption that undergirds the subject matter.
As I read and re-read 3arabi Song, I found it to be so many things simultaneously. I wondered about the collection’s origin story, its idiosyncrasies, its original reception, and its relevance several years after publication. I had a chance to sit down with Zeina Hashem Beck virtually to exchange on some of these questions.
Title: 3Arabi Song
Author: Zeina Hashem Beck
2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner
Cover art by Yazan Hallwani
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection is Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017). She’s also the author of two chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Dubai. www.zeinahashembeck.com
Issam Zineh is a Los Angeles-born, Palestinian-American poet and scientist. He is author of the forthcoming chapbook “The Moment of Greatest Alienation” (Ethel Press, Spring 2021). His poems appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse, Fjords Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He also reviews for The Poetry Café (https://thepoetrycafe.online). Find him on Twitter @izineh.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.