3arabi Song

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:

It explodes,
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):

Angels—
we saw them on the railway,

[. . .] on their wings.


Wings—

[. . .] about our cat


Cats—

[ . . .] refuge refuse bins

Country—

It also uses English, written Arabic, transliterated Arabic, and “Arabizi”, which reinforces the inextricable relationship between the multiple cultures and sensibilities in these poems:

My hips—
are heavy
are child-bearing
child-killing
are lover
do not fit those
train windows
these fences
this escape this

Ra7eel
so much in my 3arabi depends
on ra7eel on

3awda
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.

Please click here to read the conversation between Zeina Hashem Beck and Issam Zineh . . .

Title: 3Arabi Song
Author: Zeina Hashem Beck
2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner
Cover art by Yazan Hallwani
ISBN: 978-1-931307-30-

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.

Zeina Hashem Beck and Issam Zineh

In a Day and a Night: Review of 3arabi Song and a Conversation with Zeina Hashem Beck

Read Issam Zineh’s Review of 3arabi Song here:

“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.” —Issam Zineh

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Issam Zineh: 3arabi Song is a work of deep relevance.  There is an authority that derives from lived experience.  Can you talk about your experience in originally putting this collection together? 

Zeina Hashem Beck: Most of these poems came to me after August 2013, when two mosques exploded in my hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and my cousin was shot on the street.  He didn’t survive.  I was also watching what was happening in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.  So first came some poems of grief, but I didn’t want the collection to be just about that.  I find a lot of joy in Arabic music, and back then I listened to it as a kind of balm, and that’s how the music poems originated.

IZ: One of the noteworthy aspects of this collection is that there are multiple points of entry for the reader.  I feel like you might have very different relationships with these poems depending on, for example, whether or not you grew up with Arabic culture.  Can you comment on this generally – how you think the work might be deferentially experienced based on the presence or absence of cultural points of reference the reader brings to the poems?

ZHB: This wasn’t really something I thought about as I wrote 3arabi Song—I just followed the poems which came in waves, if I recall correctly.  I simply needed to write these poems, so I wrote.  Once I was closer to publication, I chose to include a “Notes” section in the end, to give a little bit of context to some of the pieces, as well as explain some words/expressions in Arabic for the reader who might not be familiar with the culture.  I assume this was helpful, but I wonder now whether this was necessary; I think readers should be able to experience the poems regardless, and that they should also be able to google to know more.  I’ve certainly done this for poems where the context or some references weren’t familiar to me.

Regarding reception, yes, I imagine the poems would resonate differently with different audiences.  An Arab audience at a poetry reading, for example, would smile and nod in recognition, though this doesn’t mean that an audience not familiar with Arab culture wouldn’t be able to tap into the language of the poems.

IZ: There are aspects of these poems that seem like they have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  On the one hand, this book feels very local.  It seems very particular to the “Arab experience”, to maybe even the expatriate or immigrant experience.  On the other hand, it was selected from over 1700 manuscripts [editor’s note: 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner] , so it clearly has a universality to it.  Can you talk about this balance between the “local” and the “global”?  Did you have a sense that despite the specificity of the subject matter, the poems would appeal to a broad readership and resonance?

ZHB: As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t thinking about all this at the time of writing.  I believe that when poems come from a true place, they resonate.  Also, I’m not a big fan of universality because it usually means white; do people consider Paris, for example, a more “universal” city than Tripoli?  And if so, then what assumptions lie under this?  The universal is in the local.

IZ: And even then, it strikes me we have a problem of translation.  I find Arabic figures of speech in particular nearly impossible to translate.  There is gravity, drama, soulfulness, multiplicity to the language that is challenging to precisely capture in another language.  And yet you do this in remarkable ways through context and poem notes.  Talk about this linguistic challenge.  Did you find it a challenge at all?

ZHB: A poem is always about some kind of translation for me, and I don’t see that as a problem, but rather a searching.  And I’ve always existed between languages, so I was writing was felt real to me.  

IZ: There is a video of you reading “Naming Things” during the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (2016), which completely opened this poem up for me, and by extension the entire collection.  Specifically, there’s a kind of sacredness and implicit spirituality even in the common dialogue of the people that I think in some ways I took for granted growing up in an Arabic-speaking household.  Then in hearing you perform, this really sort of unleashed the divine lexicon of Arabic expression.  Can you talk about the importance of the spoken word in these poems?  Do you think they gain something in particular from being read aloud?

ZHB: I don’t believe in divine languages.  If I were to think of Arabic as divine, I wouldn’t be able to work with it.  As for performing poetry, this is something I genuinely enjoy doing as a way of sharing and connecting.  I also start reading a poem out loud the minute I start writing it, because I like to fill the room around me with the sounds of it. Reading it out loud is writing it.  

IZ: I’m thinking of how even in conversational Arabic, there is common reference to the divine even in completely secular conversations.  For example, the customary response to “How are you?” being “Thank God”.  It strikes me that there is something built into the language that lends itself to certain explorations.  You mentioned you have “always existed between languages.”  Can you say more about how this has shaped your poetics?

ZHB: My mother language is Arabic, then comes French, then English at the age of 12.  And even within the Arabic, there’s the spoken Lebanese dialect and the official Modern Standard Arabic (which was what we learnt at school, what we read in books, and even what we heard on TV in Arabic cartoons at the time).  So to a certain extent, there’s always more than one language in my head and my sentences, and that’s not uncommon in Lebanon.  English definitely became the language that’s easiest for me in terms of writing, and that’s probably because my university education was in English, though I think the spirit of my poems lies in how I personally use English and at times 3arabize it.

I keep wavering between almost-regret and oh-well when I think that I don’t write in Arabic, and I’ve recently been thinking about audience. Perhaps what’s important is the language of poetry, no matter what tool you’re using to reach it.

IZ: Some of the greatest musical icons of the Arab world show up in this book (Umm Kulthuum, Fairuz, Samira Tawfiq).  These names are very familiar from my childhood and, I suspect, the childhoods of many but not all (perhaps not even most) of your readers.  Can you talk about this construct and what you were hoping to accomplish by coming at the themes of this work from the angle of Arabic music?

ZHB: Arabic music gave me joy in a difficult time, and I found myself writing these tributes to singers I love.  I don’t recall the first one I wrote, but it might have been the Umm Kulthum one. After that, I decided to continue with these tributes more deliberately, considering the singers’ lives, what their music invokes in me, and the current political moment.  There’s always been a close relationship between poetry and music as art forms for me: they both sing, and they both have the capacity to move us almost immediately.

IZ: I came to engage with this remarkable collection reluctantly.  I carried it with me throughout my house for days, assuring myself I would start reading it “today” – until today became a series of past events.  In hindsight, I was nervous about what I would be asked to contend with.  What would this work reveal about me – about my relationship to culture, to country, to family?  Can you talk a bit about these themes in your work?

ZHB: Grief and joy. Loss and music. Exile and home.

I appreciate you describing what you went through before you started reading, and struggling with these thoughts can be a good interrogation.

IZ: Earlier this year, I came across an article in which Aarushi Punia contemplates the role of memory in Palestinian literature.  Among its many functions, she writes of memory as “an act of protest and resistance.”  She asserts that literature, then, “extends the resistive act of remembering and creates a sense of community through the narration of memory.” “Remembering,” she writes, “is an ethical act.”  It is against this backdrop – memory (and by extension “song” as arguably the most poetic and defiant form of memory) as the difference between cultural (sometimes literal) life and death – that I entered 3arabi Song.  A lot has happened in the world since the 2016 debut of 3arabi Song.  Can you talk a bit about what you see as the role poetry has to play in this particular moment with respect to resistance, and even perhaps self-preservation?

ZHB: Memory is indeed important in 3arabi Song, but I would argue that in the case of Palestinian literature, it’s even more important.  As a Lebanese, when I write about Tripoli, my hometown, I’m writing to remember my childhood and perhaps to mourn and celebrate certain events.  But I can and I do go back to my Tripoli every year, whereas Palestinians are either incapable of going back to their stolen land or living under apartheid.  Here, writing/remembering becomes even more of an act of survival and resistance, as Punia mentions, because there are forces literally conspiring to erase you. Many of the poems in 3arabi Song go beyond Lebanon, of course, so I understand where your analysis comes from, and I was certainly writing for Syria, Palestine, and Iraq to remember and resist.

As for the role of poetry, yes, I believe, in my heart of hearts, that poetry is subversive just by asking you to slow down and reconsider, reimagine. However, I’m afraid you’re catching me at a time where I’m struggling to tap into poetry. This has to do with what’s been happening in Lebanon for the past few months (a revolution started in October 2019, a major economic crisis now, attempts to crack down on free speech); I found myself overwhelmed by the news and unable to process anything through poems. I feel a little bit estranged, though I know that I’d eventually return.

IZ: Shortly after we initially connected, controversy emerged around the publisher of 3arabi Song which raised, among many issues, questions about reconciling the art itself and the platform that makes that art accessible.  Would you care to comment?

ZHB: I thought a lot about whether or not to comment on this here.  Shortly after you’d asked me for an interview, I learnt things about Rattle that don’t align with my values.  I canceled a reading that was scheduled with the magazine and decided not to submit to it anymore.  I wondered whether I should refrain from talking about my own chapbook.  I wondered whether I should talk about it and not mention this at all: why shift the energy in this space that’s meant to celebrate my work, which shouldn’t be associated with Rattle’s moral failures?  Weren’t many literary institutions problematic?  I’m proud of my poems and shouldn’t be doing such mental labor (especially as an Arab woman living abroad) because of an editor’s decisions that I wasn’t aware of until recently.  I also struggled with the fact that 3arabi Song was well-supported by Rattle when it was released.  But what does it mean, when a magazine supports your work and the work of people you admire while at the same time gives space to pieces you find harmful?  When it praises a poem written “for” a gay man from the perspective of the Pulse shooter, for example?  I was angry I had to spend so much time troubled by this instead of writing poems or being with my kids or trying to process the goddamn collapse happening in my home country.  Sadly, it seems this is a luxury that writers from marginalized communities writing in this language (or perhaps any official language) do not have.  I’m not interested in idealizing or demonizing, but I ultimately decided to mention this so that other poets who don’t know, who perhaps like me come to poetry from outside the academia and the US, could consider, learn more, and decide.

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.

Split Map

Split Map, by Rebecca Connors

Review by Arya F. Jenkins

In Split Map (Minerva Rising, 2019), her first collection with 22 poems, poet Rebecca Connors revisits the past, exploring the landscapes of the American South and of her girlhood, and along with these, the fear and anxiety which follow her into adulthood as she searches for a sense of place and identity.

From the beginning, the reader is steeped in a sense of the American South. In “A Lifting Force,” the poet describes “caramel stillness. Roses, cut grass.” In the South, the very air seems at times stagnant, at other times, suffused with heat, sorrow, fear, and expectation. Revisiting memory, the poet observes how even silence, arising from that heat, can be wielded as a weapon: “Your silence makes him sharp like an insult.”

“Anthem of the Elementary School Girls,” one of the strongest and most evocative poems in this collection, pays homage to the rich lives of young girls whose creativity, sense of power, and whimsy threaten to burst at the seams:

Imagine our sarcophagus–
stickered notebooks, mixtapes, ChapSticks crammed
into back pockets—testaments to our empire.

In “The Intruder’s Home,” the narrator explores a girl’s pervasive fear of her alcoholic father, “What is the word for when the beast / turns away? It doesn’t matter—you are // never not prey.”

In “Climbing Magnolia,” the reader is again surrounded by the feeling of what it is like to grow up in the South. There is mention of “summer heat,” “fragrant bloom,” the ever present “magnolia,” “honeysuckle,” and “rose bloom,” from which the poet herself seems to literally emerge, remembering experiences as a girl. Here, the experiences of girlhood are intense, speaking equally to a girl’s vulnerability and power:

I scramble
my way down trunk-smeared
bruises on my thighs. Emerging
from the forbidden boundary,
I am almost lost.

A sense of lost-ness pursues the narrator, although the world’s surprises, inherent in language and nature, feed and empower her. Sometimes that sense of lost-ness is shared, as in “Origin of Coordinates” in which the narrator reminisces about her brother. In “Ordinary Girl,” another extraordinary poem, the tools of the poet are shown early on:

She cradles a jar in her chest filled
with pebbles, alphabet magnets, a broken
harmonica, pencil nub. She glows
when the world appears cherry-lipped
beside her with all the stories
she could ever want.

Another theme evolves as the stories of these poems unfold—the surprise, shock and fear of the body—one’s own and that of others, what happens to it growing up and when encountering varieties of experience in the world. In “Corpus,” the poet announces,

I am
weight-bearing not up to code
here’s the library: finger the worm-eaten plans my wings admired but never constructed

In “To the Inspector” the poet connects language, the past, geography and nature, affirming her most empowering source: “atlas and magnolia / forsythia and sepulcher”

In the final poem of the collection, “These Ghosts are Home,” the poet elucidates how memory, the experiences that pass through us that we must let go, also remain like notches marking pain and wonder, offering proof of our existence with all its inglorious struggles. Traversing memory is risky, the poet seems to say, even as she journeys through it determinedly.

These poems reach deep and fearlessly into the past, into trauma and joy, fear and rapture which entwine like vines on the way to adulthood and awakening.

Split Map by Rebecca Connors
Published by Minerva Rising Press, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-9990254-9-9
Cost: $10
Order from Minerva Rising Press: https://minervarising.com/purchase-books/

Rebecca Connors graduated from Boston University with a BA in English. She is currently an MFA candidate at the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor. Her work has recently appeared in Tinderbox Poetry JournalMenacing HedgeInk & Nebula, and elsewhere.  Her poems have been nominated for the Orison Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook, Split Map, won the Dare to Speak Chapbook Contest and was published by Minerva Rising Press in Spring 2019.

Arya F. Jenkins is a Colombian-American poet and writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and zines, most recently, IO Literary Journal, Rag-Queen Periodical, and The Ekphrastic Review. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Poetry is forthcoming in Poetica Review. Her poetry chapbooks are: Jewel Fire (AllBook Books, 2011), Silence Has A Name (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and Love & Poison (Prolific Press, 2019). Her short story collection Blue Songs in an Open Key (Fomite Press, 2018) is available here: www.aryafjenkins.com.

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently,
 slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018).