The Moment of Greatest Alienation, by Issam Zineh
Review by Risa Denenberg
On first glance, I couldn’t decide if the poems in Issam Zineh’s The Moment of Greatest Alienation were about sex, clothed in its many garments, or if the work uses sexual interstices as a metaphor for any number of other life-and-death matters. Of course both are true, a truth that I find delicious. Although tangling with bodily union, no important matters seem to be absent in this collection—the work is the poet’s universe revealed.
The book itself is an art object. I’ve long been impressed with these limited-edition, hand-made/hand-bound micro chapbooks designed by Sara Lefsyk for Ethel Micro Press. The Moment of Greatest Alienation is a petite six by seven inches with a hand-sewn spine and a cover embossed with art and stitches, resembling a spider web, to the words of the title. The cover invites reading.
Then there are the poems. From the first lines in this chapbook, in the poem, “Metaphor is the Momentum Between Gestures,” we find a lyrical high bar that Zineh jumps over again and again throughout this work.
Answering the poem’s title, he says,
& I am Coptic
you are Christ, my heart a slit lamb, punctured,
slick at the throat. The alchemist’s optic
obsession: stuff to gold & never back.
Later in the poem, we find the story to be about an illicit affair.
. . . proud we pulled it off, proud of our disgrace.
We will smile. There will be nothing left
to do except go home
& make love in separate beds
Because I work in the medical arena, I have a particular fondness for poet-scientists and the way poetry can be looped into a scientific description of anything. In “Coefficients of Friction,” we find measurements of friction, body against body:
The physicist in me
with polymers mated against steel thrust
washer geometry, in all my traction, grip, and desire,
is trapped in the wrong version of eternity.
You are valuable and dimensionless.
Load and velocity.
There is a rewarding effort involved in following the syntax here. And, as I did, you may need to look up a few scientific concepts in this poem, such as washer geometry. But then you have the benefit of learning something new about how volume is measured, for example, if you want to calculate the volume of your lover.
The poems in The Moment of Greatest Alienation are the work of a poet who is erudite, deeply knowledgeable in numerous fields of the arts and academy, but who also pays astute attention to the political nature of everything he comes into contact with. Much is discovered in the “Notes.” For example, here is where we learn that the poem “Adagio includes titles from compositions by Bach, Barber, Copland, and Schnittke.” And I would add, all are folded seamlessly into the poem.
There are several poems that reckon with human tragedies caused by political inequity. In the notes, we learn that, in the poem “Plastic Bag,” Zineh “hopes to memorialize Òscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned in June 2019 trying to cross the Rio Grande.” In stark contrast with Zineh’s relative safety, the poem begins with the line, “I will tonight, god willing, sleep like a/ baby,” but goes on to describe how such horrific events affect him:
I will dream, the recurring one in
which you wrap me in your arms
and drag me to the bottom of the
lake, hold me underwater until I
either drown or wake.
In “Eight Parables to Keep You Safe, Defy Aging, & Banish Evil,” there is an amalgam of so many disparate substances, so much active and passive energy, that reading it gives me the dizzying sensation that all energy is matter and all matter is simple one version of reality pressing against another —and yet, there is an incoherent sense of order in the coupling. In the final parable, titled “8. The New Originals,” a narrative line wanders and then coheres with the line “all relationships are the same in the beginning,” –with its nod to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina– and continuing in the next stanza:
We still miss each other sometimes. We look for things that are irretrievable in these minor folds of solitude. We fire, we flood, we famine. We don’t know much of petal or stamen, the easiest of metaphors, the easiest sounds the tongue can make. And still, God has set up its system. Proteins are synthesized and sent to correct destinations. The awfully beautiful things of the body go on happening.
The poem “Ars Poetica” is an epithalamium—a poem in honor of a wedded couple. It starts with “I am married on a cliff,” but leads to a premonition of cracks in a marriage:
The guests have arrived. We walk down one
path at once, hating for now, everything that blooms,
knowing this is a small part of the introduction,
an even smaller part of the conclusion.
I suppose it is this sort of brutal honesty that I find so delicious in this book.
Issam Zineh is a Palestinian-American poet and scientist. He is author of Unceded Land (forthcoming, Trio House Press) which is an Editors’ Selection and finalist for the Trio Award for first or second book, and the chapbook The Moment of Greatest Alienation (Ethel Press, 2021). His poems appear or are forthcoming in AGNI, Guernica, Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, Tinderbox, Guesthouse, Glass (Poets Resist), Lunch Ticket, Poet Lore, and elsewhere.
Title: The Moment of Greatest Alienation
Author: Issam Zineh
Publisher: Ethel Zine & Micro Press, 2021
Book Design: Sara Lefsyk
39 pages $9.00
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.