by Ruth Awad
67 pp, University of Southern Indiana Press, 2017
Review by Amy Small-McKinney
Ruth Awad, a Lebanese-American poet, won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize for her collection, Set to Music a Wildfire, poems of war and its legacy, survival and survivor guilt, and the task of making a foreign country into home. Stunning imagery, surprising language, and unapologetic leaps are evident from the opening poem, “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion,” to the final, “Lessons in Grief.” Though Awad returns, always, to the personal—family, memory, innocent casualties, and impossible choices—her poems live within a larger context of disbelief and uncertainty. After all, aren’t these the fallout of war? What is certain is that for the father, and for his daughter who carries within herself his wounds, the Lebanese Civil War is not over. Yes, this is a political book, but far from didactic. It embodies the innocent bystanders of war and gives voice to their experiences as they tread cautiously between one extremist group or country and another, each ready to kill for their beliefs. In “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion,” the narrator understands he must leave his war-ravaged country after meeting an angel:
In the beginning, there was an angel with cloven feet who stood by me,
and the angel said, My wings are an ocean, and its shoulder split until
feathers fell around us. This is how you leave your country.
On the back of an ocean. Choked with feathers.
Perhaps this angel with cloven feet represents duality, a fusion of angel and devil, and perhaps it is no accident that, as dictated by Islamic law, animals with cloven feet cannot be consumed and therefore are undesirable, like refugees. Whatever its significance, we learn this is a dream: “and I wake in time to catch the L for work that hardly keeps me fed.” Yet it does not feel like a dream; the refugee’s deep confusion and aloneness is tangible, as he was “carried…here,” in “the middle of a grocery store parking lot, / the whine of flood lights burrowing into my capped head / and the black night ahead, and I think, My God, will I ever not be // surprised by what I can survive?” Still, gratitude also travels with the exhausted émigré, “so full of honey in a time of war, winter in a land // I’m learning to love, in a land that won’t love me.”
After this introductory poem, Set to Music a Wildfire is divided into three sections: “I. Born into War,” “II. House Made of Breath,” and “III. What the Living Know,” and explores the consequences of being forced from a homeland, the struggle to settle in a new country, and the unrelenting ripple effect of family history on three daughters. Any child or grandchild of refugees who survived bloodshed, and left family behind, understands these swells do not subside easily. It is not surprising that the sea is often invoked in Awad’s poems—the angel’s oceanic wings, the sea the father had to cross, and in the “Battle of the Hotels,” the metaphoric sea, its “slow chew” of everything lost and missing. Even during a bucolic family jaunt to the beach, in “My Father in Virginia, Surrounded by Water,” the sea’s waves become salt rubbed into guilt’s wounds as they also phantasmagorically make their way back to Lebanon. In “My Father Is the Sea, the Field, the Stone,” the speaker tells us, “I don’t know what makes a country a country. / If the sea is softening an edge of land is enough / to say, This is mine and that is yours.” This poem, like many in the book, is written in the voice of the poet’s father. There is always a risk of arrogant presumption when a poet writes from another’s worldview, but Awad realizes her own version of the Keatsian ideal of poet emptying self and filling another’s body, and convincingly inhabits her father’s voice, and later, her mother’s.
Everything that belongs to father, mother or daughters—faces, eyes, mouths—become casualties of war and symbols of distance and separation. In “Interview with My Father: Names,” photos of the dead are “hundreds of eyes glancing / all around, as though we could lift them from the pages,” and in “Homegrown,” “faces like houses with the lights shut off.” These metaphors of lost hope course through the book, though in “Hunt,” the narrator becomes “a mouth of light / pointing like a compass needle,” offering a brief flicker of hope. Misery quickly returns, however, in “The Green Line,” when the narrator reminds us, and himself, that he was “born from the mouth of a bullet hole.” Awad simply does not stray far from the fatal sting of bullets.
For example, the restrained poem of personal and social grief, “Interview with My Father: Names,” is still immersed in the heart of a war zone and the desperation to keep the dead from vanishing or becoming collateral damage. Written in her father’s voice, the first couplet begins with a seemingly ordinary act of writing names that belies the poem’s despair:
When someone dies in Tripoli, we write their names on paper
next to their pictures and post them where others can see.
Walk the street where the names wave from the walls,
flutter from windows, buildings gilled with sheets—
breathing paper, beating paper, the streets are paper—
and we don’t know who we’re going to see, whose face
will call from that collage, the hundreds of eyes glancing
all around, as though we could lift them from the pages,
as though we weren’t born into war, too,
as though our religion (blood-bright
in the hands of a checkpoint guard, a flapping wing of paper)
won’t tack us among them—the razed, their names, white light.
Here, Awad reconstructs the experience of stumbling through a war-torn city and moves us into a fusillade of loss and fragility, by way of startling language such as “buildings gilled with sheets.” The word “gill” conjures an image of a fish, or a captured fish being gutted, or a fish trying to breathe without water, or perhaps all these images in concert. There are so many dead that they cover everything, even the streets, and the speaker knows that at any moment, he might become one of them. Perhaps, this explains why the poems are filled with endless movement and walking. “Inheritance: Tripoli, Lebanon, 1976,” begins, “My father at fifteen walked the unguarded streets / having learned the cadence of rounds, measuring / the distance between safety and crossfire.” Nothing is ever still, except the “stationary Singer needle hungry for work.” Motion prevails and propels as father runs “from blockade to building,” a “water jug” flung over “his shoulder like a missile launcher,” and even “hearts reeled blood to their feet” while “the wind shifted.”
Though settled in America by the final section, the family’s grief still moves with them. Father is safe, and the family settled, but the poem, “Town Gossip” with its contextual note, “Indiana in 1994,” carries us out of war and into the skirmishes of assimilation. Written in couplets that offer at least some containment for the poem’s anger and despair, it begins in the middle of a conversation, one in which the word “wisps” reconjures the repeated image of wings. These are, however, not the wings of an ambiguous angel or “a flapping wing of paper” (“Interview with My Father: Names”), but the daughters’ dark sideburns shaved for acceptance:
But we were strange girls, girls thrown together
in mismatched clothes, shaved wisps of sideburns, that Arab last name.
My father got letters. Please don’t drop the girls off early.
There’s no one here to watch them.
With her signature lack of sentimentality, Awad confronts the struggles of single fatherhood, motherless children, and being “strange” in an all-American town:
Kids asked, What do you mean, your mom’s not here?
Wolves without her—
unkempt in the eyes of our teachers
—Sarah hoards the week’s lunch money in her desk
because she is too scared
to hand it to the cafeteria cashier.
Thus Awad bears witness to what it means to be different—to live a life split in two—one foot in an ancestral Arab culture, the other dangling in the new world. She shines a light on the girls’ alienation, but also on how they have managed to create a world of their own, as children often do:
We stole the bitten-eared tabby
from the neighbors,
mined playground rocks,
pocketed Mom’s old lipstick tubes.
Leaf-strung crabapple girls. We climbed the arthritic tree
outside our dentist’s office, clutched there until sundown.
This poem, embedded with lines from letters sent to her father from a nameless Midwestern school authority, irradiates the family’s otherness: “Miriam is outspoken in class, but we worry her peers make fun / of her alopecia. She spends recess on the blacktop next to her teacher,” and deems it appropriate to mention the “strange” girl’s choice of clothes: “Ruth wears men’s overcoats to school / Do they belong to you?” Does Ruth wear the coat because she doesn’t own her own or because it comforts? We are not given answers, only empty space, like the spaces left from war’s dead, the space of the country left behind, or the space left by a mother’s departure as her daughters search for her in “old lipstick tubes,” or ride their bikes by a hotel “for no reason other than that door was briefly hers.” And why does it matter that the tree the girls climbed was arthritic? Because this tree, afflicted, still matters. Trees reappear as metaphors and reminders of Awad’s theme of the endurance needed to be human, whether in a war-torn county or a land that does not love us. In “The Green Line,” a stand of trees in Lebanon is “like a caesarean scar. / This dust-blown shade of division.” In “Hunt,” the wind becomes a “yowling…wounded dog, its burdened octave / nosing through the bullet-pocked palms.” The poem ends with the narrator pressing his “ear to the door,” listening for soldiers, and hears “the grain’s slight heartbeat” and “tree roots spidering, their reaching, their thirst. / Hear footsteps lumber. I turn your name over like a stone in my mouth.” Here, tree and father become one, both reaching for safety, water, life. Here again, there is a mouth trying to speak the name of an unidentified person, perhaps dead or missing, who has become stone. Even in America, the daughters lug Lebanon and loss with them, and like Father’s tree, their tree offers imperfect, but precious comfort. There is no happy ending to the story, or at least, not the kind we long for; though impossible, defiant hope still demands in “Headline in Reverse” that time be turned back, and war undone: “Unwrite the names of children / on the backs of bombs, and let the pens // drink deep their ink /… This is the work // of hope.”
In the final poem, “Lessons in Grief,” the voice of someone gone is still
the shower drain—no, it’s
only water, but here I am,
half wet and stung
with the mercy of living
where your robe trailed
like a thought across
the kitchen floor
and my hands are filling
with dirt. Or is it water?”
The lost mother, the father’s dead, none of them are ever really gone, as emphasized by Awad’s brilliantly ambiguous line-break after “living” that suggests both the “mercy” of being alive and the sting of memories like days that “never stop coming.” This is how life leaves and fills us; it fills us with dirt and with water. In the end, we are left with the mercy of living and learning to live with grief.
Set to Music a Wild Fire is a story that needs to be told, especially today, now, reminding us of those lines from “Asphodel” by William Carlos Williams: “it is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Awad’s poems give us real news of human beings behind the current wall of political wrangling, and behind the question of who belongs and who doesn’t.
Amy Small-McKinney won The Kithara Book Prize 2016 (Glass Lyre Press) for her second full-length collection of poems, Walking Toward Cranes. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Construction, LIPS, Tiferet Journal, and elsewhere. Small-McKinney’s poems also appear in Veils, Halos, and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women (eds. Charles Fishman & Smita Sahay), and BARED: Contemporary Poetry and Art on Bras and Breasts (ed. Laura Madeline Wiseman). Recently, her work was translated into Korean in Bridging The Waters II (Cross-Cultural Communications). January 2018, she traveled to Ireland with the Drew University MFA in Poetry program where she participated on the panel, Kindred Spirits, at the Transatlantic Connections Conference.