Home is breath and memory; it’s gossip and the sounds of neighbors; it’s bathroom mirrors and skin-temperature wooden floors. These and other images of domesticity populate Home: New Arabic Poems, a dual-language anthology out from Two Lines Press.
Home is the second book in the press’s “Calico” series. The first was an anthology of Chinese speculative fiction that appeared this past spring. And while an anthology of Arabic poetry might seem less groundbreaking than Chinese science fiction, unlike most anthologies of Arabic poetry in English translation, Home doesn’t aim to be completist or canonical. There is no introduction, no historical contextualization of the poems.
“In the Calico series, we’re really committed to finding new voices and upending expectations,” Sarah Coolidge, the series editor, said in an email. “We’re eager to see work that speaks to the present moment or breaks conventions, pointing to new ways of thinking about literature and our world.”
Instead of fitting the poems into a larger socio-historical framework, this slender anthology allows the poems to speak for themselves. It includes work by nine Arabic-language poets from eight countries, and all the work intersects in some way with an idea of “home.”
“Part of why we decided to pursue Arabic poetry was the feeling that, in particular, contemporary Arabic poetry is egregiously underrepresented in English translation,” Coolidge said. “We also noticed that what little was published tended to focus on political upheaval and other themes that are important but limiting.”
Giving Up the ‘Idea of Houses’
The poets included in the anthology are Samer Abu Hawwash (Palestine), Iman Mersal (Egypt), Mohamad Nassereddine (Lebanon), Saadiah Mufarreh (Kuwait), Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein (Syria), Ines Abassi (Tunisia), Ahmed Shafie (Egypt), Ashjan Hendi (Saudi Arabia), and Fadhil al-Azzawi (Iraq). Their works showcase markedly different styles, from the quiet, searching ironies of Iman Mersal to the sweeping, hungry lines of Saadiah Mufarreh.
Mersal was a must-include in an anthology that focuses on home. Among her recent books are a prose work about motherhood and a collection of poems titled Until We Give Up the Idea of Houses. Throughout Mersal’s work, home is unstable.
In “They tear down my family home,” translated by Robyn Creswell, it is not only the physical home that is destroyed, but also the remembrances:
As if sledgehammers weren’t enough
the demolition men use their hands
to tear down the window djinn used to flit through
and with a kick the back door—even its memory—is gone.
In the poem, walls and windows are taken down, along with “the roof that never protected my childhood from the Delta rains.” Yet the poem continues to search for a connection to the narrator’s mother. In so doing, it turns away from the building and looks to the ground where she is buried, “under the camphor tree.”