THE MOSAIC OF COLLABORATION: HACKER AND SHEHABI

By Marilyn Krysl

DIASPO/RENGA

www.hollandparkpress.co.uk 2014

Solitude can be a rich and fruitful experience, but solitude also needs, from time to time, its opposite. Collaboration, then, is by its very nature comforting. Whether it be the construction of a skyscraper or the whispering communion of two poets speaking quietly to each other across long distances, the harvest of joint effort can be sweet. There is the sense that one is not alone in the great world.

Collaboration may be even more interesting when two poets from different cultural backgrounds attempt to collaborate. There may be much agreement in collaboration across cultures, and there may also be disagreement. There are no rules as to how collaborators must relate to each other, but both surely imagine that they will learn from each other, and also teach each other. And the poem’s final form will be the testament as to how carefully and thoughtfully both of the poets share their common material, the poem.

In Diaspo/Renga, Marilyn Hacker and Deema K. Shehabi are given the gift of participating in and learning from each other’s culture. But there is another, more central issue here, and that is the renga form itself. The two poets have chosen to collaborate using a poetic form which originated in Japan and will seem an odd duck to westerners.

First of all the renga eschews end line rhyme. The form consists of a three line stanza followed by a two line stanza, then another three line stanza followed again by a two line stanza.

The renga’s third requirement is that a word or short phrase from one renga be repeated in the following renga, and so on, for as long as the collaboration continues. Those of us who long to soak in the lyric’s bath and immerse themselves in other musical qualities of a poem will find that in the renga the pleasure of rhyme is only intermittently forthcoming.

Hacker and Shehabi came together around their concern for Palestinians, and their call and response rengas may offer one way to dialogue about the historical and present day situation of Israel and Palestine.

Their correspondence began when Hacker, in Paris, sent Shehabi, in California, a renga describing a young child lamenting her fate during the 2009 invasion of Gaza. For the next four years, these two poets spoke back and forth. as in a long, slow conversation.

Their dialogue, published by Holland Park Press in 2014, constructs an ongoing discourse, discourse which weeps, and also, now and again, turns up small bits of joy, regret and longing.

Hacker begins the dialogue:

Five, six—and righteous,

the child in green in Gaza

stands in her wrecked home,

 

grubby, indignant. Her hands

point; she explains what was done

 

bombed, burned. It all smells

like gas! We had to throw our clothes

away! The earrings my

 

father gave me…no martyr,

resistant. The burnt cradle…

 

And Shehabi, answered, uniting these first two rengas by repeating the phrase “the child”.

 

Breaks over the cold mountains

of north Carolina, where a Cherokee

poet huddles in a cottage

 

by an indigo fire. She sees

the child and says,

 

this is the new Trail of Tears.

Calls out, Oh outspread Indian nation,

lets braid our hair

 

with the pulverized

gravel of Palestine.

 

Witness, she says, the unpinned

knuckles of this child. Feel

the burlap curtains whip across…

To grasp the meaning building in the poem is sometimes difficult, unless you are well acquainted with the nuanced history of Israel\Palestine. It’s best to receive each renga as a bit of broken glass in a mosaic, trusting that the rengas which follow will shed light on what has transpired.

Because we are in the realm of poetry, chronology is a minor concern. It’s imagery that powers poems, and this poem leaps forward and falls back in inspirational time, proceeding not chronologically but anecdotally through the medium of image. This is how mind and imagination work, not logically, but in sudden, imagistic leaps.

 

“Nedjma/ does math homework” Hacker writes, and Shehabi then introduces us to Maher, her uncle, who sings Frank Sinatra tunes “as the bombs catapult down.”

 

“It’s now or never.”

He pauses, and his niece releases

Her breath over the scratchy

 

phone line between Gaza

and California. Where are the hills…

 

Notice that this passage above ends that renga. But in an elliptical leap, the sentence continues into the first line of the next renga, now composed by Hacker.

…he saw from New York…

“Marhaba ya Nafisa,

Girl, you watch your back!

Tanks and uniforms zap guys’

minds worse than testosterone

 

but you were gorgeous

Reasoning as you dodged to

Keep them from aiming

 

at the brothers behind you

dancing along the barbed wire.

 

Through the poem’s tour de force pages, we hear both Hacker and Shehabi’s voices speaking out, the two voices twining around each other, uttering passages set in the U.S., in Europe, in Palestine and across the sprawling middle east.

Hacker writes:

The halal butcher

has a charity tin for

les enfants de Gaza.

 

I pay for my leg of lamb

and drop in all of the change,

 

walk away up the

Rue de la Roquette humming

“Guantanamera.”

 

On the place Voltaire a white

lady can enjoy the joke.

 

Then Shehabi enters:

The jokes on us.

The white phosphorus

was first tried in Fallujah.

 

We are from Rawa,

a proud people from across

 

the river. You think

it’s easy being a man

watching this trashing unfold.

 

Sister, don’t forget Iraq

and Palestine are one wound.

 

When the call and response is as clear as this one is, I’m won over. But make no mistake, this is not an easy poem to grasp without knowing Middle Eastern history. Hacker writes:

 

If this be a man

don’t mistranslate him into

a single language,

 

a single landscape of loss,

claim there’s one story only.

 

He steeps black tea. She

boils water for cardomom

coffee. Would they have

 

words for each other’s sorrow

if they had learned the same words?

 

Renga after renga the mosaic builds. The poet Darwish is invoked, as is Akmatova. Somewhere someone is translating Plath, and the word Tahrir, we learn, means liberation. Each renga is a small glass piece of the whole, and we receive each bit, and bit by bit the pieces fit and the mosaic grows.

 

These two poets’ voices have fueled the renga form for 117 pages, shedding memorable light on past and current history. And in that process Hacker and Shehabi have simultaneously created an historical record of their generation and ours. The back and forth perspectives of these two poets weave, unweave and re-weave the tapestry of love and loss and again love across immense distances and in dangerous, frightening times.

I’m most fond of two early passages by Shehabi and Hacker on pages 16 and 17.

What has changed for men

in this world, she asks him,

as she wraps herself in black branches,

 

powdered leaves

sidewalks white as bone.

 

She thinks of her mother

entering the childhood bedroom

to straighten shoes, the lopsided shoes

 

so that they won’t disturb the garlanded

angels around your bed, her mother would say—

 

And Hacker replies:

 

Her mother would say

“Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Arabs…”

and that was enough.

 

The front door slammed shut on the

puzzled face of affection.

 

All “we” were was what

was not the darker other

with his long lashes,

 

with her insistent questions.

Beyond that locked door, a song.

 

I’m taken here by both speakers and their weaving of their individual trademark voices. The poem concludes:

 

I slept in Yarmouk

and I dreamed of Palestine.

When I’m asleep here

 

I dream I’m sleeping in the

camp, dreaming of Palestine,

 

but when they’re bombing

Syrian cities, killing

Syrian children,

 

saying it’s for Palestine,

I don’t want that Palestine.

 

I have long followed Hacker’s work and admired her poetry, her essays and her translations. She has dedicated herself not just to the work of American poets but to the world wide and increasingly eloquent voices of poets everywhere. To add Shehabi’s voice to this global endeavor raises the bar several more notches, and reinforces and strengthens the power of the collection as a whole.

As our planet turns, as we are more and more steeped in violence, voices like Hacker’s and Shehabi’s are essential. We need the music of poetic language to sooth us and galvanize us, and to summon courage to speak truth to power. The war isn’t over until it’s over.

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