Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
The powerful lyric testimonies in Khaled Mattawa’s moving new book, Fugitive Atlas, might take the form of questions:
“Did you really have a party the day the dictator died?
And you had a cake decorated with all the flags?
Did you think his death will fix everything?”
Or, they might take a form of dialogue:
’"I told the boy, “Once there was
a bird,” and he said, “What is / a bird?” I told the boy,
“There was this tree,” and he said,
“What is a tree?”’
Whatever form his poems take, there is a larger historical dilemma, a larger journey, an inimitable, inconsolable, imperfect, but generous world. And there is always tenderness. Real tenderness is hard to pull off in poetry without getting sentimental, and Mattawa is a master of tender moments. Here is a moment from the very start, a portrait of the speaker’s mother:
"Evening coffee, and my mother salts
her evening broth—not equanimity
but the nick of her wrist—
mother bakes bread,
and my mother hobbles, knees locked,
and my mother carries the soft stones of her years"
All of which is to say: in Fugitive Atlas, Khaled Mattawa finds a language — a poetics — for myriad different things, gathering them all, as if gathering the tribes. But at its core, it is the book’s generosity that impacts me the most. This generosity is also mirrored in Mattawa’s abundance of different poetic modes: from testimonials to crimes of our present, from elegies to devotionals. There is a draft of a short film delivered in both prose and verse, there is a reinvention of psalms (a psalm under siege, a psalm for a volunteer, etc.), there is poetry that is unafraid of standing in the midst of mysteries, of being bewildered, and there is powerful poetry of historical reckoning, too. And, yet, it all fits, as in chorus. Fugitive Atlas is a marvelous, necessary book.
ILYA KAMINSKY: Reading your book, I am moved by its beautiful fusion of lyricism and history. The subject is often a journey, a migration. There is almost a kind of refugee poetics, and it is a kind of poetics that insists, first and foremost, on the song. Could you speak a bit about your relationship with language and history?
KHALID MATTAWA: I think the relationship with language that developed in this book arose from the fact that I was covering multiple historical developments over a wide geographical area and involving many people speaking various languages. It was important to find a way to give each voice its individuality, to demarcate ongoing conversations, and to tell the stories, and the big story, of how many, if not most, people in the world live. The psalms signify a certain kind of utterance by various people. The haibun, of which the film treatment is one, engage a different formal tension and enact an act of witness, similarly with the ‘alams which can be read in different ways allowing for multiple narratives and interpretations. It’s a dialogic lyric that relies on intensely personal utterances to add up into a collective story. I did not want to do a book on the Arab Spring only, or the migrant crisis only, or American imperialism only, or environmental degradation only. I see all these issues as connected where unemployment, overpopulation, civil strife, civil war, religious fundamentalism, migrant crises, neocolonialism, and global capitalism are in intermeshed currents of cause and effect. On such a large canvas, I hope that the personal voices ground the readers, and the various forms spread between these various themes connect them. All these utterances are composed, or positioned, at a point of high drama, such as prayer, or intimate conversation, a little song, a scrap of paper where a note is jotted, or even a curse tablet. These also happen to be instances of high lyrical potential. I positioned myself as a poem-dramatist listening/creating these voices as I meditated on other facets of the experiences I wanted to write about. Travel helped shape the language and utterance — travel to Lesbos and Catania and Lampedusa, to Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Palestine before that, gave me a sense of location as to where the voices would be speaking from.
I think as a poet, perhaps from the beginning, who was drawn to be a chronicler of one’s times, I always found history — or the question of how did we get here — very important. The idea of shared, or in some cases repeated, histories is also important. When I began thinking of the poem “Occupation: An Index,” I began by focusing on Palestine, how the Palestinians are “occupied,” and how they are misunderstood, and in fact, vilified when they are the victims of colonization. Settler colonial societies like the U.S. and Israel could not help but sympathize with each other. The Puritans also wanted a kind of Jerusalem, a city on a hill, to be their capital. So I had to start from an elemental standpoint, of the occupiers and the occupied speaking, sometimes to each other, or to their own. And once I was there, it seemed that going to the Italian occupation of Libya was a natural move for me, as was Iraq, and then the sort of back and forth between Conrad and Patrice Lamumba. Here too, whether it’s the settlers in the West Bank burning the olive orchards of the Palestinians or the Europeans punishing Africans for fighting back against colonialism, we have a similar dynamic, mainly that the lives of the natives are next to nothing, that they ought to be punished severely because that’s all they understand, and ultimately, that the occupier simply does not want them around and will try do push them out of the way in every way possible, always justifying his actions with allusions to religion, science, and civilization. Sometimes there’s not much dispute about the facts of history, only the interpretations of it, which can justify the most horrific things. So, yes, I do want to engage history, to reencounter the facts, but to also to experience them differently in the poems, as myriad exchanges between those who suffer and those who cause the suffering, and to have a compressed, lyrical sense of these individuals’ lives and mindsets in these compressed statements. History is not only a record of human events; it’s also a record of individual human decisions and the circumstances these end up having on other individuals. And to realize that so many compressed statements have led to so much devastation is, hopefully, to feel a sense of culpability, not toward what’s been done, but also for ignoring it for so long.
But I wanted to avoid what’s called documentary poetics. Documentary poetry has been a wonderfully activist and conscientious force in American poetry from Muriel Rukeyser and Charles Reznekov to Mark Nowak and Philip Metres. There’s a little bit of that in Fugitive Atlas, and I definitely “researched” my topics to know them well, but what I wanted most was the power of the poems to come from music and lyricism. The 12 haibun, which are mainly prose blocks, try to undermine the straight documentation, if you will, by ending in verse that often employs rhyme. This desire to embrace a pronounced lyricism, which you’re calling a poetics of refugees, is also an attempt to resist a long tradition of migrant speech, which can be found in ethnographies, interviews, journalism and documentary film, etc. where migrants, through their speech, are presented as a sort of unfinished people, or people who are reaching out for their potential and would only reach it if they’re admitted into a new and often more powerful nation. They would not reach their full humanity until they assimilated and naturalized — just think of the word naturalized, for example. Foreigners and immigrants are often depicted like that, as unfinished people, even in works by ethnic American writers. It’s the Americanization or Europeanization that will bring them into fullness of being. Their language needs to be rescued like them. So I wanted the language of my various speakers to have a lyric purity, and for the speakers to speak in poems, to be heard and granted the attention that’s granted to eloquent speech, to poetry itself. Syncopated passages like the ones you quoted, or the ‘alams and psalms, demand rereading and multiple ways of creating meaning. They demand that we create a larger mental space in our minds for the speakers uttering the poems. So I’d say ultimately that’s what I wanted the readers to do: to reread the experiences that I’m chronicling, and the layered sentiments expressed, to acknowledge the complexity of the characters speaking them, to think of them as having sovereignty and authority, and ultimately dignity.
My mother passed away in 2016 as I was immersed in two manuscripts, and I believe it was her passing that made me opt for what became Fugitive Atlas, rather than the other manuscript. She was the child of refugees from Libya who settled in Egypt from the 1920s to the 1950s. She died in Egypt after she and other members of my family who left Benghazi for reprieve. She really wanted to see Egypt before she died, and when she and the family left Benghazi she wanted to go back home. That’s a typical exilic agony. So, in a sense, my family’s flight to Egypt a century ago and their most recent flight out again in 2014 were a reminder: I was a refugee in the U.S. for eleven years before becoming a permanent resident. I did not go back to Libya for 20 years, unsure how the Qaddafi regime would treat me, and for many years I worried about my immigrant status in the U.S. I guess I did not realize how precarious our lives had been, and I mean, we, my family, who have been otherwise fortunate. There was always an awareness of shifting terrains: you can’t go to where you’re from because it’s not safe, and you can’t stay where you are because you’re not wanted. I had been collecting stories about the migrant crisis as part of a large file of stories on Libya, but I’d say that my mother’s passing really opened me and allowed me to embrace the kind of rawness that I was encountering in these stories. The tenderness that you find between the poems emerged from my need for it, and as I assembled the book, from my awareness that the reader needs it too. I don’t think I could have continued to write the poems in Fugitive Atlas if I did not know that there are places for tenderness that I could reach out for in the world, moments to buoy me, and to assure me that kindness exists in abundance, and it’s what we live for.