Assistant Editor Spencer Hupp discusses two new chapbooks by poets Carl Phillips and Khaled Mattawa.
Khaled Mattawa’s newest release is a chapbook called Mare Nostrum, “our sea” in Latin. Fitting, as the poems here so often have a tidal effect, a weird grace and gravity, prone to calm eyed clarity and delayed resolutions. Consider “Psalm Under Siege” (a title shared by two poems in the collection) and how it motors from violence (“Speak the jet fighter’s contrails // its screech and roar of barrel bombs”) to the brief sanity of quiet:
Reeds shoot up from its shores,
sununu hop in between, chirping
when the shellings pause
One might hear in it Wallace Stevens’s “Autumn Refrain” where the “Skreak and skritter of evening gone / And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun” echoes in the “screech and roar of barrel bombs,” twinning the horror of civilian airstrikes to the fact of time and a day’s ending. The relief of the regular is deferred in this collection, a fact that’s rendered architecturally. “With Lines Taken from Walt Whitman” closes thus:
Whatever the bids of the bidders,
none of your brothers
will exceed a 100 quid.
Here, Mattawa’s speaker delays the implied, anticipated rhyme for “bidders”; a sonic match exists somewhere between “brothers” and “quid,” but the rhyme rings incomplete in both. Such deferral helps Mattawa to exploit rhyme’s ambiguities, to set his subjects’ specificity against the easy satisfactions of and generalizations implicit in the expected.
This formal acuity is thus in service to Mattawa’s larger project, which is to name places and peoples back into being. His poems, in large part, are of the greater Arab world—Mattawa himself is of Libyan extraction—and occupy such spaces as “locust-ravaged Iblid” in Syria, and Alexandria, Egypt, “the bride of the Med.” These places are too much in time, their antiquity increasingly at odds with the present. “Qassida to the Statue of Sappho in Mytelini” asks its subject:
Why do your eyes glare
your stone body dim,
a paper lamp trembling in the breeze?
Sappho’s statue, “lifeless . . . dim,” contrasts with the light and potential of the airborne paper lamp, such that the statue forgets itself; here, the lamp is more poet than Sappho. This poem is, however paradoxically, an attempt against erasure, a half-cure to those for whom “no rescue / could pause time grating at their memories.” Time, trauma, and dislocation will take their toll. This poem gives the conditional hope of one “glad to be home again, not quite at ease.” Home is home as ever, and always complicated. Mattawa wrangles some needed grace from those gaps and complications, but knows it’s not quite enough. That honest hesitation, the double-bind of futility, is quietly dignified, but never resigned. This book has a fully human writer at his most humane.
Carl Phillips’s Star Map with Action Figures is a triumph of the sentence. I can think of few better than this from the close of “To Lie Down, to Wear Nothing at All”: “Almost lavender, the captain’s eyes are, in this light.” By delaying the subject, “the captain’s eyes,” initial emphasis falls on “lavender,” its shade and smell, allowing a sly sensory detonation. Phillips’s sentences more often unspool slowly, as in “We Turn Here,” where a single sentence settles the poem’s eight lines in seven clauses, turning, as it were, through another seven keenly timed enjambments, “each wave eventually / indistinguishable from the wave before.” These poems and their author, however, don’t generalize. Rather, each poem retains—insists upon—its own syntax. They are therefore unrepentantly self-asserting; every one declares its separate construction.
These poems also ring with ample music. Two sentences from “And Swept All Visible Signs Away”—“I think. / I am stirred, I’m stir-able, I’m a wind-stirred thing”—prove both the power of syntactic contrast (a two-word sentence depends on one that rewrites itself three times) and that of phonetic resonance, how “stirred” attaches to both “able” and “wind,” how “think” echoes in “thing.” That revision is a self-assertion as well that the speaker may change, that what he says may be more than one of the same thing at once.
I’m rarely moved more than I was by “Wake Up” and its fantasy of loss. It opens on a “road down from everything even you had hardly dared / to hope for,” and then a falconer loses his falcon. The route is Dante into Yeats, but the effect is pure Phillips, whose speaker winds up in a half-lit cathedral where the “weight of grief over what’s lost” contends with “the shadow of what’s lost”; the knowledge of grief, and grief’s effect, are separate things. He allows those things to exist and breathe on their own, and meaningfully separates otherwise dependent categories. This fracturing of parts with an ear toward congruity is what makes an interesting sentence. The poem closes on one: “I have a story, the falcon says, seems to, the wings lifting, the feathers / rippling with a story’s parts—I have a story; I can’t wait to tell you.” Many poets write on memory, its desire and despair, but few writers write so well of it, and fewer still are able to successfully foster it toward not only narrative but also toward beauty, where it belongs.