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In ‘Home,’ Pensive Poetry Brings Disparate Worlds Together

4.5 Stars

Cover art of "Home."
Cover art of "Home." By Courtesy of Center for the Art of Translation
By Daniel S. de Castro, Contributing Writer

“Home,” released this September by Two Lines Press, is an anthology of pensive poems written by nine writers from the Arabic-speaking world. The book contains both the Arabic originals and their English translations, put together by a litany of translators with impressive resumes. But while many readers may immediately be daunted –– or even outright turned off –– by an unabashedly literary work containing English printed side-by-side with a language foreign to many Americans, this collection makes for an unimposing and rather quick and relaxing read. It is also so much more than just that.

As is usually the case with poetry, the true substance of the work lies not in the words used themselves –– or, for that matter, the language they are written in –– but in the thoughts they engender. “Home” is no different. Indeed, its true beauty lies in the way in which its poems reveal to the English-speaking reader that the minds giving life to these observations and these ideas – those minds living in worlds so far away and for some so hard to imagine – are not so different from their own.

It is the theme underlying the anthology that makes this mission so effective. On its back cover, “Home” proudly announces its goal of celebrating “language and its power to transform, expand, and enchant even the most familiar surroundings,” and celebrate it does. From exhaling on a mirror in a bathroom full of steam, to watching a woman sit still with her eyes fixed on a clothesline, to a silent, rainy night with a lover in Bordeaux, the moments described in each poem seem frozen in time, woven together with slow, soft, almost dream-like imagery. Indeed, it is this imagery that dominates and gives life to the anthology, lending the work a mood that is still, peaceful, quiet, and even a bit somber.

It creates an atmosphere that is ripe for reflection, with the abundant white space on each page adding to this effect. Likewise, the lack of rhyme throughout the collection prevents any of the poems from taking on a lyricism or song-like quality that would detract from their meditative character. The result is a calming and relaxing experience, one that, with all of today’s distractions, has become somewhat of a rarity.

Perhaps what makes so compelling the images presented by the poets in “Home” is how familiar they feel. Many of them seem drawn from those moments in life when one gives second thought to what have always seemed like the most trivial of details — moments from which a new and sometimes revolutionary perspective is often born. In this way, “Home” is perfectly suited for the modern world, where it is so easy to forget the simple act of thinking whilst lost in the doldrums of routine.

As one moves further through the anthology, reading at the leisurely pace to which it so well lends itself, the serene, almost surreal images of the first poems give way to those that ask deeper, more profound questions about topics ranging from good and evil to death and divorce. For the most part, these weightier motifs –– expressed with very appreciable skill by the poets –– are incorporated well by the editors, and they enhance the work by giving it philosophical undertones that go beyond the refreshingly astute observations of the quotidian that already make the anthology so enjoyable.

There is one poem, however, that while included in this vein of bringing deeper themes into the work, hurts “Home” more than it helps it. Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein’s “A Marseillaise for the Neutron Age” is too abrasive and too cynical to mesh well with the rest of the anthology. While its condemnation and lamentation of the modern age, touted by the editors, may well have been prescient when the poem was written in the mid-20th century, its message is far too trite in 2020 to be worthy of much appreciation.

But this is a minor and forgivable slip-up. On the whole, “Home” lends its readers an experience that is at once fluid and thought-provoking, one that makes it easy to lose track of time and, more importantly, context. Indeed, the images provoked and questions asked by the poets of “Home” are so pertinent to modern America that at times the only reminder that these same poets hail from a radically different culture is the Arabic text printed on every even page. But that is the point: by the end of the anthology, the American reader is left to wonder how different this culture really is from his own. The poets’ suggestion? Less than the reader might think.

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