‘Louder than Hearts has it all’, writes Betsy Sholl, judge of the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize, ‘compelling language and a sense of moral gravitas […] the ability to address a larger world with passion and artfulness’. High praise, though not at all mistaken in describing Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck’s second collection, which brings together new and selected poems from her earlier chapbook 3arabi Song: also a winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize. Interspersing longer, narrative sequences (‘Naming Things’, ‘Khandaq Mon Amour’) with formal experiments on shape poems, text messages, ghazals, and even mathematical equations, Louder than Hearts is a brilliant, daring addition to a growing corpus of work that celebrates our shared present while bearing witness to shared pain.
The volume is divided into four sections – Shafaq (‘twilight’), Ya’aburnee (‘you bury me’), Ahwak (‘I love you’), and Adhan (‘call to prayer’) – which trace a loose narrative from mourning into light. The poems in Shafaq are perhaps closest to the book’s epicentre of war and displacement, and are, accordingly, among the collection’s most powerful. One example is ‘Listen’, a pair of shape poems that narrow gracefully at their waist; the second having the same lines as the first but in reverse order. What we see (and hear) is a carefully reconstructed, slowly widening scene of disaster in slow-motion: ‘It explodes, / the mosque, this Friday, / the laundry, the domes of / boys’ arms, the sumac…’ Though the poem isn’t given a location, the sense of dislocation in its wake is given so tangible a setting that it seems to be a place in itself: ‘viscous, this August heat, the city, the day’. Several pages later, in ‘Ghazal: The Dead’, Beck places her finger bravely on the hurt and confusion of the aftermath:
‘Your father stared at his mother’s tombstone, lifted
his palms like food, like forgiving the dead.
You wanted to linger, to listen, to dance beside
their voices, this believing, the dead.
Death is held close, personalized: violence does not allow Beck’s narrators the luxury of abstraction.
But not all tragedies occur with the same suddenness or force. Beck pays equal attention to the quieter calamities of sickness and age, and narrates in one of the collection’s longer poems (‘3amto’) the gradual processes of losing a loved one. ‘The gallstones are bright, / almost beautiful, almost good for a necklace’, she writes (the repeated ‘almost’ gesturing insistently to something unfulfilled), ‘come visit me more often, not just / when I’m sick’. Although this loss takes place more slowly than in the tragic events of the earlier poems, it is not without some of the same hurt and confusion, wrought in this case by distance rather than disaster: ‘what was that you said? / sorry / the line isn’t good / yes it’s very late’. Across continents, ‘bullets or no bullets’, time and technology wreak a violence of their own.
As Beck has written elsewhere, though, ‘sorrow is not all that we are’ – and there is, in these marvellous pages, ‘something that celebrates, too’. Some of the most moving anthems are found in Ahwak, but in truth the collection’s two latter segments fit together like a couplet of sorts: surprise followed by stability, praise and then prayer. Grounded, as always, in detailed observation, Beck records and hymns the ordinary gifts of physicality, motherhood, and living between two languages; a way of walking us through her world: ‘This way, / I showed you, my arm like a small bridge, / this place…’ (‘My Non-Arabic Lover and I Take the Train’). Old and new, broken and whole, the figures of the city and the woman switch places in her deft lines, holding within each poem an invitation (‘In the garden of our language, a beggar / is he who waits to reap a kiss / at my door’) and a song (‘In the currency of love, her teeth / are pearls’ – ‘Qudud Variations’). To the reader, arriving at these truths after the emotional assault of the book’s opening sections, they seem infinitely more precious. But of course they, and their poet(s), have been with us for centuries: ‘the woman in me is thousands / of years old,’ writes Beck in the title poem, ‘her voice louder / than hearts and derbakkehs’.
It is a challenge to bring any collection of this tonal, formal and geographical range to a close, but Beck’s choice of the poem ‘Adhan’ – which, like the call to prayer it describes, lives in both universal and particular worlds – is pitch-perfect. Tracing the adhan as it ‘lifts / your head from your pillow […] pulls / you from sleep like a bucket from a dark / well’, to its slow unfurling across the city, reaching ‘the gutters, the babies in their cots, the thieves…’, the poem is in every way a gesture towards the sacred: yet not only that which resides in mosques and scriptures but also in the ‘lover’s arm, the book on your bedside table, / your cigarette pack, your blanket…’ A reply, of sorts, to Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Prayer’ or Larkin’s gloomier ‘Aubade’, though in quite a different language of beauty and hope. ‘Yes, I heard you.’ It is a hard-won comfort. ‘Hallelujah. Amen. Amen.’
By Theophilus Kwek
Louder Than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck (Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2017), £12.00