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Self Portrait, Variations at Christmas

"New Country" by Melissa Chimera

Remember the name your parents gave you

has plenty of shade. Rest in it.

Zeina Hashem Beck

 

In the cold wind we walk the ruins of Byblos,

the harbor below us, the razor edge of

a rough sea in the distance whips up dark clouds

overhead. There is the Temple of the Obelisk,

and nearby, the holy church of St. John the Baptist.

We rush to catch up with the woman wearing jeans and

a sweater, hair wild in the drizzle.  The guide

of this place, we see her just as she sweeps the ancient

stone wall with her finger tips, hand to her heart--

just as she says the Canaanites, called Phoenicians

by the Greeks, buried their children in earthen jars

here, the men and women in sand graves. Says again

our ancestors were Canaanite.  Though an American,

my people a hundred years removed from this land,

I should have known that. We Lebanese, she says,

share 93% of our DNA with those who lived here

4000 years ago: the Moabites, Israelites and

Phoenicians.  Genome sequencing proves

an unbroken bloodline. So it seems certain that

my ancestors worshipped the Canaanite god

Baal, an iron statue of a man, head & horns of a bull—

his hands raised up, holding a lightning bolt,

fearsome god of fire, wind and fertility.

But how did those mothers, surely loving their

newborns, offer them up to that ritual fire,

to the searing lap of that god and expect a blessing?

So much ash and carnage under our feet

everywhere.  All at once the lashing rain

has us running into an alcove, a split rock—

open palm of supplication and the loud sound of

rain pouring down, the violent shudder of thunder—

the song of all your wanting, not unlike Blake’s

O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How the news crushes us daily.

Who can make sense of it—children barrel-bombed

in the hospitals of Aleppo, in Gaza, Sanaa and Baghdad,

a school bus blown up in the streets of Beirut,

twisted steel and a child’s broken toy—

all offered up to the gods of darkness.  Still,

we carry the home we need with us

like a floating red scarf in the night wind,

remember our names, remember to rest in that shade.

My mother used to say, our name in Arabic,

Njaim, means star. Burning hydrogen into helium

for light, a name that calls up the vast night sky,

a sky that has no borders to suffer,

that receives the breath of all the dying alike

into that spinning wind of living energy.

Contributor
Adele Nejame

Adele Nejame has lived in Hawaii since 1969. Her parents were both born in Beirut. She visited Lebanon for the first time in 2009 which she says was a longed for homecoming. She has published four books of poems, including Field Work (Petronium Press 1996), Poems, Land & Spirit (Sharjah Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates & Bidoun Press, 2009), and The South Wind, (Manoa Books & El Leon Literary Arts, 2011). Her work has appeared in many international journals including American Nature Writing, Ploughshares, Nimrod, Denver Quarterly, Poetry Kanto and Hawaii Pacific Review as well as in Arab American anthologies, including Inclined to Speak. Her poems were recently exhibited as broadsides at the Sharjah, United Arab Emirates International Biennial. She has taught poetry and literature at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (as Poet-in-Residence); she currently teaches at Hawaii Pacific University. Her literary honors include a Pablo Neruda prize for poetry Academy of American Poets’ prizes, the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry.

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