Upon ending my first year as a graduate student of poetry, it is only natural to start questioning my artistic aesthetic and purpose. A professor once told me that my poetry attempts to capture “the mind at work.” I had yet to understand this phrase until I read Zeina Hashem Beck’s O and found myself submerged in its shameless vaults. Months later, I am still enamored by and pondering the narrative moves in her poem “ode to the afternoon,” where Beck draws us in with hints of a child’s suicidal ideations: “some days i even / threatened to fling my body from the balcony until / my brother with such calm looked at me / dangling from the railing my head thrown backward / & explained you don’t own your soul.” The poem almost abruptly becomes an elegy for her uncle: “my father with his prayer beads / with his cigarette gestured to the driver / taking my uncle to his grave.”
Beck writes through the deafening quiet of a moment’s reflection, imbuing it with the clockwork of mental disarray and the weight of persistent emotion or its absence. The poem “Ode to Lipstick,” starts, “Today you bought a new lipstick. You ate / chocolate, listened to a friend rage about marriage,” and ends up being about the trickiness of deciding to have an abortion as Beck recounts on the same day: “You saw a newborn / in a stroller & weren’t moved.” Later, the unequivocal statement is undone as she revisits the incident, inviting us deeper into the complexity of the decision:
Perhaps you were moved when you saw
the child. Perhaps you’re saying you don’t regret
not having the one that had started inside you
in December. You took the pills. You bled. You cried.
You want an empty uterus, & to dance.
Beck’s desires as a woman and mother are simultaneously confessed artfully; a love of lipstick stealthily evolves into a yearning for freedom, not merely through a one-to-one symbolic reference but through the backroads of associative memory. Thoughts of an abortion are synchronized with other associations of liberation: “Slowly, you conjured the house / the real estate agent showed you: / empty, spacious, full of sun & dust.” Beck reminds us that the brain is an association machine; its connection-making is rarely arbitrary and often comprises a hidden wisdom. In “Poem Beginning & Ending with My Birth,” connections are forged through repetition and an unabating circular tension. Each stanza is a sonnet, with a variation of the last line repeated in the first line of the next stanza. Each repeated line reads uniquely when applied to the next stanza, perhaps in the same way a mother is always, through the womb, connected to a before and after while attempting to construct a unique, untethered self.
The six-page poem does indeed detail the elements of her birth, including her mother’s weariness: “My mother says I sure was heaven-sent / & determined on making her life hell–,” but it also weaves other related events intimating their inevitable entanglement – wartime, the death of an uncle, the burden of familial responsibility – all culminating into a warning: “Don’t you applaud / the sacrifice of mothers, don’t you God / them. Alters are for the dead.” The poem swings back and forth through time, connecting multiple generations of women apprehending inherited trauma: “My daughter, my lovely wreck, my immense, / forgive me this day my daily. Release / me not from anger, from error, but please / know trains run in me.” It is rare that a poem embodies the exact emotional charge of its speaker’s experience, but through an incredible structural and narrative tension, Beck succeeds by writing fearlessly toward an honesty so stark it leaves us readers feeling exposed: “Today she called, said her mother isn’t / dying. Perhaps she should? Didn’t she wolf / most her days? Enough.”
In Sarah Dowling’s Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism, she describes how translingual poetics challenges liberal multiculturalism and settler monolingualism by being “self-consciously situated between languages and […] attends to the complex processes of domination and refusal.” Translingual poetics interrogates the tension between languages as well as the political realities that bore them, while also challenging the unquestioned necessity of appeasing a monolingual reader. Beck’s bilingual poems embody this sentiment by offering us the experience of moving both lyrically and psychologically between languages and by virtue, the necessity of using both to convey a wholeness of meaning. In other words, Beck’s use of multiple languages is not only in the service of realism but also in service of linguistic accuracy. In the poem, “Dear White Critic, Beck writes in Arabic, “لا يداهمني الوقت ولا يغيرني التفسير” which translates to “I am not surprised by time and not tempted by explanations.” The refusal achieves a special nuance in Arabic as the word of negation “لا” feels resolute while still maintaining the energy of a flippant apathy. The somber sentiment, which comes after the English line “This is the first & last poem I speak to you,” animates her frustration with the expectations of a monolingual audience, and the increased emotional access of writing in Arabic: “I’m tired of knocking on the doors of Empires.” Instead of pandering to the monolingual gaze, she includes Arabic as an active disengagement with its restrictions.
Beck’s desire to expand our linguistic consciousness extends to her poems on the body, which do not simply describe the relentless hassle of being policed and policing oneself, although that is very much present too, (“I am afraid of mirrors, & my profile”), but Beck also attempts to abstract the idea of the body to better understand it. In “Ghazal-Ode for My Body,” Beck writes, “It’s always young, it’s always old in my body.” Beck reminds us that being in a body is not a static experience, but an ever-changing phenomenon of imaginative form:
body, body, if you’re form, if you’re space,
if you’re color, matter, light, tool, time,
are you not art? & must I not love you?
When the electricity cuts, must I not
keep reciting my lines in the dark?
The body’s transience is thus felt in tandem with and recognition of other bodies: “The pigeon bumped into my window all morning— / escape? Perseverance? What code in my body?”
Of course, I cannot refer to the theme of the body in Beck’s collection without thinking back to her poem “Say it,”. While the poem is very clearly about an incident of childhood sexual assault, the words “assault,” “sex,” or “rape” are never mentioned. It begins, “a man your grandfather’s age ___ you.” Beck finds a way to say the thing without fully saying it, a way to address it on her own terms, in her own language and in a manner that might free her from the risk and damage of the word’s weight. By the same token, the absence of words also reminds us of how such incidents can endlessly color a person’s worldview and relationship to love: “__give me, father, for I am ravenous & __. / I __this world so much I want to __ it.”
Abstraction is a tool for many of us interested in writing “the mind at work” and Beck masters this tool most prominently in her poems about Beirut. In “prophecy,” Beck writes in Arabic “the city does not remember anybody.” Beck’s genius is in her ability to hold both a seemingly abstracted and anthropomorphized notion of the city– as an entity that is remembered but also remembers back– while also concretizing it.
A city is, in a poet’s sense of the word, a romantic concept. A real city, is, as Beck reminds us, “the old house,” “bird carcass trapped between wall & flowerpot,” and “the 8:00 pm clatter of pots and pans.” But all these things can and do exist without us. The city has a unique way of moving on while remaining politically stagnant, inviting the people’s fury. As Beck writes in “Revolution Song”: “Close the classrooms and open the tents, / bring vinegar and cloth, bring your hurt and your tongue, / let it wreck and awaken and enthrall, this revolution.” Our contentious relationship with the “city” is reconstructed in the poem “Souk” as Beck throws the city’s rejection back in its face:
And so I, of this city,
I who stand on stages and name this city,
deny this city at the old gate of the city.
Even if the city in memory is an imagined one, its rejection is always palpable– both personally and politically. Beck reminds us in her poems on Beirut, that both the abstract and concrete city never stop being refuge and problem, beacons of both guilt and hope. At the dermatologist’s office, Beck is asked “where / do you return.” Instead of responding with a place, she replies in terms of time: “I say too often and not enough.”
Finishing O felt like ending a long, much-needed conversation with an old friend. I am envious of Beck’s courage to eschew posturing or writing through a pseudo-philosophical lens or as an oracle with ready-to-dole-out wisdom. Rather, Beck is interested in the quotidian irony and insight of associative memory: inexplicable illness and itchiness, a woman not liking how she looks in pajamas, the sprawl of the bougainvillea, an ambiguous spirituality, the absurdity of spraining her ankle while her daughter endures a lung infection, taking headshots in a city she’s abandoned, and, of course, the recalcitrant grandmother who continues to uninvitedly reign over your adult life.
Beck reminds us that the mind at work is also the heart at work. She reminds us that language is a body, and that we should embrace poetry as the appropriate avenue for experiencing and recording the unexpected interrelations of life no matter how strange or soft or idealistic: “It matters what we tell ourselves, / so we tell ourselves / We are here we are here we are here.”
Maha Ahmed is an English Literature & Creative Writing PhD candidate at the University of Houston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grist, The Adroit Journal, 580 Split, Rusted Radishes, The Recluse, and elsewhere. She loves talking about the Arab-American diaspora, late capitalism, World Literature, translation, and inter-religious history. She is currently the poetry editor at Rusted Radishes and absolutely adores the gig. Find her on twitter @mahaahmed81.