When my American partner is overseas, her side of the bed tends to become a bureau, an odds-and-ends bowl, and a library (sometimes also a snack cupboard). Books press against me like a body pillow, not because it’s comfortable, but because my reading habits change. They keep stranger and longer hours. They ask for greater, perhaps distracting discontinuity between genres and styles and narratives. They ask, in short, for a lot of courtesies, unsustainable courtesies, and I grant them.
Omar Sakr’s first poetry collection, These Wild Houses, impressed me with the range and vulnerability of its lyric voice—at times prophetic, at times heartrendingly immature. Sakr’s follow-up collection, The Lost Arabs, admits the reader into deeper, more troubling, and more beautiful confidences. The central occupation of the book, and of Sakr’s practice more broadly, is identity in an othered body: what it means for the poet to write through the lens of Sydney’s Arab-Australian diaspora; what it means to grow up Muslim and bisexual and how it inflects poetic inquiry; how ongoing violence in the Arab world, often fanned by Western involvement, operates as a collective trauma the poet carries and writes towards. How to heed the urge, I feel Sakr asking, to find music in such pain, a lyric unity, and how also to interrogate, critique this urge?
The answer is a capacious poetry that is as at home in minute particulars—’I tore the stuffing out of a bus seat/when the memories first transformed me’ (‘No Goldblum, No Matter’)—as it is in universals: ‘You can’t backdate love, it destroys/history, which is all that I have & so/like any man, want to abandon’ (‘How to be a son’). Sakr’s gift for taut, suggestive enjambment, coupled with his willingness to advance bold, sometimes contentious statements about the interior and exterior worlds, bears comparison to the American poet Kaveh Akbar, to whom a poem in The Lost Arabs is addressed. It’s a collection of rare intimacy—a collection as a site of romantic belonging, of fortification, yet conscious in a thoroughly contemporary way of the rewards as well as the shortcomings of its own construction: ‘I never want to arrive at a sweetened language,/or to speak the unfindable word, my sole desire/is to hold it between my teeth, and to be held’ (‘Self-Portrait of Poetry Defending Itself’).
Valeria Luiselli is for me one of those writers who makes it difficult to return to the contrivances of lesser fiction; like looking over the edge of a boat after removing your polaroid sunglasses, you’ve lost the depths, and must amuse yourself with the surface. Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive, is the first she’s written in English (her other books have been translated from the Spanish) yet feels at the same time her most personal. I’ve read the first third, which is narrated by a sound archivist and wife and mother; this section masterfully renders the intricacies of how personal vocation, and personhood in general, plays out in the dynamic theatre of the young family. Always the prose is sensuous, cerebral, swaggering, harmonic, vital. Luiselli’s eye for detail, for getting in character and atmosphere as Ford Madox Ford might have said, pierces like a laser: ‘In the terraced cafés,’ the narrator says of Ashville, North Carolina, ‘we see pale young men with long beards, and lovely girls with feathered hair and freckled cleavages.’
Perhaps most crucially, literature itself becomes a form of archiving, an archiving of the soul. In this respect and in its focus on violence around the US/Mexican border, Lost Children Archive echoes Bolaño’s 2666, one of the myriad works of art catalogued in the text. But there the comparisons cease. Luiselli, at such a young age, has become one of her medium’s most original and elegant defenders:
A match struck alight in a dark hallway, the lit tip of a cigarette smoked in bed at midnight, embers in a dying chimney: none of these things has enough light of its own to reveal anything. Neither do anyone’s words. But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know. And that recognition and coming to terms with darkness is more valuable than all the factual knowledge we may ever accumulate (60).
Not long ago, I was reading the wonderful Poems for the Millennium anthology and
these lines made me gasp:
The August moon glitters in the kitchen
like a pewter pot (it becomes like this because of what I tell you)
it lights up the empty house and the kneeling silence of the house—
always the silence remains kneeling.
They’re from a poem called ‘The Meaning of Simplicity’ by Yannis Ritsos, translated from the Greek by Kimon Friar, Edmund Keeley, and Thanasis Maskaleris. This exquisite balancing act—of address and silence, narrative and repetition, hard detail and the ineffable—led me to buy Ritsos’s Selected Poems (Boa Editions, various translators), and you should buy it too. What’s perhaps most striking about the book overall is its range: Ritsos’s vast corpus—only a fraction, my PhD supervisor tells me, translated into English—spans countless modes, voices, registers, and attitudes to the line. You might move from the stark Exile’s Journals, which Ritsos wrote between 1948 and 1950 while a political prisoner following the Greek Civil War (‘We pretend not to see./We light the lamp.’) to ‘Helen,’ a sprawling persona poem in which the aged speaker reflects on the fall of Troy from her deathbed: ‘let’s just stir the ashes/of the fireplace,/now and then making long thin lovely burial urns/or sit down on the ground and beat it with soundless palms.’
For me, however, the greatest pleasure in reading Ritsos comes from what I would describe as the poet’s insertion of ritual or ceremony into small, quiet human acts. Coursing through his work is a current of the sacred that can either be honoured or profaned, dismissed as incomprehensible or heeded in its incomprehensibility. Doubtless Ritsos’s Greece, with its cultural interweaving of ancient and modern, individual and mythic, played a primary role in shaping this aspect of the poet’s style; I’m no expert, but it’s hard to imagine that country at the birth of the Western world more thoroughly and beautifully evoked in the oeuvre of one writer. From ‘Need to Express’: ‘Anyway, the striking/of that ring on the stones as though it were counting something,/something that should be counted, that it might result at evening/in the same odd number written on the back of the door.’ And from ‘Return’:
A man returned alone, looked around,
took out his key, stuck it in the earth
as though entrusting it to some underground hand,
as though planting a tree. Then he ascended
the marble stairs and looked down over the city.
Warily, one by one, the statues were returning.
Freud would have called such irruptions of the ritualistic in the everyday uncanny, in the pejorative sense that westerners had yet to fully evolve out of the ‘primitive’ superstitions of their forbears. I would call them poetic, which is to say analogical, animistic—poetry in our society being one of the few discourses in which it’s still permitted to speak to a receptive universe, ironic as our tone might be, embarrassing as it may feel, and perhaps even expect an answer. Standing on our current environmental cliff-edge, we could do worse things than to listen. Ritsos, like Sakr and Luiselli, helps show us how.
Anders Villani is the author of Aril Wire (Five Islands Press, 2018). Born in Melbourne, he holds an MFA from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where he received the Delbanco Prize for poetry. Also a two-time winner of the John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers, he is currently a PhD candidate at Monash University. www.andersvillani.com.