Poetry review: Plunging humanity’s depths in “Book of Sins”

Nidaa Khoury is a widely-known Palestinian poet with seven collections already published in Arabic and translated into multiple languages. Born in the village of Fassouta located in the upper Galilee region, Khoury is a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University. She is also active in political and humanitarian causes, including founding the Association for Survival, a nongovernmental organization for minorities in Israel. Khoury has been an active participant in poetry and human rights conferences all over the world.

Book of Sins is the first time her writing is available in English, and as such marks a significant accomplishment in the effort to bring Arab writers to an English audience. In keeping with the poet’s multi-layered identity, the volume also includes the original Arabic as well as a Hebrew translation, affording readers lucky enough to be fluent in all these languages a rare opportunity.

The opening poem, “Altar of Freedom,” draws the reader into a deeply personal, mystical space. Khoury’s voice rises somberly from the page, summoning a creative power that feels ancient and pagan:

Come to my shadow
Garner your light
Proceed out of the dark
O bride of spirit rise forth from the ink
Leaf through the pages
Coupling with the pen,
Conceiving by the letter
Forming bread from droplets
All language hungers for
O barren poetess
Enshrouding birth
In a page of white
Enlighten us! (3)

If the poem leaves the reader a little unsettled, it is intentional. The promise being made is of desperation, of mysteries and hidden forces, of chthonic powers threatening to subsume: “The devil in his eyes proposes/An advance to the Garden/with his own hands he/Slays my abstinence/And his panting overpowers him” (4).

This is a world of thickly layered metaphors in which language is the bread of life, it is something born, it is itself living, needed, and bloody: “I weave my veins/Into a forbidden embrace” (3).

With this opening, the tone is set. Khoury’s poems mystify, provoke, torment, nourish, wound, exhaust, revive. The collection is divided into four parts called “Embers of the Water,” “Map of Flames,” “The Naked Woodchopper” and “Struggle of the White.” These oblique titles mirror the poetry itself, which inhabits a space that is both tangible, with recurring imagery of blood and roses, rivers and bread, sky and earth, but also richly metaphorical, in that these images take on layer upon layer of meanings that shift from one poem to the next.

The poet’s fierce struggle with her craft that is evoked in “Altar of Freedom” remains a powerful undercurrent throughout the volume. Often the poems are infused with an immense sadness and frustration, as in the last poem in the “Embers of the Water” section, in which her invocation has apparently gone unheeded: “Sick of you, river/with your silence and longsuffering/ … / Sick of you, go now/Let me fall through/Dooms of shadow” (16).

In other instances, the battle she wages with herself is spirited, challenging: “They have prepared you a scalded woman/Who savors the pain of the wind/Bursts the bounds and bites the open spaces” (“Porthole to the East,” p 11). Here, the painfulness of her struggle is actually the source of her immense power, raising another of the themes threaded throughout Khoury’s poetry, that of female suppression and resistance, as in “Rebellion”: “I rebel to obliterate/The maps of sand/Running through his fingers/I revel in his hand/He subdues me/Declares me dust and sin/I rebel against/Air and water/Breaching my rebellion/To worship/The freedom I call ‘poetry’ ” (32).

As in all her poems, these lines contain multiple meanings. “He” is the creative force with which she does battle; “he” is the man of the house trying to enforce his will; “he” is maleness itself, that domineering force that oppresses and restricts. The reference to maps echoes the title of the “Map of Flames” section, thus conjuring the repeating imagery of maps, land/body, war, and again, male control of those spheres.

Khoury’s verse is at times so obscure as to defy understanding, as if the poet’s self has plunged so deeply into the abyss in search of its own origin that no one else can follow. Even so, there are times when her words pay a visit to the ordinary world, resulting in such brilliant and devastating poems as “The Time is Over,” in which drumming, repeated lines describe day after day, year after year of the newscaster offering the same fare, numbing the viewer, numbing himself: “Until his time is over and he forgets the weather forecast/And I, too, forget to tell him/That these people, in this country/Every day/Are dying” (31).

The poet’s inner solitude, suicidal misery and almost hallucinatory quest to express herself mirrors the outer panorama of bloodshed and devastation, which is equally as incomprehensible and unbearable. “Generations were born in war/And war is language,” Khoury writes in “Portal to the Orient” (79). She obliterates primary meanings of words with a kind of savagery, as if mirroring the violence. “I can’t abide more/Blooming of roses in my veins/Chiseled from the collar bone to the jugular/I awaken all wet/The figure crumbled in the carving/I crumble” (“Beds of Rain,” 62).

Just as there seems to be no end to the cycles of violence, so does her own despair return time and again, driving her to the edge of suicide: “Wholeness through annihilation/An absence that gives meaning to life/Where the beginning shall be the end” (“Offering,” 46). It is the poet’s lot to heap words against mortality, and feel, always, the wretched futility: “Surging out of my cursed mouth/There were waves/That penetrated my remains/Dug deep in my ruins/Wrote the myth of nothing” (“Dare Not Write,” 73).

Book of Sins is not a myth of nothing, though; these searing poems may testify to the poet’s anguished struggle, but they are also its precious yield. The political and personal seep into one another in verse that taps into that burning core at the center, the life-force, the spirit. Her last poem, “Portal to the Orient,” mirrors the incantatory voice of her first invocation: “In the name of Allah, I testify/As a daughter of the Orient/Daughter of pain, granddaughter of the caliphs/In the name of Allah I tell you/I was slain by my dying mother/Who was slain by hers/Who was slain within the matrix of our nation/being woman-born” (76).

“Portal to the Orient” is the longest poem in the collection, and reads like an incantation delivered straight from a fiery source that is ancient, feminine, hypnotizing and potent. It is the answer to the first poem, the divine gift granted. As well it should be, for Nidaa Khoury is mighty in her courage to seek the inmost truths of life, and in her endurance of the agonizing solitude and despair that define her craft. “To anyone who feels a stranger in his home,” the volume’s dedication reads, “and alone though surrounded by family.” It is a somber reminder that such moving and resonant poetry comes at a price, one that should be accorded our deepest respect and awe.

Patricia Sarrafian Ward is a writer and book artist. Her novel The Bullet Collection was published by Graywolf Press in 2003, and her stories and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals.