“Words flower from fragile bodies”: the poignant poetry of Lisa Suheir Majaj

Cover of <em>Geographies of Light</em>

Geographies of Light is Palestinian-American Lisa Suheir Majaj’s first full-length poetry collection, and was the winner of the 2008 Del Sol Press Poetry Prize. While it was published a few years ago, this book deserves continued attention for its powerful and moving evocation of the Palestinian experience.

Majaj was born in Iowa and raised in Jordan, studied in Lebanon and the US, and currently lives in Cyprus. Her poetry has been widely published in literary journals and in two chapbooks, These Words and What She Said. She has also co-edited several scholarly essay collections on gender, writing and Arab identity: Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist, Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers and Intersections: Gender, Nation and Community in Arab Women’s Novels.

In Geographies of Light, Majaj writes exquisitely of the profound personal and collective loss that defines Palestinian history. Using intimate and compellingly honest, unaffected language that will be accessible to even the most reluctant readers of poetry, she shares her grief over lost loved ones, her anguish over past and continued violence, and her deeply humanistic longing for words to bring justice, to replenish, and to heal.

At first, she is reluctant to set out on this painful journey. In the opening poem, “Reunion,” the dead appear in her kitchen, demanding attention. She tells them to go away, but her mother tries to press a figurine into her hands, her father a T-shirt filled with earth from Palestine, “mumbling something about loss, / remembrance, Palestinian inheritance” (3). By the end, she is alone again, sipping bitter black coffee, the drink of funerals, “my mouth fills with dregs: / coarse, bittersweet, earth-dark, / dense as unclaimed memory” (4).

The earth of Palestine fills her mouth, and she is compelled to remember, to speak, because not to do so is no longer an option. Her words generate from this earth, this tragic history that is inescapable, driving her to seek the understanding she has longed for since childhood. “I was the child in the doorway, watching / I was the child who saw her turn silently away / I was the child who understood nothing” (5), she writes of her mother in “Homemaking.” Her incomprehension and desire to somehow make things right is poignantly rendered:

I would be a pillow at the small of her back,
a glass of cold water on a tray,
a cloth shielding her from the sun.
I would be a dictionary
holding all the languages known and unknown.
I would save everything. (5-6)

This volume of poetry, born of that long-ago child’s need, gradually pieces together details of her personal experience within the larger context of Palestinian history. Grouped into seven sections, the poems flow seamlessly one to the next, meandering across time and space.

A terrible gap between past and present

In the beginning Majaj searches for the strength and means to undertake her task. The sound of the ney (the Middle Eastern flute) threads her childhood in Jordan to her life in Lebanon and beyond: “I have been searching since / the seven hills of Amman / … for a high note / trembling” (“Two Flutes,” 9). In the stunning poem “What She Said,” she illuminates the terrible gap between long-ago Palestine and the present, when children must be wary of soldiers and hide indoors:

Kan ya ma kan — there was and there was not — a land called Falastine
where children played in the streets
and in the fields and in the orchards
Kan ya ma kan. Keep your head down.” (11)

Gradually, Majaj finds the strength to claim the memories pressed upon her by the dead. “I Remember My Father’s Hands,” she titles one poem, listing all the reasons that culminate in “because when I look at my hands / his own speak back.” (12)

When writing about the birth of her daughter in “Origins,” Majaj sees herself in a new way: “I look at myself in the mirror, I who am fractured at the core, yet whole inside my skin and in my heart.” (14)

Having claimed her identity, she is able to move forward: “Years I’ve traveled the byways/of language, searching for that doorway — / light spilling over the threshold. / … Once a poet read lines so beautiful / I knew I could follow her down / the hardest road without faltering. / My feet grew tired, but I remembered my name” (15).

The road Majaj follows is the hardest indeed, and she does not falter. She brings us close into the deeply intimate moments of her life such as tending to her mother as she lay dying. She writes of the war in Lebanon, her flight from there, her uprootedness mirroring the exile of her forebears. Of her grandmother, she writes, “Bahiyeh was like all / the old ones, longing / for earth and the light / off al-Aqsa, olive trees / rooted on hills” (59). Bahiyeh wants to be buried in her childhood land, but her corpse is desecrated by Israeli soldiers who think it conceals contraband. “What light / remained in her bones / still beyond desecrating hands / shone hidden / and private. … Bahiyeh’s bones lie buried in girlhood / soil. You watch for / that steady emanation / of light. You learn / how to wait / after planting” (61).

Earth and regeneration

The repeating imagery of earth and regeneration reminds us of the land itself and those who were forced to flee and make lives elsewhere. But while Majaj is unflinching in her accounts of injustices and loss, a note of resilience and hope resonates throughout. In “Stone Fence,” she recalls gardening with her parents and her grandmother’s cooking, then continues, “That was years ago. Now they’re all gone, all of them. Chinks in me fill with voices like green things sprouting, wisps of life between rocks. Birds drop seed, soil collects in pockets.” She perceives herself on the earth, held there by gravity, “From how many lives? I build myself up as I go” (36).

It is as if the poems themselves are seedlings pressing their way upward, and over the course of the volume a change takes place. Whereas in the first poem her mouth is filled with earth and bitterness, later she writes, “Yet on my tongue a seed / lies dormant, dense with life. / Unspoken years / fill my mouth like citrus / in winter — sharp promise / of sun” (“In Season,” 32). Language is the means by which the past can be restored, and is also a source of life, of moving forward.

“Today his words surround me,” she writes of her father earlier in the same poem, “with the quiet intensity of growing things / roots planted a long time ago” (31).

“Bone stuck to balconies”

Majaj’s achingly personal recollections give way to searing poems about war and violence. At first she questions her faith in the power of words. “Fragments of bone stuck to balconies / the word made flesh / breath splintered like shrapnel … we have unlearned how to speak to one another / torn to flesh, what words can mend us? … our words flower from fragile bodies / sway on slender stalks / mouths tilted upward for the rain” (“Rain,” 86-7).

This longing is answered by “Fifty Years On,” the longest poem in the volume, a mesmerizing, unforgettable, beautiful eulogy. “Fifty years on / I am trying to tell the story / of what was lost / before my birth / of what was there …/… before my father clamped his teeth / hard / on the pit of exile / slammed shut the door to his eyes” (88). Majaj writes of villages destroyed, of children dying at the roadside, of exiles still in shock. This poem with its brilliant fusion of personal with collective experience stands as a heartbreaking testament to a history brushed aside in textbooks and newspapers. “Fifty years on / the words push through / a splintered song / forced out one note / at a time” (90).

Majaj exhorts the reader to wake up, pay attention to the present as well. She writes of Rachel Corrie, the war in Iraq, the brutality of the occupation. “These words are for Rana,” she writes of a pregnant 18-year-old who was turned away at a checkpoint, an action which led to her death and that of her unborn child. “These words are for you, and me / for the lives we cherish,” she insists, forcing us to acknowledge our collective humanity (“These Words,” 98-9). Her exhortation reaches an apex in “Cyclones and Seeds,” when she describes the heinous murder by Israeli soldiers of a 14-year-old boy, continuing:

don’t tell me you believe them
that you hadn’t heard
that you’re too busy to protest
that you couldn’t do anything anyway
that the powers-that-be never listen
so what if we’re shouting into a storm […]
freedom is a seed a plant a prayer a chant a cyclone
it grows in hard places
courses through the bones
like light a song a sound a voice
a river of voices
bearing us forward
winged seeds upon the storm (108)

In the last poem of the volume, wryly titled “Practicing Loving Kindness,” Majaj writes, “Bless cynicism. Bless hope. / Bless the fingers that type … /… Bless poetry books that cross oceans / in battered envelopes, / bearing small flames of words” (125). Majaj has said that poetry should give people something to hold onto in the midst of despair, and this timely and beautifully rendered volume without question achieves this.

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. Her book arts installation Re/Vision is on view at the Center for Book Arts in New York, NY, through 31 March 2012.