Both titles include ampersands — not their only commonality — although they are entirely different collections.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s first book stands as defiantly as the cover image by Jehad Saftawi, picturing a doorway and a partial front wall of a demolished home.
This unbelievable reality is rendered in “DHAYAA’” — Arabic for “loss”). The complete poem follows: “In my language/the word for loss is a wide-open cry,/a gaping endless possibility./In English loss sounds to me like one shuddering blow to the heart,/all sorrow and absence hemmed in,/falling into a neatly rounded hole,/such tidy finality.”
Yet, “In my language/the word for loss is a long vowel stretched/taut and anchored between behemoth consonants, reverberating—/a dervish word/whirling on itself/in infinite emptiness,/the widening gyre,/the eternal motion of grief.”
Tuffaha’s collection is an extraordinary debut. She does not mince words, for “The real world is disjointed/the words around me/make no sense,” thus has “crazed revenge daydreams,” and “Palestinian-in-Wonderland hallucinations.” Her “children roll their eyes/when I launch into one of my corrections/or yell back at the car radio.”
The family is safe in Washington state and does not want to know. But, “It happens whenever I watch the news.”
She daydreams about “pushing tanks/off olive groves with my bare hands./I dream about staring down//Apache helicopters and F-16s/and shaming them/out of bombing civilian neighborhoods.//A disapproving Arab mama’s glare/a strategically raised eye-brow,/send them scurrying back to their bases.”
The title poem is more graphic: “we hunger for what eating cannot feed.// we carve out a sanctuary/that no beating can tear down,/no interrogation room scars can pierce//we decide/how we live and if we die/we decide who gives and who takes away//we claim the freedom/to turn stone into sunlight streaming through your jails/to sip water and salt like sacrament//freedom//to own our bodies and the land beneath them/to breathe the air on both sides of the wall// freedom//to wait and wait/for your checkpoints and your watchtowers/to be subsumed in a crashing wave/of water and salt/you never saw it coming, this cleansing,/how we have become this ocean.”
Peter Cole is a well-known poet and translator, winner of major awards, and his “Selected” cloth volume comes from an established publisher.
None of it should be held against this former Cohen, who has learned Hebrew and Arabic, translating wonderful visions from both languages.
While many of his own poems are long, “On Being Partial” is not, reminding readers that “I’m partial to what’s possible,/he thought — not the ineffable,/distant, devoid of insistence/and temperament that tampers,/or tramples/Not the impersonal,/but that which hovers here — /between the ‘I’ of the opening/and the ‘us’ of your possible listening/now, or in the imperfect/tense and tension of what/in fact articulates the eternal/That abstract revelation/and slippery duration/to which, it seems, I’m given/and because of which I’m never/finished with anything, as though living/itself were an endless translation” … This opening poem to his 2014 book (“The Invention of Influence”) ends without a period. In fact, there are no periods throughout the poem, as all life remains provisional.
His translations of Arabic and Hebrew poets from various centuries are superb — in particular Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011), whose poems are direct, painful, witty.
Water & Salt
Poems by Lena Khalaf Tuffah
Red Hen Press, 17.95
Hymns & Qualms:New and Selected Poems and Translations
By Peter Cole
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $30
Cole/Cohen (his father changed the name) is known for many translations from the Hebrew. From antiquity through this century, he features the works of many Jewish poets (including several women). Cole’s later poems endure long runs down modern pages, whereas “Israel Is” clarifies his stance in four lines: “Israel is he, or she, who wrestles/with God — call him what you will//not some goon (with a rabbi and gun)/in a pre-fab home on a biblical hill.”
Both these poets are worthy of serious readers beyond the ampersands in their books titles.
Roberto Bonazzi’s reviews and Poetic Diversity column appears regularly in the Express-News.