Graywolf Press | October 20, 2020
Khaled Mattawa’s latest poetry collection Fugitive Atlas is a powerful reminder that the migrant crisis is an ongoing reality with profound effects on those who suffer directly from displacement and on humanity at large. As noted in an early poem, “Anthropocene Hymns,” there is “No place else to go. / Nowhere but this earth.” Therefore, we all bear a share in the responsibility of helping each other find home. Part reportage and part psalm, Mattawa’s collection moves among various refugee camps in Europe and cities decimated by governments, mismanagement, and war, all the while intimately giving voice to people too often made invisible by those living in stability. Through the innovative use of language and poetic form, Mattawa brings readers into intimate awareness of the suffering of those we might consider “other.”
Throughout the collection, Mattawa is attentive to our tendency to “other” individuals and the problems they face. This appears often at the level of language, as in the last two lines of the opening poem: “Taproot and Cradle”: “I remember the killed enemy. / I remember my good friends.” The duality of a generalized enemy and personal friends is a driving force behind conflict and a way we use language to close our eyes to issues that we’d rather consider “their” problem instead of our own. Language can also be used to disguise suffering. In “Plume,” which recalls the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the speaker reflects on how the word plume— “I can’t erase the associations it has with Carnival, flapper / fashion, Cyrano de Bergerac’s hat, and the ostrich feather fans of my childhood”—has developed different connotations, to “refer almost exclusively to the dioxane under us, not that we / talk about it much.” The danger of generalizing suffering, Mattawa suggests, is that we forget our responsibility to this suffering.
Part of bearing responsibility for suffering is truly listening to stories we have tried to forget or have never known. Mattawa accomplishes this by bringing us face to face with these stories. In “After 42 Years,” the speaker reflects on life under dictator Muammar al Gaddafi: “Could not go to the store to buy bread or milk, / could not leave home, visit friends, the radio / thundering hatred, retching blood-curdling songs.” The speaker communicates what has been lost in the occupied country—not only autonomy, but life itself. The speaker’s father and brother were killed, and ordinary people were embittered by suffering. The speaker asks, “Who taught you, sons of my country, to be so fearless and cruel? / . . . Who taught you to treat a human being like this?” The questions recall “Anthropocene Hymns,” in which the speaker ponders, “How to stop thinking of bodies / as worth extinction, worth eating or enslaving—”. This inhumanity intensifies in the poem “Deterrence,” which speaks to migrant camp conditions, where prisoners are treated just enough like people to keep them alive, but not enough to make them feel human: “Make sure // there’s a lot / of soap but you / can skimp // on water. Don’t / ever repair / windows.” The cruelty the speaker reveals in these poems places the migrant experience before the world’s eyes and demands that it not be ignored or forgotten.
To be able to truly see others and their suffering requires re-vision, a seeing again. This process is examined in “Psalm of the Volunteer” dedicated to those working at Moria Camp in Lesbos. The speaker begins the poem with the question, “Dear world, / who am I to / condemn you?” and ends it with “Dear soul, / how am I / to repair you?” While other poems in the collection reveal how suffering begets ruin and cruelty, this poem reveals how interacting with suffering has the ability to produce good: a humility toward the experiences of others and a recognition of our own participation in suffering. If we can remember our responsibility for the world’s suffering, we will better see our responsibility to be part of its healing.
To illustrate how the work of addressing suffering is the work of us all, Mattawa utilizes collaborative poetic forms. In the notes provided at the end of the collection, Mattawa describes the use of a hybrid form that makes an appearance throughout the collection: “a modified haibun that ends with a renga rather than a haiku.” A haibun is a Japanese literary genre that typically combines prose and haiku. In utilizing the renga (a collaborative poem where one writer contributes three lines of seventeen syllables total, and a second writer contributes two lines of seven syllables apiece), Mattawa invites other voices. Usually, Mattawa’s rengas will contain the work of two other writers. In “A Dream of Adam,” the haibun recalls an almost ethereal scene where the speaker discovers a man in his backyard, asking for a hot drink. The renga that ends this poem combines lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Tennyson’s “Tithonus.” The rengas make room for a variety of voices: “classic” Western voices like Shakespeare and Shelley, and more modern ones such as Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul and Palestinian poet May Sayigh. The diversity of voices assists the speaker in addressing the migrant crisis, injecting a strain of lyricism into the lurid events of the present.
Strengthening the notes of lyricism—and even prayer—felt throughout the collection is another poetic form called ‘alams, which Mattawa notes at the end of the collection are “short poems composed and chanted by Bedouin poets of eastern Libya and western Egypt.” In “‘Alams for Cairo Nights,” the reader sees the first six ‘alams rendered in this way:
In their briefness, ‘alams lend themselves to conveying the urgency of the crisis, but also, as Mattawa shared with me, “I wanted to convey this effect of freedom and multiple meanings but staggering them and structuring them in a way that allows them [to be] read multiple ways.” Two ways a reader might do this are the following: “I can’t bear to blink // I can’t yield // to close my eyes,” or “I can’t bear to blink / I can’t bear / the absence // I can’t wallow . . . ” In allowing readers such freedom, the form approximates how the poems would be heard if chanted, as a repetition of words and ideas that make more immediate the feelings of those experiencing the crisis firsthand. In the example provided above, readers begin to hear in the repeated phrases—“I can’t” and “this is how”—the depths of lament communicated here. The repetition allows the reader time to more fully enter into the emotion being expressed. The ‘alams recognize the need for readers to break through the noise of modern life to be able to truly hear the voices of the suffering.
Though much suffering is conveyed in this collection, throughout Fugitive Atlas runs a vein of hope. The first “Beatitude” poem remembers a moment in which the speaker’s daughter tries to make sense of a passage from the Quran, where mankind takes on the responsibility of amanah, or free will. The speaker asks, “And him, why did he say yes? Did he know / that all the other creatures refused the burden? / That he was God’s last choice?” The collection is bookended by another “Beatitude” poem, where the speaker’s daughter, a child who has only known the effect of displacement and is rooted in a different culture than her father, underscores the resilience of the human spirit and a hope that future generations will better care for the earth and its people:
She points to a chameleon the size of a beetle,
teaches me the names of flowers and trees,
insects we can eat if we’re ever lost here.
“I’m teaching you how to entrust the world
to me,” she says. “You don’t have to live
forever to shield me from it.”
It is from this stance of a child’s humility and natural curiosity that the poems in this collection ought to be read. Humans are both responsible and vulnerable in the suffering that their decisions have wrought on other nations and peoples. Can the cycle be broken? The “Beatitude” poems seem to suggest it is possible. Still, in the problems that plague our world, none of us are innocent; none of us are mere bystanders. In poems that tenderly call us to action, Mattawa awakens readers to the human and geographical devastation wrought by the tendency to “other” people. Fugitive Atlas is a collaborative prayer for a shattered earth.