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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Of Violence and Poetry

Reviewed by Atef Laouyene

Combining emancipatory politics with the vulnerability of human sentiment is what constitutes the shared singularity of the three collections of poems here under review. While negotiating an ethical imperative that cannot be compromised and a political reality that cannot be ignored, each poet offers us a unique perspective on violence and its myriad manifestations.

In an effort to achieve a measure of testimonial truth and political urgency, Montreal-based Egyptian poet Ehab Lotayef decides not only to complement his bilingual collection (English and Egyptian Arabic) with his own photography, but also to preface it with a caveat to the reader to the effect that politics is above all the impetus that drives his creative endeavor. In Brand New World, for instance, a poem written in November 2001, shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Lotayef commemorates the fall of Kabul and laments the onset of a dystopian political order where heroes become villains / And villains become heroes. In the brand new world that the poem proleptically describes, the White House man (George Bush) is hailed as the harbinger of a ravenous economic system erected on the altar of amputated civilian bodies and sustained by opium money. It is, however, in the collection’s titular piece, To Love a Palestinian Woman, that Lotayef’s poetry unveils most movingly its ever-anguished political preoccupations. In fact, it is here that Lotayef’s politics seem to run in the same groove as that of a host of other revolutionary Arab poets, namely, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, and Abd Al-Wahhab Al-Bayyati. (The influence of these poets, and especially that of the Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, is particularly apparent in the Arabic section of the collection.) Drawing on the Arabic literary tradition of ghazal with structural and thematic variations à la Qabbani, Lotayef makes his Palestinian woman less an object of hyperbolized desire than an archetypal figure of loss and resistance, a figure whose spirit of persistence holds the promise of redemptive return for the hitherto stateless people of Palestine. Reading this poem and others in Lotayef’s collection, one cannot but sense the tremulous longing of the exile, the sobering eloquence of the visionary, and the reverent sincerity of the poète engagé.

In Alien, Correspondent, Antony Di Nardo offers his readers a lyrical testimonial to the ravages of war to which the beautiful city of Beirut has been subjected. While it seeks to approximate the historical and political reality of war-torn Beirut, the collection’s documentary quality does not by any means weaken the precarious sensibility of the poetic voice. Ever conscious of his foreignness (hence the first portion of the title, Alien), Di Nardo never sacrifices the ethical imperative of the witness for the political sermonizing of the popular media pundit. Part witness poetry and part personal reflection, Di Nardo’s collection burdens its reader with claims at once ethical and affective. Moved to the level of empathic unsettlement, to use Dominick LaCapra’s phrase, Di Nardo’s reader becomes a secondary witness whose ethical and emotional being becomes ineluctably intertwined with the trauma that is Beirut’s. In The Sacrificial Lamb, for instance, the reader stands witness to a danse macabre in which Beirut’s lost denizens keep raising the banners of Islam and erecting altars to the virgin. In this Blakean god-forsaken city, the broken church bells and the soot-sullied minarets summon the godless and the fearful to a gruesome anarchy in prayers.

While some of Di Nardo’s poems in this collection may remind us of Arthur Rimbaud at times, they rarely lapse into the romantic exoticism of the poète maudit. The Tourist, for instance, is one of many other poems (The Lonely Planet, Down into the Royal Tombs of Byblos, and A Muslim Woman I Met) that illustrate the perennially unsettling triangulation between the ethical integrity of the reporter, the aesthetic sensibility of the poet, and the exoticist sentimentalism of the tourist. Be that as it may, it is always the solemn voice of the poet-cum-reporter that we keep hearing in Di Nardo’s lines. While they register the poet’s personal response to the horrors of war in Lebanon, the poems in this collection steer clear of the potential exoticization of Middle Eastern violence that continues to permeate western popular media today.

In Back in the Days, the seventh-generation African Canadian Addena Sumter-Freitag takes us on a memorably intimate journey, relating her experiences growing up as a black girl in Winnipeg’s North End in the 1950s. Deeply sorrowful at times and sharply acerbic at others, Sumter-Freitag’s will undoubtedly become one of the most prominent poetic voices of Canada’s Black community. Although her idiom occasionally verges on the prosaic and the mundanely anecdotal (perhaps due to her theatre background), her emotional sincerity is little short of breathtaking. Playwright, performance artist, and poet, Sumter-Freitag brings her poems to life by fusing the poetically suggestive with the brutally honest and the brazenly humorous with the unspeakably tragic.

Back in the Days is a collection of poems gracefully interlaced with pieces of creative non-fiction and touchingly rendered by the same speaker in Sumter-Freitag’s earlier one-woman play, Stay Black and Die. Drawing on her childhood memories and stamping her idiom with black speech patterns, Sumter-Freitag succeeds in weaving a riveting, multi-voiced, and multi-generational family portrait, one that mirrors the collective lived experiences of racialized Black minorities both in the US and in Canada. A host of characters make their appearance in this family portrait: the uncommunicative but attractively melancholy father, with whom Sumter-Freitag has a special fascination; the strict but selflessly indefatigable mother; the shell-shocked cousins; the cousins who taught her the facts of life; the uncle who was assassinated by the clan; and the other uncle who enlisted in the Great War only to find himself building ditches and shovel[ing] the shit in the latrines. Within Sumter-Freitag’s poetic breath, these characters are generously accommodated, not because they have been part of her coming-of-age journey, but because their long-buried stories will hopefully bring to public consciousness the violence of racial politics that continues to structure the Black community’s social existence. That the book has made it into the school curriculum now is, without doubt, a plain testament to its relevance and merit.

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MLA: Laouyene, Atef. Of Violence and Poetry. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 164 - 166)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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