Journeys into and through

Reviewed by Sunny Chan

“Andalusian Exile,” in Nadine Ltaif’s poetry collection Journeys, begins not in Andalusia but in an urban park in Montreal at the “corner of Ontario and Saint Urbain,” the Parterre du Quartier des spectacles where outdoor events are often held. It is from there that she muses on Tarsus, an ancient city in today’s Turkey. The line “Nothing leaves its mark” is contradicted a mere two lines later: “Only fragments of writing / recount the commerce / between Tyre and King Hiram.” Tarsus did leave a mark: in these records, as a historic city in the bustling Adana-Mersin metropolitan area today, and even in a village in Lebanon called Tarshish. This paradoxical push-and-pull embodies many other themes that recur throughout Journeys, including the poet’s Arab identity, diaspora, how civilizations pass into dust over time, and the role of women in that passage of history.

“Between Relics and Disappearances,” the poem immediately after “Andalusian Exile,” contemplates this paradox from another angle. It is short, only seven lines long; the speaker struggles to reconcile that “Wars wipe out / populations and towns” while “we are / on the other side / of the small screen.” There can be violence and safety at the same time, whole populations wiped out while others flourish, existences seemingly obliterated and yet recorded for posterity. Ltaif ’s journey through Spain takes her to Guernica, a town whose name is now synonymous with both the highest artistic achievement and the cruellest violence, and to Seville, which wears its history of Muslim rule, Catholic conquest, and Jewish persecution on its face.

Ltaif also journeys to India, where she sees “India’s influence / on Islamic civilisation.” From that vantage, she views the historical lives of Indian women as direct predecessors of her own, the unwilling girls chosen for maharajas’ harems and those who stand in solidarity with their sisters against injustice as part of her own history. In the section called “Hamra,” named after a neighbourhood in Beirut, the poet journeys to “the land of our Phoenician ancestors,” the home she left when she was thirteen to flee the Lebanese Civil War. The hotel she stays at—an unrenovated place in the centre of Hamra, which is otherwise filled with high-fashion stores, trendy restaurants, popular nightclubs, and students from the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University—is a hub of the juxtapositions that proliferate in these poems. The hotel is cheap in an expensive neighbourhood, with furniture from the 1970s, while Hamra bustles with modernity. The front desk is staffed by a receptionist who is “veiled / wearing heavy make-up” and “[w]elcoming / in perfect English.” There is also a striking juxtaposition between a culture run through with diaspora, versus one not. The waiter at the Beirut cafe she patronizes for breakfast every morning asks her name, traces it back to her grandparents’ names, and figures out that he has family in Brazil who know her grandfather’s brothers; meanwhile, her Québécois in-laws “received me at their table, fed me without asking me about my origins, or my identity.”

Randy Lundy’s Field Notes for the Self also documents journeys. Like Ltaif ’s, these journeys go into the past and the self, but unlike hers, they also travel to towns on the Prairies, as well as through the seasons. Lundy, a member of the Barren Lands Cree First Nation, is deeply interested in bringing together Eastern religions, Christianity, and Cree spiritual practices. An epigraph quotes the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a key scripture of Hinduism, and the speaker continually highlights connections and blurred boundaries, such as “A story about St. Francis. No, it was / about Bodhidharma. They didn’t know each other. Except they did.” Later in the same poem, Lundy connects Taoism’s acceptance of the teachings of Buddha to understanding the life and death of wildlife, and how these cycles affect the village. The topic returns in other poems: “You know you should seek the dharma as a medicine, that if you were wise you would go inside and smudge, cleanse yourself in the smoke of sweetgrass.” In Hinduism, dharma means the behaviours that bring you closer to the right way of living, which Lundy unifies with the Indigenous practice of smudging.

Where Ltaif ’s journeys are centred on the human experience, on human history and culture, animals abound in Lundy’s poems. Sometimes they are metaphorical, sometimes portentous, but always they are as much a part of life as anything that might happen to you. He writes about a girl whose father died a week ago, whose lack of sadness he briefly imagines as a bird flying away from her: “You know when it disappears it has flown into an adjacent world. But it is not a symbol. The owl is a real bird. // That’s what you want to tell the girl.” Most of the poems are in free verse or prose, and his sureness in these forms helps his project of foregrounding the realness of his subjects.

Memory is a continuing concern in the collection: remembering lost loves, fathers, childhood, generational violence, and forgetting these things too. The speaker says, “It’s only a memory. It carries no meaning. Nothing that lasts.” And yet like Ltaif ’s Tarsus, it has lasted, it carries meaning in this verse. Throughout the book, there are hints that Lundy is trying to get at different kinds of forgetting without stating them outright. There is the kind of letting go of what has passed, as taught by Buddhist monks: “contemplation of no-thought, meditating on no- / mind, and you, your being-in-the-world, circumscribed, once again, by / memory, that old curse.” There is also the kind of oblivion you never realize is happening until you try to recall something, and the kind you wish for when you want to forget something but cannot. Through perceptive nuances of language, Lundy navigates the curse of memory through nostalgia, regret, and the turning over of life beyond our individual biographies.

This review “Journeys into and through” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.