Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Migrant Earth,” by Deema Shehabi

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I first met Shehabi at the Marin Poetry Center, where she and her co-editor Beau Beausoleil read poems from their anthology, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, a book I reviewed later for Rumpus. Julie Bruck’s poem from the anthology Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad was recently featured in this column. Shehabi also read from her first book at the MPC reading, and I was struck then, as I am today, by the delicacy and depth of her work.
“Migrant Earth” is five stanzas of free verse, poetry without meter or rhyme whose line and stanza breaks tend to follow the breath of the person reading them. Stanzas are irregular, sometimes consisting of four, three, and two lines. Of the poem’s 20 lines, half are end-stopped with a comma, period, or question mark, and each stanza is its own sentence (or fragment) embodying a distinct thought or idea. Line length varies from very short (two words in line 16) to long (11 words in line 10), again following the logic of syntax and breath rather than of meter or syllable count. Although it does not follow a prescribed form, you could diagram stanza lengths as follows, where the numbers designate the number of lines–4 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 2 / 2 / 2—to see that a kind of pattern does seem to emerge. Free verse is, after all, a form, and varying numbers of lines in stanzas according to a pattern is a structuring device I’ve noticed in other free verse poems by, for example, Larry Levis and Susan Terris.
What about the conditional tense of the verb used at the beginning of line 1 and repeated at the beginning of line 11? “I could tell you,” the speaker says, and then proceeds to tell us what she “could” say. It’s an interesting construction, one that gives and withholds at the same time, and implies another narrative, one not being told. I believe the entire poem is written in response to the question posed in its epigraph by Mahmoud Darwish, “So tell me what you think of when the sky is ashen.” The notion of an unexpressed narrative is supported by another conditional construction repeated at the beginnings of lines 17 and 18, “as though.” What we are being given in “Migrant Earth” is just one possible answer to Darwish’s question, and readers are left to puzzle out on their own what other answers there may be.
By the way, the repetitions described above—“I could say” and “as though”—are a special form of repetition called anaphora. The poet Jamaal May says this about the power of anaphora in an essay he titled “Sonic Authority”:

When a writer sits down to craft a speech aimed at convincing a group of people, one can be sure his/her arsenal will have certain items. Repetition can usually be counted on to be among the first, specifically, anaphora or epistrophe. Anaphora is defined by Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary as repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for rhetorical or poetic effect. Epistrophe is anaphora’s inverse, repeating the word or phrase at the end of successive lines, clauses, or sentences. There is a reason anaphora and epistrophe are prevalent in mediums like rally speeches. Ideas in a speech must be emphasized so that they linger when the politician isn’t around to reinforce them. From the anaphora of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” to the epistrophe of Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can,” the goal is to emphatically root certain ideas into the audience that remain long after the rest of the speech’s content is forgotten.  .  .  .

Make no mistake, the poet’s goal is to rhetorically influence the reader as well. [Jamaal May, “Sonic Authority: Repetition as Rhetorical Device,” in an excerpt from John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes,” Donald Justice’s “Sadness,” and Thom Gunn’s “In Time of Plague,” submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Fine Arts degree, MFA Program for Writers, Warren Wilson College, 2010.]

I agree with May, especially in those last two sentences, and I applaud the use of anaphora in this poem, which reminds me that the repeated elements do not necessarily have to be strong or stand on their own—they just have to be heard more than once to work their incantatory magic.

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  • Ikhlas Rayyes August 17, 2017 at 10:52 am

    A genius poetic description of grief for the loss of mother and homeland .. God bless Deema Shehabi

    Reply
  • Ikhlas Rayyes August 17, 2017 at 10:52 am

    A genius poetic description of grief for the loss of mother and homeland .. God bless Deema Shehabi

    Reply
  • Janice D. Soderling August 15, 2017 at 4:27 am

    Beautiful poems here. I would like to subscribe, please.

    Reply
  • Janice D. Soderling August 15, 2017 at 4:27 am

    Beautiful poems here. I would like to subscribe, please.

    Reply