Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Migrant Earth,” by Deema Shehabi

So, what is it that today’s poet “could” say in response to Darwish’s question? She begins with “listening is made for the ashen sky” and in the next lines tells us that “instead of the morning call to prayer, what she hears is her own “desire” as she kisses her mother’s cheek. We don’t know at this point that the mother has passed, but we are given a clue in the anguish felt in this description of the muezzin’s call, “like weeping at dawn.”
In the next stanza, the speaker kneels next to her mother and we are given a bit of history from her memory of her mother’s “pleas / for the children fleeing from tanks.” By this we understand that the mother is a refugee—from where we don’t know yet, but the next stanza tells us it is “Gaza.” From all this, we can surmise that the speaker and her mother have returned to Gaza after a forced absence, confirmed in stanza 3 when the speaker talks about entering a “Gazan rooftop.” That little word “but” in line 8 provides the first clue about the unspoken narrative. “[B]ut what do I know of the migrant earth?” the speaker asks, casting doubt on what she has said before. A plausible paraphrase might be “I could tell you this, but what can I possibly know about any of it?”
Afterwards, the speaker continues with her speculation about what she “could” say in response to Darwish’s question: “I could tell you I parted with my mother at the country / of skin.” In that interesting and beautiful sentence, the speaker provides a few more facts key to her story. It tells us that she, at one time at least, was separated from her mother, and it also tells us where that parting took place. “At the country” is something we expect, and we think we are about to be told the geographic location of the parting, but that line break dramatically changes meaning when we get to the next line’s “of skin.” This is the first point where I began to wonder if the mother had died. The next words describe a “dream” in which the mother’s “body was whole again, and we danced / naked in the street,” a beautiful, joyous image. But the joyousness is undermined by three things: our knowledge that it happened only in a dream, the description of the speaker’s lips as “bruised,” and our growing suspicion that the speaker’s mother has passed.
In the next stanza is a change, signaled by the switch to very short couplets from the previous pattern of three- and four- line stanzas with longer lines. Stanza 5 comprises the only nonconditional statement in the poem: “And no child understands absence past the softness of palms.” In my reading, those palms belong to the mother whose absence is mourned by the speaker, or “child”.
In the final two stanzas, the speaker returns to the conditional, beginning each with “as though,” and we are given some of the most powerful writing of many powerful lines in this poem. The absent parent’s palms remind her of other palms, her father’s, washing her mother’s body “in the final ritual.” She could, she says, tell us “it is praise” in those palms, just as she could tell us “it is God’s pulse that comes across her face / and disappears.” These two suppositions are positive and beautiful versions of what happened, but we are left, once again, to wonder what else might have been told about those two events.
Left explicitly unsaid but everywhere in the poem is the speaker’s terrible grief for her loss and also perhaps a roil of sorrow, regret, and even anger about what her mother had to endure during her life. That these emotions are hinted at but not stated is part of the power of “Migrant Earth.” The reader here is asked to do the work of ferreting out what was left unsaid, the deeper, darker political meaning in a poem that could otherwise be read as one simply about the aftermath of a mother’s passing.]]>

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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