Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Tea at Chez Paul’s,’ by Hedy Habra

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Tea at Chez Paul’s

We ate Schtengels at Chez Paul’s,
twisted breads sprinkled with coarse salt
………….clinging to our lips.
We could see the sea enfolding us
through the tall bay windows
of the semi-circular Swiss teahouse.
You described a Phoenician Tale
just for me,
how the mountain slopes
reddened each spring
………….with Adonis’ blood,
how this delicate flower,
truly and duly Lebanese
has come to be called a red poppy, an anemone,
with all its melodious variations,
………….alkhushkhash,
……………………un amapola,
………………………………un coquelicot,
………………………………………….ed anche un papavero. . .

We walked through a field scattered
with red poppies bright as when Ishtar
sprinkled nectar
on her beloved’s blood.
………….Time seemed elastic then,
……………………………….space infinite.
I wished to bring home a handful of scarlet light,
to keep the softness of its wrinkled petals
alive a while longer.
The moment I cut Adonis’ flower,
hanging like a broken limb, its corolla fell over my hand,
head too heavy with dreams.
………….No wonder blossoms tremble
……………………………….on their fragile stems.

Sometimes love is only real when not uprooted.
………….Isn’t there a geography of every emotion?
not a precious, intricate Carte du Tendre,
………….but a trail of forgotten footsteps mapping
every heartbeat, every motion?
……………………A stairwell, a car, a booth, a parking lot,
………….a streetlight, a gateway,
an old-fashioned reverbère,
………….a Bus Stop or maybe a tree, a tree stump,
a moss-covered path, a pond,
………….a small creek, a flat stone,
……………………a hill, a porch or even a wooden bench?

Take the poppy, for instance.  It will only breathe
and give joy at its birthplace.
………….I can still feel the small flower melting
into liquid silk in my palm.
………….I held the red petals to my cheek
like a morning kiss while you kept telling how Ishtar
………….or as some may say Astarté, often mistaken for Isis,
…………………….was truly her Phoenician incarnation,
before she was ever called Aphrodite or Venus.
………….I remember how you talked and talked
until we both stepped into Ishtar’s temple.

 

First published by Nimrod International Journal, as a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize and published in Tea in Heliopolis (Press 53, 2013). Reprinted with permission from Press 53 and available at press53.com..

  hedy habra_4-22-15        Hedy Habra book cover_10-3-15

Hedy Habra was born in Heliopolis, Egypt, and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of two poetry collections, Tea in Heliopolis (winner of the 2014 USA Best Book Awards and finalist for the International Poetry Book Award), and the newly released Under Brushstrokes, inspired by visual art.   Her story collection, Flying Carpets, won the 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention and was finalist for the 2014 USA Best Book Awards and the Eric Hoffer Book Award. She is a recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award. Her multilingual work appears in numerous journals and anthologies, including Cimarron Review, GargoyleCutthroat, Verse Daily, Blue Fifth Review, Nimrod, New York Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Diode, The Bitter Oleander, Cider Press Review and Poet Lore. Her website is HedyHabra.com

 

Notes on “Tea at Chez Paul’s”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Poets, in their never-ending quest for le mot juste, sometimes reach beyond their native tongue to incorporate foreign words or phrases into their poems. ESL or nonnative English-speaking poets often use them as a way of asserting identity, paying homage to their heritage, or just reminding readers that other languages are spoken in the world besides English. Whatever the prevailing language, words from another can enrich setting, atmosphere, and character or provide sonic or metrical effects not otherwise available in a poem.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that “foreign” is a relative term, one that depends wholly on where one is standing. To English or American readers, chez is foreign, but to French readers, house is the foreign word. Since “Tea at Chez Paul’s” is written in English, this discussion assumes an English-speaking reader to whom words like chez, alkhushkhash, amapola, and coquelicot are “foreign” terms. As will become clear, though, one aim of today’s poem is precisely to challenge assumptions like this.

Foreign terms can pose difficulty for readers, and the poet who uses them must decide whether or not it is important that readers understand their meanings. Sometimes, as when used to create atmosphere, it may not matter. But what if the poet does want readers to understand the meaning of the term? How far must he or she go to “translate” it? What is the reader’s responsibility to meet the poet halfway in this endeavor? And what is the best way to accomplish any of this without interrupting the flow of the poem?

Some foreign words, such as those subsumed into common usage, explain themselves. Sari, sarong, and hijab are Indian, Malaysian, and Arabic words that require no translation when used in an English poem. But where the meanings of foreign words are not obvious, poets wanting to supply meaning do have alternatives to trundling out the translation in a footnote. Meaning can, for example, be inferred from context the poet provides. In a poem about drinking, readers will get what they need of words like mescal, ouzo, or birra. If a literal translation is needed, it can be given discreetly in an epigraph or in the poem’s title. It may appear as an appositive, a clause set off by commas just before or after the term, or paraphrased in dialog or elsewhere in the poem. And sometimes the poet frankly asks that the reader get more involved by, say, looking up a word on the Internet.

In “Tea at Chez Paul’s,” words from at least five languages other than the poem’s prevailing one (English) appear. The first is the French name of the teahouse given in the poem’s title. Line one introduces the German-Swiss Schtengels, defined in the clause that follows as a type of pastry sprinkled with salt. At the end of the first stanza, the words for “poppy” are given in four languages:  Arabic (alkhushkhash), Spanish (amapola), French (coquelicot) and Italian (papavero). The poem’s last obvious foreign language term is Carte du Tendre, a reference to an allegorical map of love featuring as a popular motif in work presented in 17th century French literary salons. (I had to Google that one.)

Schtengels adds local color to the poem’s setting, making it more vivid and authentic. (Which makes your mouth water more: “pastry” or “Schtengels”?) But what is gained by supplying four foreign language variants for the English “poppy,” a flower whose most famous western poetic appearances have been in “Flander’s Field” (written by Canadian poet John McCrae about a French battlefield from WWI) or in “Poppies in July” (written by American poet Sylvia Plath)?

Let’s talk first about the extent to which the author here “translates” the terms she uses. Habra takes pains to make it clear to English readers that the words are alternative language names for the flower English-speaking readers know as a poppy, saying outright that they are “variations,” using appositive syntax to list them, and then following Chicago Manual of Style convention by italicizing them:

. . . a red poppy, an anemone,
with all its melodious variations,
………….alkhushkhash,
……………………un amapola,
………………………………un coquelicot,
………………………………………….ed anche un papavero. . .

Although Habra’s intent is to be clear, that is not the same as saying her intent is to simplify. This kind of naming allows us to see clearly the object that is being named while still acknowledging the rich complexity and multiplicity of its naming.

Now let’s return to our earlier inquiry: what is the author’s intent in presenting this array of foreign terms for the flower called “poppy” in English?

For starters, it marks the poem as international rather than local in its ambition and scope. At a minimum, we understand that for this speaker, naming a thing is not enough; she wants also to name it in other tongues. Delving more deeply, we see that a central preoccupation of the poem is its discovery that a creation myth widely assumed by western readers to have originated in Greece can actually be traced back further, to Phoenicia and Egypt.

Greek mythology teaches that poppies sprang from the blood of Adonis, sprinkled on the ground by his lover Aphrodite. For students educated in western countries—a group that perhaps includes this poem’s speaker—the inquiry often ends there. But to someone from the Middle East, the assumption that a seminal creation myth was “invented” in ancient Greece might not just feel inaccurate; it might feel like a cultural or identity appropriation.

The way Habra indents her lines suggests a hierarchy and cues us that what we are seeing is a sequence, not mere list of things that could appear in any order:

. . . you kept telling how Ishtar
………….or as some may say Astarté, often mistaken for Isis,
…………………….was truly her Phoenician incarnation,
before she was ever called Aphrodite or Venus.

If poppies came from blood sprinkled by Aphrodite, then their origin goes all the way back through Ishtar to Isis (and perhaps further still). Even readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of this genealogy can understand what is being expressed here: a challenge to the assumption that the poppy creation story originates in ancient Greece. The poem’s use of so many foreign words for poppy—especially with the Arabic listed first—reinforces the idea that more than one culture “owns” any mythology and its symbols and that origins may not be what they are commonly assumed to be. Shaping a vessel that holds five languages, the poem suggests the possibility of a whole—a global culture? some even-more-deeply recessed common birthplace?—that can contain all of humanity.

On its most accessible level, the poem takes readers on an actual journey to a German-Swiss teahouse situated in Lebanon. On a deeper level, it guides readers to the poet’s personal past, to a time when she was young and in love for the first time. Readers familiar with the goddess Ishtar may read sexual as well as romantic initiation into the line that ends the poem: “I remember how you talked and talked / until we both stepped into Ishtar’s temple.”

On a yet deeper level, the poem leads readers on a journey of discovery about the speaker’s ancestral past to the origins of a critical seminal myth that many have tended to locate in ancient Greece. On this level, the poem can be read politically as an effort to undo a cultural appropriation, but I prefer to read it more broadly as an effort to discover the origins of the naming of things—of all language. In support of this reading I offer the fact that after the poem follows convention in italicizing its “foreign” synonyms for “poppy,” it goes on in stanza 3 to italicize an even longer list of English nouns. To most people of the modern world, of course, it is these words—trail, hill, porch, bench, etc.—that are the “foreign” terms. Keep digging, this poem tells us. All bottoms are false bottoms and the truth lies (in both senses of that word!) more deeply then we can ever see.

 

Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

Join the conversation

  • Hedy Habra November 15, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Thanks so much to Rebecca Foust for this insightful exegesis of my poem, “Tea at Chez Paul’s,” as are all your challenging and well-crafted commentaries.
    I greatly appreciate the feedback and generous comments.

    Reply
  • Ginger Murchison October 19, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Every one of these, Becky, is a poetry class I love attending. Thanks to both Hedy and you for this one.

    Reply
  • Leslie in Oregon October 19, 2015 at 2:24 am

    Absolutely fascinating…the poem and its explication. Thank you!

    Reply