Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.
Today we’re discussing a new book: These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit by Hayan Charara.
Hayan Charara (1972–) grew up in Detroit, and some of his poetry deals with the decay of this particular urban landscape, his Lebanese cultural roots come through mostly in meditations on Arab identity in the United States, and the associated erasure and racism Arab people experience. He’s a professor of creative writing, currently at the University of Houston.
What I admired most about this book of poetry was just how clever it was. There are several sections that showcase this really well, two of which are series of haiku. One, centered on a specific place (the porch) show the dramas of everyday, mostly through conversation. Although each haiku stands on its own, they link together in time to tell the story of an evening and a neighborhood.
On the porch–Hayan Charara from “Porch Haiku”
we speak long distance, I think,
for the last time.
The poems are particularly well constructed throughout the book–there is a lot of attention to structure in the individual poems as well as in the collection as a whole. The language throughout is pretty clear, and the poet presents a personal politics that encompasses rather than being removed from poetry. For example, in “The Prize” he describes the poetry winners of the Pulitzer Prize in relation to World War II. The collection speaks through and across time in really interesting ways. And it has a really thoughtful use of profanity, although the use of this language in poetry is maybe a topic for another day.
But I have to admit, my favorite section of the book is a seven poem section titled “Mean,” which are, as you might guess, a little bit nasty. I think poetry can come across as a little elitist and holier-than-thou, held to these sacred or noble feelings, but in my opinion, poetry should be honest, vulnerable. Sandra Cisneros said in an interview:
“I discovered a poetic truth, that you have to write as if what you had to say is too dangerous to publish in your lifetime. Then your ego gets out of the way, and you allow the light to come through you, the blood jet that Sylvia Plath talked about. You write from a more honest place.”
And the truth is we’re human, and sometimes what we think and feel is mean, nasty, and bitter. We can’t deny that any more than the fear, embarrassment, doubt, or sadness we feel. I think these poems are courageous, and–I know I’m a horrible person for saying this and I think that’s exactly what I’m meant to feel–funny as well. They are witty and terrible and kind of–eek–delightful. I won’t quote them because for copyright reasons I really try and only use quotes from poems in this blog, and you really need the whole of the short poems to feel the sting. Let that be a reason to look up the book of poems at your library.
Instead, I’ll end my discussion of the book with an excerpt from what’s probably my favorite poem in the entire collection:
“The girl is older than the boy,Hayan Charara from “Older”
the boy older than the cat, and the cat
which cannot communicate
what it knows about age, hates
the cactuses on the windowsill–“
The poem works through a series of comparisons about the age of things, and it ends on such a beautiful melancholy note.