Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. His first collection was My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint and his fourth was But It was an Important Failure (Cinnamon Press, 2010 & 2020). His latest collection, just released, is Morning Lit: Portals After Alia (Cinnamon Press, 2022). He is currently at work on a Lebanese verse novel, The Cedar Never Dies, due to be published in 2022 with Northside Press and a collection of his published short fictions, Y Knots, is due to be published in late 2023 with Liquorice Fish. He is Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD).
Alongside Alex Josephy’s review of Morning Lit: Portals After Alia you can sample here a selection of poems taken from it.
Omar Sabbagh’s Morning Lit: Portals after Alia reviewed by Alex Josephy
Morning Lit: Portals after Alia by Omar Sabbagh. £10.99. ISBN: 978-1788641272
Omar Sabbagh’s latest collection with Cinnamon Press , his fifth, reads like the next instalment in a life story, intertwined with a continuing tussle with identity. In this story, the poet sets out full of hope and dread, intending to discover:
a different planet
spinning on a different axis
and finding ‘A Teetering Place’:
the brittle arrows
you’ve always parried,
you’ve always known.
Interestingly, Sabbagh’s poems open one’s mind to the idea that both joy and grief can provoke instability and lead to a passionate quest to rediscover meaning. Within the book’s pages a baby, and a father, are born. Sabbagh meditates on his relationship with his own father, the raw emotions that surround a birth, and the thousand natural shocks and wonders that bewilder new parents as they find their way into parenthood. There are sections interspersed where Sabbagh reflects on his life as a scholar, and as the daughter begins to grow, there are poems on the painful business of investing hope in a child, and of seeking to protect her in the world into which she has been born. The final section charts the agonising stages of a break-up (or perhaps an estrangement?), a new wave of readjustment, and an ongoing search for understanding.
‘Morning Lit’ is an intriguing and appropriate title. Sabbagh is nothing if not a literary poet. He references other poets and writers throughout, starting with no fewer than three epigraphs (Henry James, Lawrence Durrell and Joyce), placing his work in the wake of Modernism (though not Postmodern, and not averse to a touch of Romanticism either, in my reading). ‘Morning Lit’ also carries echoes of a poet’s ‘morning pages’, the words that come to mind first thing and fresh from dreaming. And it reminds me, too, of Plath’s ‘Morning Song’, another lyrical poem in honour of a daughter. A new child, a new day; it’s a title full of aspiration, but morning is also only a beat away from mourning. For openers, though, to be ‘Morning Lit’ is to be bathed in light, and the majority of these poems are indeed lit up by the poet’s love for his child.
The collection has a complicated structure, being composed of sections within sections: ’Author’s Notes’, ‘An Introductory Note’, ’Prologues’, ‘Deliverances’, ‘Ad Hominems I’ and ‘II’, ‘Wishful Thinking’, ‘Broken Thoughts’ and ‘Epilogues.’ I hope I’ll be forgiven for thinking initially, ‘when does the collection actually start, then?’ This was before it dawned on me that the opening epilogues, ‘notes’ and ‘prologues’ serve as multiple gateways (portals even) into the main thread, the poems that clearly flowed prolifically after the birth of Alia. To me they convey the impression of stepping cautiously through the defences and self-conscious doubts that surround Sabbagh as he gathers the courage to present to the poetry-reading public the inside story of his heart. Sabbagh himself says in his ‘introductory note’: ‘A poet or creative writer can sometimes produce his worst work where his heart is most engaged or invested. The wrong kind of distance between him and his work can wreck the best intentions, preventing that kind of reflexivity that should be like a bodyguard to successful work.’
Once over the threshold, though, these concerns seem to melt away, and while Sabbagh never quite abandons his trademark uncertainties, there is a newly invigorated quality to these poems, written from beyond the portal of his daughter’s birth. In ’On Digging’, a sonnet addressed to his father (and alluding to Heaney, of course), there’s a touching sense of resuming contact now that they are in one way more equal, despite the fact that his father: ‘passed many years ago’. This continung conversation with a missing parent, facilitated by the experience of becoming one too, rings true to me: ‘The years since have lifted the curse / And I feel better speaking to you now.’
I’ve returned most frequently to the two sections devoted to Alia: ‘Deliverances’ and ‘Wishful Thinking’. They chronicle a kind of delirium that will be familiar to many parents. Sabbagh does idealise the process of birth, the perceived beauty of his child (I’m sure she really was beautiful, of course!) and the experience of fathering, but he also homes in on the gritty detail. At his daughter’s birth he exults:
I can’t find a straight, untethered line
Like this except in her, the unchained sounds
Of my future– the night is white with a girl…
At one moment he calls her: ‘a golden child’. Then in ‘The Princess Gospels’, which contain ‘The Art of Shit’ and other poems, he achieves a lovely combination of eulogy, disrupted attempts to philosophise, and self-parody:
We await that wetted load of crocodile and brown on preened tenterhooks. In fact perhaps it’s truer to say that it’s us, my wife and I, who are the truer new-borns in this luminous scenario: naked, bawling, purple, wet…
Formally, ‘Morning Lit’ is interestingly varied, prose poems and free verse rubbing shoulders with more traditional forms. I particuarly enjoyed the sonnets that punctuate the whole sequence. These contain and give scope to the adoration he seeks to express, for instance in the beautiful ‘Waiting for Alia’:
…the grammar of your waking, the quick
language by which you gabble and make your way
through the incoming, humid light, watering the face
of the world with your syllables, lips, a fig-coloured breeze –
From the later section, ‘Wishful Thinking’, I was struck by ‘Letter To An Innocent In A Time Of War’. Not quite terza rima, but composed of interlocking tercets, this poem expresses the protective passion evoked by a child, and feels timely too:
Meanwhile, my love, the world’s aflame – as the world forgets,
Once again, to dowse what has always burned here: blood-red ringed
By more. But you are Jerusalem for us, less the sadness, the millennia of sins.
There is much to discover alongside Alia’s besotted father; she takes her first steps, pronounces her first words, is compared (favourably of course) to silk and satin. She learns to desire chocolate. Is there a danger of sliding into sentiment, or even into pomposity on occasion? Yes, but then the poet’s witty, self-deprecating humour comes to the rescue. Are there absences? Of course and inevitably. The mother’s experience is a shadowy presence; but to be fair, this is avowedly a very personal exploration from the point of view of a father. Despite the darker tone toward the end, the whole collection is uplifting and engagingly open; one senses that Sabbagh has taken Henry James’s advice: ‘The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have… (So) live!’ The thrill of participating at the start of a new life, and the way in which in those early days the world is turned upside down, are generously lived and celebrated in these pages.
Alex Josephy lives in London and Italy. Her collection Naked Since Faversham was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018, and Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy. As part of the Poetry School Mixed Borders scheme, she has been poet-in-residence at Rainham Hall, Essex, and in Markham Square, London. Find out more on her website: www.alexjosephy.net
Omar Sabbagh: Five Poems from Morning Lit: Portals After Alia
TWENTY YEARS IN THE MAKING
If I look back through the tunnel of twenty years,
I see this boy, graceful, and more: fueled by a weird
Desire to be graceful; and yet, I can count the fears
Possessing him, a string on an abacus whose beads
Addle and grin like the simplest numbers: far less
Than what he might have wished-for, and more
Like the way that wish was pressed, all unrest,
With the sense of a muffled, of a broken need.
And here he is again, a whittled number now
Held in sight of a whittled eye. And below
The surface of twenty years: the far deeper show –
A sort of beast disclosed, revealed by a human sound.
It’s so darned long ago. And long ago, when love
Was a round corner he grappled with, the long If
Young men greet in so many different ways.
Twenty years are flown. And twenty years that stay.
And perhaps the way the years have fallen
Are no one’s fault, but mine. But to begin the effort
To uncoil the spring, to unlock the bone-sad bales
And sheaves of meaning, is a project for a different man,
Older, younger – who can tell? For the harvest of these
Passing years goes summed in two stark ways: I survived
A human terror – but lived beneath the tenor of what was
Always meant for me. And any winnings through it all
Are like twenty and like ten: two different numbers
Speaking to each other across a wind-picked valley.
So many things I wished for, things set deep in me,
Things for which I built, as best I could, my fort
Of life, have been split and sundered from my mind.
But I look back across the rough topography of twenty
Years, feel my feet whisper across the hard-pressed turf,
And think that, for all that, I’ve been luckier than most.
YOU CONVINCE YOURSELF
‘You tell yourself: I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea,
To a city lovelier far than this
Could have been or hoped to be…’
CP Cavafy, ‘The City’
You convince yourself
you’ll find a different planet
spinning on a different axis
each time. So, you underplay the kiss
given you, and the terror that
you cannot shield
because a world is just that, a matt
abyss, the terror that
comes brimming like liquor quick
to poison, tar, the envy of the stone, bricks
that make no home; that terror that
you convince yourself
will never tally, never find a home –
well, my friend, aren’t they
the brittle arrows
you’ve always parried,
you’ve always known?
For my father, Mohamad Sabbagh
He passed many years ago, now, parked and glossed.
I teach his poems nearly every day. I trust the sparks
Of all his embers still glow, glimmer; I have to.
And through the eddies, the heartening ebb and flow
Of the rug and weave of all this time, textures passed
In the company of the angles of the angel-dark,
I have realised a truth filled with the violin’s mark –
You know, the unlucky one, sublime, perhaps, a thorough
One that lasts. The years since have lifted the curse
And I feel better speaking to you now. The rasp
Of all the digging done, now as then, then as now,
Comes up twenty years away – and the effect, filmic
As it ever was. In this sunk, son-bit movie, though,
The emanations revolve; beams turned upwards, they ask.
When you share your space and toys
And learn to hold your hand, quiet and free
In one single soulful effort
From bad or worser habits, the tics of childish envy –
Dotting, thereby, in comfort your dotty little ‘I’;
When you stride with that sure precision
The measure of what you own,
A few small paces that turn to the size
Of harbingers, let us say, of a pedigree vision –
Poems to speak your own-most way, your name
Signing its lengthy stay to the finish
Of whatever odd job you later choose
For your précis, your erstwhile sum –
Recall at the last this space, a hope I share
With a seeing poem of simple, easy care;
Remember what it looked like to see
All things from a nearly naked eye,
And recollect the spirit of your father’s
Grace through so much time and space
Suffering the blindfolds of others.
For the lips of my daughter
And what they might come to speak
In time, and what they might say
In words, bolder than the future,
I’m ready to meet each rich sacrifice.
From out of the strange, whole plenty
Given me, staggered by the gift as it
Devolved in staggered shades to this
Small, crammed corner, this shrinking place
Where I’m closer now and close
To being shriven of all in goldenness
That was given – it seems that,
Slotted here on the block,
I’ve one more last decision to make
For these fig-colored lips, my daughter’s.
And later, when, with harsh-voiced questions
They beggar me with the Why of it,
And I, less a single cause or coin left
To make a sure reply: I’ll simply say
I suffered to be touched with theft
For the redder lips of my daughter.
And then, even later, when they ask
Of my dear lips, and what of mine?
I’ll simply say that once upon a time
I had them, but that now there are none.