Imagine your most frustrating, most irritating day at home with the kids. The girls joust with cuttings from your favorite fern, the boys paint Spiderman with mascara, the casserole smoulders in the oven, the baby wails in the rocker. You want to sleep, or scream, or run. It's hard.
But now imagine how much harder it could be. You pause to scan the hills outside your window, and they are as scorched and blackened as dinner. Your baby wails in perfect pitch with distant falling bombs. And instead of gruffly shooing the kids outside, you must caution:
...go play outside,
but don't throw balls near the soldiers.
When a jeep goes past
keep your eyes on the ground.
And don't pick up stones,
not even for hopscotch.
These lines open "What She Said," one of the many exquisite, incisive poems in Lisa Suhair Majaj's new collection.
Geographies of Light takes us to a place both shockingly foreign and familiar as a heartbeat, a place of breastfeeding babies, childhood afternoons on the riverbank, family homes crushed into dust, body parts strewn across rubble. We recognize it and we cannot fathom it:
Love is in the details.
I want to know what that man,
twenty-five years old,
killed at his window
cradling his daughter in his arms,
ate for breakfast.
Lisa Suhair Majaj is Palestinian-American. She grew up in Jordan, was educated in Lebanon and in the US and now lives in Cyprus with her family. Her poems bridge these geographic boundaries with the universal theme of loss. She writes of slow, agonizing departure and of frantic fleeing, of relationships born into and torn apart by senseless, endless war.
This alone would make for a memorable collection, but Geographies of Light is more than memorable. It is intimate. A thread of humanness winds through the poems - a reminder of that which ties us together - and the middle section of the book contains seven poems on mothering. It is fitting that these should form the core of the book. Motherhood endures.
In "Penguin Parents" Mujaj writes:
I tuck my child beneath my breasts, ready
to face any danger in his defense, endure icescapes
of hunger, tundras of broken nights -
till my mate returns, scoops up the child,
and sends me staggering to the sea of sleep.
Geographies of Light recounts parenting through adversity, through atrocity, mother to son as well as father to daughter. The collection also tells of mothering across generations - grandmother to granddaughter - and across cultures, as in the poem "First Year."
in her face
three countries speak:
already she finds the cat
in two languages
knows the name of love
in three tongues
soon syllables will fall from her lips
the first rain
Lisa Suhair Majaj's poetry is unflinching, tender and beautiful. Geographies of Light won the Del Sol Poetry Prize in 2008 and includes the poem "Answers," first published by Literary Mama in 2004.