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Suheir Hammad, ‘breaking poems’ (Cypher Books, 2008)

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Cypher Books has just announced that Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems, which was the recipient of the 2009 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, has just been nominated for an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

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It’s wonderful to see a poet most well-known for her sharp and effective performance — she was an original cast member and co-writer for the TONY Award winning Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway (2003) — being recognized for her literary work.

I have been a huge admirer of Hammad’s work since I first read her poem, “Of Woman Torn,” in the anthology The Poetry of Arab Women, edited by Nathalie Handal. Hammad’s “Of Woman Torn” addresses the so-called “honor killing” of an eloped young woman by her father in Cairo in 1997:

palestine’s daughter
love making can be as dangerous
as curfews broken
guerillas hidden

you join now those who won’t leave
the earth haunt my
sleep who watch my
back whenever i lay
the forced suicides the
dowry deaths and

nora
decapitated by
her father on her forbidden
honeymoon he paraded
her head through
cairo to prove his
manhood this is 1997

and i can only hope
you had a special song a
poem memorized a secret
that made you smile

this is a love
poem cause i love
you now woman
who lived tried to
love in this world of
machetes and sin

i smell your ashes
of zaatar and almonds
under my skin
i carry your bones

Her latest collection, breaking poems, I read as a sustained meditation on breaking. Her syntax is broken, her lines are clipped, and her poems are bombardments of images and words, demonstrations of brokenness and piecing together of selves, of languages, histories, and geographies. In these poems, it’s no longer necessary to speak in argument convincing sentences; the fact of her being, speaking, the fact of her family’s, her communities’, the fact of women surviving in Palestine, in Iraq, in New Orleans, is argument enough.

Hammad brings into her poems words in the Arabic language in a way I’ve never seen her do before; such “basic” words as “I” and “and,” in addition to “fire,” and “war,” among many others, well-placed and punctuating the poems. I have gotten to the point in my reading that if I do not see the English words for “I” and “and” anymore, then so be it, for in addition to breaking language, she has established this music throughout the collection’s clipped lines, stripped of all the fat and fluff, where English and Arabic words, infused with Hip-Hop, urban street language, are popping in your mouth as you speak them. From “break (vitalogy)”:

all matter related
we connected

ana on corners
holy grams
ana incarcerated light

gaze me

ana gaza
you can’t see me

ana blood wa memory

it was all a dream
lion kissing me

ana harb
heart
ana har

ana wa ana
we related
woven
ultimate design
physical dream

please excuse my state of disappearance
been renovating structure
innovating space
hype earrings on

Really, the point of the collection is the reassembling of the many selves, in a continuum of war against poor people, against folks of color, against immigrants, against women, and the self is all of these things which cannot be extricated from one another.

And so for those American poets who doubt the existence or relevance of well-written political poetry in the USA, for those who think “political poetry” is just a post-9/11 fad, I would say to leave your comfy little academic and abstract circles and open your minds to poets coming out of communities of color, immigrant communities, multilingual communities, communities of working folk and families, these American poets’ communities, and see that “political poetry” has always existed, has always been necessary, has always been crafted and spoken and sang, has always served to educate, inspire, and mobilize its constituents.

For further reading/viewing:

In Conversation: Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad
A feminist icon and a rising star on the sexual revolution, the booty-call nineties, and the Superwoman myth. (New York Magazine)

GRITtv Interview with Laura Flanders: Breaking Poems and Breaking Stereotypes: An Interview with Suheir Hammad

Comments (9)

  • On August 18, 2009 at 12:18 pm Rich Villar wrote:

    At the risk of being redundant:

    “And so for those American poets who doubt the existence or relevance of well-written political poetry in the USA, for those who think “political poetry” is just a post-9/11 fad, I would say to leave your comfy little academic and abstract circles and open your minds to poets coming out of communities of color, immigrant communities, multilingual communities, communities of working folk and families, these American poets’ communities, and see that “political poetry” has always existed, has always been necessary, has always been crafted and spoken and sang, has always served to educate, inspire, and mobilize its constituents.”

    GOD YES! Okay, I really shouldn’t be screaming in my living room, but well. That’s probably the best sentence I’ve read all year.

  • On August 18, 2009 at 12:18 pm Tara Betts wrote:

    Hey Barbara Jane,
    I wanted to share my kudos for Suheir, but I have to just say that the last two paragraphs, especially the last sentence speaks to the wealth of a broad array of voices that get overlooked and speak to the broad possibilities of what can be/include.

  • On August 18, 2009 at 12:24 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Nice to see you here BJ, and Suheir too. Looking forward to your posts.

  • On August 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm Sam Rasnake wrote:

    An outstanding discussion of Hammad’s new work. I especially like the notion of “the reassembling of the many selves” which is at the core of this poetry.

  • On August 18, 2009 at 2:12 pm Latino Poetry Review wrote:

    You’re off to a great start with these refreshing posts. Aside from learning about Hammad’s work, with some choice citations, I’m also especially appreciative of bringing to my attention (because I wasn’t aware of it) Cypher Books. I just got word that Cypher is going to bring out John Murillo’s UP JUMP THE BOOGIE early next year, a book I’m very looking forward to, in particular.

    • On August 18, 2009 at 4:12 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

      Thanks Francisco, Yes Cypher Books is a really exciting indie press, and I thought about submitting DIWATA to them. Their first two releases included poetry on CD as well; I like this consideration for both the spoken and written word.

      I’m interested in the forthcoming John Murillo collection. They will also publishing Roger Bonair-Agard’s second collection, GULLY.

      • On August 18, 2009 at 5:32 pm Rich Villar wrote:

        Cypher is ALSO publishing Rachel McKibbens’ debut collection, PINK ELEPHANT. She’ll reading with Aracelis Girmay, Willie Perdomo, and Tara Betts at Fordham University this November. :-)

        It’s good to be in New York this fall. Just sayin.

  • On August 18, 2009 at 7:12 pm R.L. wrote:

    THANK YOU! so much for this post, and for introducing me to this lovely poet. Since Annie Finch’s & Camille Dungy’s inevitable departure, I have really been missing Harriet usual, thoughtful discussions on various poetics/poetries (often those that slip under the radar). I don’t often comment, but I felt the need to do so here, to welcome you and to say I look forward to more posts from you to come.

  • On August 19, 2009 at 12:04 am Terreson wrote:

    Yes to the article. This is the thing.

    Tereson

Tags: ,
Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.