“Her hands full of earth, she kneels, in red suede high heels:” Planting a New Language in Diaspo/Renga

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

UnnamedThis past summer, news of the Gaza massacres came most revealingly in images and videos taken with cell phones— the devices originally intended to connect us through voice, chronicling instead the horrors befalling Palestinians in real time, horrors that defy conventional language, and will not be chronicled with fidelity by the news media: a suffering made more pronounced by being pushed out of language. Through those seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, the days and nights linked with images of mangled children and rubble and hysteria had the effect of a long nightmare in which the sleeper neither has the power to change the outcome of impending calamity, nor is able to wake up and disengage from it.

The ripple effects of genocide and silencing go farther than we can imagine; victims and perpetrators can end up looking like a paper doll chain: inhumane/dehumanized. It never occurred to me that the claustrophobic effect of this chain may be reversed by another kind of chain, one that brings moments of erasure back into language by linking voices in poetry.

At a recent RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) conference, I heard a chain of poems, a “Renga,” written by two poets of different backgrounds, who, despite the unique stylistic sensibilities that set them apart, speak from the experience of calling many places home, and whose work is imbued with a concern to translate culture for the cause of a nuanced understanding of “the other.” These two poets, I discovered, know each other in the way it is common for writers to know each other— through writing— they had never met until that particular poetry reading I attended. Marilyn Hacker who resides in Paris, a celebrated author of many volumes of poetry, and Deema Shehabi, her younger counterpart in California, also a poet of multiple cultures, decided to assemble a series of linked poems. After four years and thousands of email exchanges containing drafts of poems, the work is now available in published form. The title of the book Diaspo/Renga is a play on the word “Diaspora,” and “Renga,” a traditional Japanese collaborative form. The Renga is made up of linked Tanka. Explaining the form, Deema Shehabi says: “Traditionally, one poet would write the first Tanka, followed by the other poet’s Tanka. The syllable count for each Tanka is 5-7-5 then 7-7. Marilyn stuck to the original syllable count where I did not.” In their adaptation of the Renga form, each poet writes two Tanka as a single poem, ten lines in all.

The authors of Diaspo/Renga enlarge the form thematically by including personae and scenes that describe the present moment framed by a historical moment or moments of nostalgia in exile, in addition to the reflections on nature that the traditional Haiku/Tanka is shaped by. Each author sends the other a poem of ten lines and works off of the response to compose the next ten lines. Following is an example of what they make of names in alternating Tanka:

Marilyn Hacker

Her name on a leaf
of paper above the sea.
His name spray-painted

on a concrete wall. My name’s
hesitant calligraphy

in a new notebook.
Their names linked by an echo
in an empty street

The town’s name where they were born.
Please write your name for me here.

Deema Shehabi

The names of the villages razed
in 1948 stitched with golden thread
on a black tent in the Made in Palestine

exhibit in Houston. The names
of my uncle’s daughters, each
dimpling and swelling with kisses:

Wafaa, Areej, Shaden, Loubna.
The naming and unnaming

We argued about in poems:
Darfur, Gaza, Isdoud, Yaffa.

By reinvigorating an old form, Hacker and Shehabi have found a way to address the debilitating condition of a growing mistrust between people in our age of perpetual war. These poets piece together the exact same shattered mirrors of identities that are the shrapnel of our ever-worsening global conflicts. From violence, these poets make reveries of hope. They stitch together Warsaw and Gaza, Tahrir Square and a Paris garden, North Carolina and Ramallah, Iraq and New York, in a way that speaks volumes about how all loss is the same.

Deema Shehabi

… her head covered with a stylish red cap,
the summer before she died

Marilyn Hacker

A brown wool knit cap
pulled over her pony-tail,
she read elegies

in translation. On the screen
Baghdad burned again, again.

Another teacher
in rose silk shalwar qameez
came up and hugged her;

They called each other sister
in their adopted language.

Some of the personae in the Renga are named (real or imaginary names) and some are left unnamed. The point is that ultimately we need to teach ourselves how to locate and save others on the same map of loss.

Written continents apart, Diaspo/Renga reads like one story, a story that challenges divisive notions, a story that contains scenes to which we all have an equal claim. Shehabi and Hacker piece together not only our fragmented bond as human beings but enact the piecing together by linking the disparate images seamlessly, or with a breathtaking poetic comment on where the two meet at the seam: a moment of translation’s embrace.

Translation helps in negotiating literal and figurative borders, but faces a constant threat:

Marilyn Hacker

In a Damascene
Pizza parlor they worked on
Translations of Plath,

stacking up saucers of sweet
thick coffee they drank till dusk.

Two years later, one
portable phone’s been cut off;
no number to call.

The now-distant friend translates
silence that’s not poetry.

Deema Shehabi

A year later, she decides
to join him in Ramallah—
her research on Palestinian

youth on the desk next to the jasmine.
Sometimes, she stands with him

at the checkpoints,
takes his hand, pins it
into hers, counts

How many metal doors
It takes to get to the other side.

In a world where, regardless of whether we witness the tensions on checkpoints or the violence of airstrikes or road bombs firsthand or not, we are constantly haunted by images of war; the battlefield stretches and hovers over our psyches because war has outgrown it. In Diaspo/Renga, Deema Shehabi and Marilyn Hacker have given us a new language to find ourselves in kinship against this isolating reality; they have proven that silencing and destroyed communication can return as poetry.

“Ours is not a caravan of despair,” said the learned
Sheikh with tears, quoting Rumi.

She folds her arms into her chest.
I am done with narrowness

— Deema Shehabi

Order Diaspo/Renga here: http://hollandparkpress.co.uk/book_detail.php?book_id=40

Photo credit: Hayan Charara