“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.

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