Short, vivid, frankly erotic and remarkable for their emotional intelligence, Syrian poet Al-Massri's poems are as startling in English as they must have been to their first Arabic readers. Her acute renditions of pain and pleasure are more than a bit suggestive of Catullus—or rather a female Catullus, whose mix of the familial and the bodily, of worries about motherhood with expression of lust, first shock, then draw admiration for their concise artistry: Before you fell asleep, a one-sentence poem asks a lover or husband, why did you forget/ to switch off/ the lamp/ of my burning desires? A lover appears in his old cotton clothes/ and his torn socks, the way the need for love/ strips naked. A woman with unconsummated yearnings compares herself to a fruit tree the birds leave alone. A happier woman, at the end of a tryst, will search for pieces/ of my clothes/ to wear me, leaving only tears/ of pleasure behind. Mattawa renders the traditional Middle Eastern forms of Al-Massri's lyric sequences into brief English free verse. The results sound just familiar enough to draw Americans in, just strange enough to keep them in memory.(Nov.)
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