In a state of restlessness and vague dissatisfaction with the state of American poems—my own and other people’s—I have recently returned to the brilliant, cranky, and chastening essays written by Robert Bly in the early 1960s. The best known of them, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry,” begins: “American poetry resembles a group of huge spiral arms whirling about in space.” He goes on to argue that the “1917 generation”(including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams) led American poetry to lose touch with the inner world and with it, spiritual and psychological intensity. He doesn’t let up, insisting that “puritan fear of the unconscious and the business drive toward dealing in outer things—meet in our poetry to push out the unconscious,” leaving poetry stale, centerless, and externally preoccupied.
Fifty-two years later, I can’t say that things have improved much. If anything, American poetry is even more enamored with externally focused gossip and distractions. Though there are stunning exceptions among American poets, I—like Bly—often find myself looking outside the U.S. to find poems and poets that dig deep into the unconscious. In that quest, one of the poets I have turned to again and again is Lebanese-French poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata. Last fall, Northwestern University Press released her most recent book in English, Where Are the Trees Going?, which her longtime translator, Marilyn Hacker, describes as “an amalgam of the long title sequence of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Prix Goncourt winning thirteenth book of poems, Où vont les arbres (2011), passages from her magic-realist ‘autofiction’ La Maison aux orties (2008), and a short story, ‘Zarifé la folle,’ that takes another angle on the author’s preoccupations.”
Vénus Khoury-Ghata was born in 1937 to a Maronite Christian family in Bcharré, Lebanon. Her father was a police officer whose cruelty is well-documented, and her mother was a housewife, who Khoury-Ghata describes as “illiterate in two languages.” Though she was married to a wealthy Lebanese man at a very young age, Khoury-Ghata eventually fell in love with the French biologist Jean Ghata and moved to Paris in 1973, where she continues to live. She has published twenty-four novels and twenty collections of poetry.
As Khoury-Ghata tells it, her work is always set in Bcharré, the same village that was the birthplace of the poet Khalil Gibran: “In all my books I go back to the memory of this village, all the sources of my imagination come from there . . . [Bcharré] is the place that opened the doors of imagination before me, the peasants, life in nature, the earth. In all my stories I describe very pleasant peasants, simple people, not rich people but people of nature.” Even now, Khoury-Ghata’s life replicates the daily rhythms of the women she lived amongst in Lebanon: “And I like to clean the house myself, to eat food that I cooked for myself, vegetarian food like we used to eat in the village, rarely any meat. I’ve kept this way of life from then—cooking, cleaning. The women among whom I lived were mountain women. They worked all the time, never stopped, never. So I’ve borrowed this rhythm from them, of working all the time. If I’m not cleaning, I’m writing.”
Like her earlier work, the poems and stories in Where Are the Trees Going? are deeply rooted in that village. There are soup pots and shepherds, dishtowels and soot, and there is wind and snow and punishing sun. And the war—or threat of war—that has defined modern Lebanon (at least for the rest of the world) is never far from view:
“Years later these same waves would carry the swollen cadavers of the victims of the war that split the country into two enemy clans. Emerging from their shelters, the inhabitants of Beirut would rush toward the beaches to watch with disgust and delectation the dead shifting in the undertow, who sometimes were swept into the river mouth as if they wanted to swim back up to their source.”
And yet, the Lebanon of Where are the Trees Going? is not simply the Lebanon of war correspondents or photo-journalists. Khoury-Ghata’s Lebanon has the layers pulled back to expose inner wounds, the scars of the unconscious:
The wind ran faster than you did
You caught up with it at the road’s last turning where a woman hung herself
from the vertical shaft of her wall
Her stony toes swung like a clock pendulum
Her cooking pot vomited up the black water of her sleep
When the wind was tied to a stake
And the salt of life thrown over your shoulder
You shucked her corn
And put on her dress with her fatigue though yesterday wasn’t yet tomorrow
Her children who died in infancy have all eternity before them to grow
The stain on the grass is “God’s face,” the drainpipe weeps because “only the drainpipe has feelings,” and the house shutters emigrate, leaving the windows bereft. Everything is sentient, yet nothing is rational in the ways of the waking world. It is as if the violence and cruelty of both families and nations can be explained by the clashing codes of all the inhabitants of the material world.
Vénus Khoury-Ghata has written elsewhere about her abusive father, her brilliant brother who descended into drug abuse and madness, and the toll that war has taken on both her family and her country. She has revisited those themes again and again in both poetry and prose. As I read this book—and many of her others—I am reminded of epigenetic science that has revealed how human experience, particularly trauma, can be passed down through generations. Recently, we have learned that the DNA of children and grandchildren of trauma survivors can contain a biological memory of the Holocaust or the Danish Famine or even 9/11. As an article in Fast Company described it: “[R]esearchers found that generations after the Second World War, offspring of Holocaust survivors continued to suffer from terrible nightmares of being ‘chased, persecuted, tortured or annihilated,’ even though they were not around during the war.”
In Khoury-Ghata’s work, it is as if the genetic code of not just a family but also a village and a country has been altered by trauma. And when she rolls the DNA back out, we find it de-coded in a fragmented folktale:
“The mother paraded her ancestors in front of us as you’d leaf through a book. Their near-unpronounceable names evoked flight from the Ottomans, locusts, drought. . . Did the mother think of the women who had preceded her when the pomegranate tree bled on our door-step, a blood as black as her own, her monthly blood, assuaged with herbs for fear of wasting the household money in doctor’s fees when that money could ease the daily life of the son locked up among the madmen?”
It is not just that the images are surreal—though many of them are—it is that all objects are animate and they suffer their own longings and heartbreaks (“the wolf is as tender as far-flowing lands”; “Not the recumbent grass/Its humility is feigned”; “Our backs turned to the house/we begged it to keep the same number of walls/not to bargain away the lark’s nest/not to stride across the ravine to make its bed in the forest”). Once we’ve visited that land crowded with consciousness, it is hard to re-enter ordinary life without looking twice at the maple tree in the front yard.
All that said, I miss the side-by-side French and English of some of Hacker’s earlier translations. In English alone, the work is missing some of its music. Though the images are vivid, they are weightless. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that they all bear similar weight. The poems in particular are composed of simple declarative statements, and though the declarations themselves are often fantastical and deeply imaginative (“the fence posts struck blind are inconsolable” and “the cypress applauded our performance”), they can add up to create a kind of aloofness that keeps the reader at an emotional distance despite the heartbreak at the core of nearly every description.
This, of course, is the struggle of many translations. And these translations are particularly challenging because Khoury-Ghata writes in French though her native language is Arabic:
All my life, I’ve struggled to learn to cook, to garden, to write in a language that isn’t mine. A daily struggle with snails that devour aromatic plants, with dust that invades the furniture, with the plump adjectives and metaphors my mother tongue delights in that are rejected by the French language that shrinks, that gets thinner as you watch. Exit images and excess sentiment. No obvious emotions either, the contemporary novel will have none of them. Arab as I am, I must erase from my memory a whole patrimony nourished with pre-Islamic poetry weeping on the ruins of the encampment, mourning a dead she-camel or a lost homeland, in order to write like the moderns.
As she puts it: “Nourished by the two languages, I write in Arabic through the French language—when my poems are translated into Arabic, they seem to be returning to their original language.” And if French is too contained for the landscape of Khoury-Ghata’s imagination, then there is even more lost when it is translated into our own bloodless English, despite Marilyn Hacker’s heroic efforts to bring Khoury-Ghata’s work to English-speaking audiences.
But even from the far remove of translation, we can feel that Vénus Khoury-Ghata has tapped deep into the inner world. And the deepest, most memorable part of Where Are the Trees Going? is the character of the mother. As Khoury-Ghata put it: “Only mothers and stockpots are eternal/protected by their soot.”
And in this book, the mother is fierce and tender, capricious and fair, but more than anything mythic. “The mother”—as Khoury-Ghata refers to her—marries and bears children and dies on a whim. The children—the “we” in the book—tiptoe around her and assert themselves mostly when she’s sleeping:
The pen’s sputtering didn’t wake her
didn’t rewrite her pillow
We would open her mouth to see on what fire she simmered her words
And from what angle she blew on those the size of a spark
The sun and God are minor deities in comparison to the mother (“God of abundance and of friendly locusts/you who crack walnuts with the back of your hand/polish the mother’s pots with the sun you keep in your pocket”). Though the poems are interspersed with conversations between Khoury-Ghata and her own dead mother, one cannot help but think that “the mother” of this book is The Mother, the archetypal mother, the one that Jung calls the “loving and terrible mother” who creates and destroys according to her own whims. There is no doubt that this mother—as Khoury-Ghata conceives her—penetrates the unconscious, and she returns in her most raw, demanding, and power-filled form.
As we in the West once again watch the Middle East with a mixture of anxiety and fatalism, Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s work gives us another set of images to turn to. Yes, there are geo-politics and tribal factions and religious divisions to explain the conflicts in the region, but Where are the Trees Going? offers us another frame of reference, one that includes the imagination and the inner life. As Bly put it at the end of his cantankerous essay: “Most of our poetry so far has nothing to give us because, like its audience, it drifts aimlessly in the outer world. A country’s poetry can drift outward, like the lives of most of its people, or it can plunge inward, trying for great intensity. Inward poetry deepens all life around it. Other poets have given their countries this gift.” Vénus Khoury-Ghata has most certainly offered that gift to her country—both of her countries—and Marilyn Hacker has made it available us, a gift we should all accept in gratitude.