For as long as I’ve been around the study of poetry and creative writing, I’ve heard a constant call to make poetry more challenging for the reader, to make it denser or more disjunctive, to move away from meaning, and so forth. But that never seemed to extend to using multiple languages in poems, or even in collections. I’m not saying the people who were advocating for more challenging work were hostile to multilingual poems; it’s more like it didn’t come up, at least not in the conversations I was listening to and reading. Like it was an oversight, or a blind spot.
I think the first time I read a collection that was not only multilingual but which demanded the reader confront a new language without the benefit of translation was Barbara Jane Reyes’s Diwata back in 2010, and I found myself poring over poems, googling translations of words in Tagalog, trying to gain a dim sense of what Reyes was conveying—and a dim sense is really all I could get. I took enough translation classes in graduate school to realize that I could only ever scratch the surface of literal meaning, much less local meaning or idiom or metaphor. But, it was still worth it to do that work.
And thus we come to this month’s Poetry Book Club selection, The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser, which moves between English and Arabic—I just learned that the slang for this is Arablish—in poems that are full of energy, linguistic cleverness, audacity, hunger, and longing all at the same time. But before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of The Wild Fox of Yemen, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Threa Almontaser, you’ll need to subscribe by February 15!
For instance, let’s look at the poem “Coffee Arabica as a Maelstrom of Endless Aftershocks.” In the course of looking for translations of some of the Arabic words in this poem, I came across a website that talked about the various theories of the etymology of the word “coffee,” and it turns out that Almontaser begins her poem with one of them, the story of a goat herder who found his flock beside a coffee bush, ate the berries, and “The sudden gong in his chest— // orchestral surge, dried delirium. He named our tree / cahuha, force.” This is one of the few times that Almontaser adds a translation in the text, and that’s because she comes back to force later in the poem.
Much more common is this, almost halfway through:
How the youngest dodged cars, scaled bricks
to reach you, tugged her torn pants down
for the coins you carried. Haqq al-qawha, she said.
You stood drinking your breakfast cup
as the sabha trembled on the ground before you,
wanting to cry tears of qawha to gift her.
As far as I could tell from my limited research (and I hope to ask Almontaser about these moments in our author chat), “haqq al-qawha” translates to “the right of coffee,” and the sites I looked at suggested a bribe or a kickback, though that doesn’t quite make sense to me. The child who says this to the speaker is introduced as one of a group “huddled in nests of flimsy boxes, soot-cheeked,” which suggests to me that they were homeless, begging. The “you” of the poem drinks their breakfast cup as the sabah, or morning, “trembled on the ground before you.”
Now I want to take a step back and look at the poem as a whole: The title calls coffee Arabica “a Maelstrom of Endless Aftershocks,” and the moment between the “you” of the poem (constructed deliberately to implicate the reader) and this homeless child is just one of many aftershocks. That scene begins with the line, “We will help you forget yesterday, walking past kids / huddled in nests of flimsy boxes,” and we’re forced as readers to confront our own complicity in suffering even if we don’t realize our connection to it.
There’s so much more in just this one poem I could dive into, and even more in the poems that fill this fascinating debut collection, forthcoming from Graywolf Press on April 6 but available to our Poetry Book Club members in just a few weeks. If you subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by February 15, you’ll receive your early copy of The Wild Fox of Yemen, and will be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Threa Almontaser in early April. I hope you’ll join us!