BooksWeekend

Two Poets Search for Home

In their latest volumes, poets Youmna Chlala and Chris Nealon confront the notion of home and the emotional challenges of our own tentative, pre- or post-apocalyptic moment.

Youmna Chlala, The Paper Camera, Litmus Press, 2019 (image courtesy Litmus Press, cover design by Mark Addison Smith)

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,” begins the 137th Psalm, one of the great poems of exile, of longing for a homeland from which the poet has been forced; “yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Alas, the experience of displacement has been a human constant from the sixth century BCE up to the present. It’s a cruel irony that even as we chafe under the requirements of the current “stay at home” pandemic regimen, COVID-19’s most vulnerable targets might be the vast populations of refugees rendered homeless by war, political and social unrest, and climate change.

The Beirut-born artist and poet Youmna Chlala has long meditated — in film, photography, and conceptual projects — on the meaning of “home” and the experience of displacement. The Paper Camera is her first full-length work of poetry, a hybrid text that encompasses long and short verse lines (sometimes arranged in stanzas), passages of prose, pages in which words are sprinkled about like confetti, and images; mostly super-8 film stills from Chlala’s own Notes for Leaving and Arriving series (2014/2017), these out-of-focus, intensely evocative pictures linger on darkened interiors, building facades, and street scenes, all devoid of human figures.

Youmna Chlala, super-8mm film still from Notes for Leaving and Arriving (2014 / 2017)

The Paper Camera is an affair of places — Beirut, Cyprus, Damascus, Paris, New York, unidentified villages, endless ports and airports: places named and evoked, but never, much as the poet’s roving sensibility longs to, inhabited as home. The places Chlala has lived come to her as somatic and sensuous memories: smells, colors, and the tastes of foods she has eaten, the last markers of region as well as deprivation and civil strife — figs, sambousek, tabouli, cornflakes with powdered milk.

The book-length poem itself moves among cultures and languages, shifting from English to French, and occasionally Arabic.

When they ask where you come from, tell them:

Don’t believe in origins. Authenticity died with Colonialism.

Find a worn Arabic phrase book, practice saying Ghorba

a kind of home, outside of language

“Language is the only homeland,” wrote Czesław Miłosz, one the 20th century’s many exiled poets; but Chlala refuses to cling to a single tongue as a marker of “origin” or “nation.” The “legacy of crusaders” — a legacy in which she still lives — is that no single language can any longer be a “homeland”:

First, we had to learn each other’s languages.

This was the longest, most loving trial.

Then we undid our own.

As its title suggests, Chlala composes the poem less as a traditional linguistic edifice than as a record of moments, flashes outside of language itself — as a “paper camera.” There is a sustained, compelling contrast between the empty cityscapes and interiors of her film stills and the vivid moments of memory her lines record from cities across the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as if the reader were turning over the pages of an intensely interesting but entirely unfamiliar family photo album. Surprisingly perhaps, the poignant and (fittingly) disorienting collage of moments and memories that is The Paper Camera ends with something of an apotheosis of language itself, of the energy of words in which the poet has recovered or constructed a home-between-worlds:

Beauty is back, rejoice!

Language : Energy

–>speed + instantaneous = no place

where is the face to face : reflecting surface

the cameraless photograph

Chris Nealon, The Shore, Wave Books, 2020 (image courtesy Wave Books)

People often cite the beginning of Psalm 137 as a wistful expression of nostalgia in exile; they’re less likely to quote that psalm’s ending, with its irruption of violent nationalistic resentment: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed: happy shall be he that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall be he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Chris Nealon’s fourth volume of poems, The Shore, registers the violence and resentment that lurk beneath the surface of contemporary bourgeois American existence.

As a gay man, Nealon is acutely aware of the omnipresence of “terror” in society, of the hatred toxic masculinity directs at its other:

Terror—that’s the meaning of male homophobia—

It’s not a fear of buttfucking, please—it’s the punishment of male insouciance, male

lightness, a bodily comportment and a vocal inflection that gets heard as

everything is beautiful     everything is fine

For his part, Nealon wants to claim a sexual identity not defined by its object of desire: “Remember queer theory? How we used to joke our sexuality was ‘graduate student’? / I want my sexuality to be ‘courage.’”

At the same time, he knows that as a white man, a member of the first-world middle class, he enjoys privileges unknown to most of the world’s population. In “White Meadows,” addressed to the Mexican poet, cultural critic, and activist Heriberto Yépez, Nealon muses precisely on the issue of white privilege and on the possibility of somehow ameliorating the world’s inequalities through discourse, poetic or otherwise.

I have no illusions about hybridity—

I know no hybrid poetry can bridge the gap between the flowered procession and the unmarked grave

I know there’s no right ratio between the peso and the dollar, any more than there’s a fair price for a loaf of bread

Bread should be free

Children should flourish

The poem is an astonishing lyrical weave of plainspoken, direct address, allusions to Virgil, Lorca, and Whitman, and thoughtful, generous self-assessment.

The Shore is essentially a book about the slow-motion apocalypse that is late capitalism. On its very first page, we witness both “fire” and “flooding”: “in the great transition no one could tell if we were doomed or free.” That poem, “The Victorious Ones,” tries to imagine the end of the order we know. “Someone once said,” Fredric Jameson wrote, “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” “So look,” says Nealon, addressing his young son, “I know I won’t see the end of capital / But you, child—I wonder— / Surely it won’t be pretty….” As he writes earlier in the same poem:

And yes like every other poet with a child I have dreamed of mine along some empty road in camouflage and tatters, scrambling for potable water in 2046

But you know what? Fuck the zombie apocalypse

I’m going to imagine him with comrades

In “Last Glimpse,” Nealon recounts (or imagines) “giving it up”: “I gave up thinking that the song I heard was the song of the world / I gave up lyric, gave up reverie, I gave up aesthesis— / I left my notebook on the park bench open with its pages riffling….” Happily, the poet didn’t stick to that renunciation: The Shore is a marvelously, heartbreakingly lyrical book, recasting a Stevensian or Whitmanian personal voice to confront or puzzle through the emotional challenges of our own tentative, pre- or post-apocalyptic moment. It’s hard to imagine a more sympathetic companion than Nealon with whom to face the apocalypse; home is, after all, wherever you’re “with comrades.”

The Paper Camera by Youmna Chlala (2019) is published by Litmus Press and is available online and in bookstores.

The Shore by Chris Nealon (2020) is published by Wave Books and is available online and in bookstores.

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