Beirut in poetry
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2009
I must be on an artsy kick these days – well, if La dama de Beirut counts as art. (My suspicion is that it falls more into the Levantine definition of “artiste”.) This time, my eye was caught by a new book of poetry, titled Beirut Summer:
How lame, I thought at first. Someone took a 2006 war image and decided to capitalize on Beirut’s reputation without knowing much about the actual city.
Shame on me for being so quick to judge. Apparently the author, a woman named Catherine Evans Latta, does indeed know Beirut – and her time there very much coincided with the city’s war days.
According to the “about me” section of a writers’ website to which she belongs, Catherine Evans Latta is a graduate of Cornell University and the American University of Beirut. She studied at Stanford as a graduate student with poet Denise Levertov and, later, author Nancy Packer. Catherine’s poetry has been published in numerous journals: The Beloit Poetry Journal, the Stanford Literary Quarterly, Fresh Hot Bread and elsewhere. She was a feature columnist for Beirut’s The Daily Star, the largest English language paper in the Middle East. She taught in the English Dept. of the American University of Beirut where she lived for ten years. Prior to that, she lived in Cairo for three years.
One day when I have more free time, I’d like to spend a few weeks reading through the old Daily Stars. I understand that its archive is honored somewhat more in the breach than the observance, and that accessing it requires a lot of sweet-talking. But still – it would be interesting both to see the articles and to trace the genealogy of the paper’s many writers. I get the strong impression that most of the foreign writers have been less trained journalists than literate English-speakers who found themselves in Beirut and in need of a job – and that many have gone on to equally interesting post-paper careers.
Back to Latta and her poetry. An account of an interview she gave to a California-based local cable program called “Arab TV” states:
The poems are a series of powerfully disturbing and vivid images detailing the pains of people living under fire in Beirut. She has included poems that cover several wars from 1967 to the present. Written from a woman’s point of view, the poems provide insights into the torn lives of ordinary people.
During the interview, she said that while the events in the poems are told in the first person, they were not all her personal experience “…there is poetic license after all,” but all the people in the poems were friends and it is their experiences and stories, as well as her own, that she drew upon for the collection. One poem tells of the extreme penury of two maids who came from the camps to work for her. She remarked how many had broken lives: — the gardener who moved his family to live in a tent in the garden because it was safer than in his neighborhood; — the friend whose farm was burnt to the ground, but felt obliged to remain to show her commitment to her country; — or the mother whose child could only sleep to a cassette playing the call to prayer.
Latta let her imagination take flight to describe the psychological pain of war. In fact, she sat under fire in 1967, sat out the 1972 War and in 1974 while teaching at AUB had bombs going off in nearby class rooms. She was in Beirut during the beginning of the 1975-1990 Civil War and again in 1983.
I’m not much of a poetry fan: I appreciate poetry, but when looking for a book to read, I prefer novels or biographies or … anything other than poetry, with the possible exception of an economics text. And I’m slightly discomfited by the idea that Latta waited until 2008 to publish her poems on Beirut. To me, this suggests that she or the publisher thought that there might be a larger market for them thanks to the 2006 war, even though (as I understand it) she wasn’t in Beirut then.
The writers’ website includes one brief excerpt:
I saw dawn briefly
in the hills
But now my eyes ache so
I cannot mend
the sound-rent sky
to see the day.
Um. If I were better at literary criticism, I am sure that I would have something interesting to say in response. I remember 2006 skies broken by above-the-sound-barrier fighter jets and bunker buster-i bombs, but I missed the boat, clearly, on wanting to mend them.
In any case, I’m interested to see what she has to say, although I’d like also to put in a plug here for a series of poems about how ordinary life in Beirut is most days. And I’m still cheap: the book is $12.95 on Amazon. I can wait for a used copy :).