Review of Kibbe, by Susan Azar Porterfield (Mayapple Press, 2012)
To make Susan Azar Porterfield’s kibbe—a Mediterranean sort of meat pie—take one part fus’ha (metrical poetic lines written in classical Arabic); stir in an Ezra Pound’s worth of English vernacular and free verse; add minced onion, ground lamb, and olive oil; blend in the culture, wars, and language of several nations; mix together with a generous dash of memory and daily life; shape into a ball of experience; and fry until golden. The result is comfort food that discomfits.
In the title poem of Kibbe, the poet is seen at work in her kitchen making this traditional recipe, one that women across centuries and continents have made and continue to make, even as the world around them crumbles. It is, on the surface, a domestic scene: “Today in the land of new-world corn, / heart of the Midwest, I’m making kibbe.” In the ensuing couplets, however, as the speaker adds ingredients, so the poet adds suggestion. No longer is this merely a poem about the speaker making dinner. The scope broadens, and the narrative “I” becomes an instrument of meaning “wrapped in the alleys // of Beirut where murmurs drift from kitchens / of women who look like me.” Porterfield introduces cities as if they were women she knew, and in their naming conjures entire families of civilizations, their complex relationships, and the conflicts that tear them asunder.Porterfield’s touch is deft, though; she knows the secret of good kibbe: don’t over-season. Where the poem could end leaving a bitter taste in the mouth—overtly decrying the West Bank refuge camp massacre by Israeli forces in the early part of this century (and thus burying the poem in a moment of historic indictment)—Porterfield instead quietly turns the poem toward hope and affirms the value and regenerative promise of the ongoing work women do in feeding others in the aftermath of such horror. No matter what, she says,
Someone is always making kibbe.
Tomorrow a daughter in Damascus
will make it. The day after,
a mother in Jenin.
At once Middle American and Middle Eastern, Porterfield is not the first poet to feel culturally astraddle or to feel haunted by the parent culture’s half possession. In “Sometimes the Dead Choose to Reappear,” her interrogation of her Lebanese father whose ghost may or may not be present with her as she returns to the land of his birth calls to mind Li-Young Lee’s “Have You Prayed,” in which the speaker wonders if the wind he hears is his dead father’s voice or “me talking to no one.” Porterfield says to her ghost father,
It either is or is not you
as the plane lowers into Beirut.
Either I am or am not alone.
Only you would know.
In fact, in reading Kibbe, I felt at times I was reading the Middle Eastern, female version of Lee’s cultural identity crisis. In “Immigrant Blues,” Lee says,
People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.
It’s the same old story from the previous century
about my father and me.
Exploring the same theme in “Arabic Lesson,” Porterfield’s speaker says, “Within the body of this tongue / I believe I lurk, a germ in the blood, / an immigrant gene.” Both poets struggle to inhabit dualities of language, cultural identity, and blood. Their challenge is typical of second-generation Americans, their poetry a call to a greater understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world.
Of course, Porterfield also writes from a strong Arab-American literary tradition, from the Mahjar school of Arab-American writing that arose in the 1920s (most notably the Al Rabita al Qalamaiyya literary organization established by Kahlil Gibran and other poets writing in Arabic and English) to Middle Eastern predecessors Mahmoud Darwish (writing in Arabic) and Nadia Toueni (writing in French), to contemporary Arab-American poets such as Sam Hamod and Naomi Shihab Nye.
Porterfield accepts the poet’s prophetic mantle from Gibran in “Kahlil Gibran Museum, Becharré” (“I scribbled prophecies before I could write.”), and she takes on Darwish’s engaged poetry of resistance. Though she eschews Darwish’s elevated fus’ha—the formal, metrical, and rhymed style of traditional Arabic poetry—she heeds his injunctions not to turn events of history into artistic trope but to take one’s heritage seriously, as the reality, not like the reality. Porterfield leans into the lyricism of Toueni, infusing her own lines with internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and musical repetition. This lyricism is evident in Porterfield’s structured tercets and closing quatrain of “The Mountains of Lebanon”:
The Tennessee hills are as green with pine and cleave to sky
like these, wedged with towns in slabs and the slant
of olive groves, grape, and clementine.
I believe my father is in Tennessee,
layered beneath a marble block,
striations of wedged bone, stone, ash.
I believe he’s here
in the Kadisha Valley, spirited lightly away,
uprooted as before.
With the Mediterranean on my left, I drive out of Beirut
where I can breathe in
the quilted silence laid down upon these hills,
the ghost-light arising, hearth by hearth, at dusk.
Like Porterfield, Naomi Shihab Nye grew up facing racial stereotyping and in her poem “Blood” asks herself (and, in turn, her reader), “What does a true Arab do now?” Porterfield shares and expands this concern, digging deeper than polemics to the underlying question she poses variously in the poems of Kibbe: what does a true human do now? She humanizes the cab driver in Beirut who may or may not be a member of the militant Hezbollah group, not seeing him primarily as a political activist but as a husband, a father, and a fellow human who cares about the purity of the water she drinks. She feels guilty when she does nothing to prevent an Indonesian maid from being deported (“I wish I could help you. I can’t.”), and she calls a Muslim student Beloved, this same student who blames the Jews for 9/11.
Porterfield puts the reader on notice that Lebanon’s hungry post-war children are everyone’s children, that the responsibility to feed the world’s children is too great and too universal for one country to bear. Describing the effect of gunshot on a tiny remnant of Lebanon’s decimated bird population, she says,
Such a pop must surely burst
the delicate breast,
quickening on a limb,
too small even to feed
a child born after war.
To feed is to meet a fundamental human need to take in nourishment; at the same time, it is a compelling request to give out nourishment to others. Porterfield resists labeling feeding one another as a moral imperative, preferring to win the reader over by getting the reader to identify with her speaker and feel what it is like to be hungry. She returns to her instrumental use of the narrative “I”: “We disappear too, / and the I that remains is the stranger who / can’t recall how to feed herself.”
Porterfield makes an offer to the reader. She doesn’t need to preach. The parable is an ancient one: Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters.... The implication resonates. The speaker is the hungry stranger stretching out her hand toward me, asking for a piece of bread, or, perhaps, a spoonful of kibbe.