Feb/Mar 2008

Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s Nettles

Jen Bervin


In the last lines of Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s poem “The Cherry Tree’s Journey,” the mother asks, “Where will we tie up the cherry tree’s shadow / now that we have neither donkey nor cherry tree?” The question sets the tone for the poems that follow, for Nettles, the Lebanese poet’s latest collection, is engaged in convoluted negotiations between lost things tethered rather tenuously together, primarily in the realms of the spoken and the unspoken.

When Khoury-Ghata writes, “I say things so as not to say shadows,” the substitution belies an utterance proffered in place of another, not a thing in place of a shadow. Such constructions grow estranged from their point of departure: “she says birds so as not to say war / she says war so as not to say madness of the son and the pomegranate tree.” Death is the silent master behind this exchange—and a rather hapless one at that:

exchange a donkey for a clock
a stream for a pocket mirror
a holy water font for a plastic bucket
a few snowflakes for a pillow
three cock feathers for a cocked hat
a family of broom-bushes for a telephone
directory
Only the dead find no takers
seated in the background
they wait for the bargaining to be over and go home on foot

Objects are despondently shuffled around, to little avail, and “things” don’t seem to matter:

White as carded wool is the voice of the
woman who replaces lost objects with
lost objects
the snow-devouring salt makes her think
she tries to understand where the earth begins
where grief ends
and why the man who ate hay bit a wolf

In the last line, Khoury-Ghata makes a sharp, disorienting turn, one that is impossible to reintegrate logically. These derailed trajectories read like the manifestation of loss—not the blank of it, but the sharp howl of its incomprehensibility.

Born in Lebanon in 1937, Khoury-Ghata spent her childhood summers in her mother’s village, Pshery. In an interview in 2002, she admitted, “In all my books I go back to the memory of this village, all the sources of my imagination come from there. Not from Beirut, Beirut was horrible to me, I’ve erased it from my memory. If I had lived only in Beirut I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to write even one line.” Khoury-Ghata moved to France in 1973 and has written prolifically in French: eighteen novels and fourteen poetry collections. In Nettles, she strikes an eerie chord of truth about the village: “Here is your prison the children said to me / drawing a circle / around my foot.”

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