Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Paperback: 100 pages
Publisher: Press 53 (2013)
I’ve met the delightful Hedy Habra at local poetry readings, and I have gotten to know her, and her work, through several submissions I was thrilled to publish in a literary magazine I manage, The Smoking Poet. Indeed, one of the poems there published makes an appearance in her new poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis, called “Adagio for a Forgotten Viola d’Amore.” I have also read and reviewed her short story collection, Flying Carpets. Every bit of this crossing of paths has been a pleasure. Call me a fan.
So I found myself in the first poem of the collection, “Bricolage,” expecting poetic pleasure—and I found it. Reading Habra’s lines, “Go every day a little deeper/into the woods, collect acorns,/twigs, thorns, fallen leaves,/pine needles, a fern’s curl,/a bird’s nest, a lost feather,/spring air, hot, humid air, a raindrop,/a touch of blue, a ripple,/and why not the hush/of your steps over moss,/the trembling of leaves/at dusk against black bark?/,” I found myself on a familiar path, knew myself at home in Habra’s world, and immediately settled into her pages like one does into a comfortable chair, molded already to one’s own shape. Poetry like an old friend, walking side by side into new discoveries.
Habra weaves her different homes into her poetry. Of Lebanese origin, she was born in Egypt, has traveled across the world and called other countries home before settling down in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she now teaches at Western Michigan University. It is helpful to know this about the poet, because her experiences of different cultures, different languages, different perspectives on the world around her, imbue her work on countless levels of lush nuance as well as vast life experience. Some would call it exotic, and it is, but it also as simple as a woman growing up anywhere.
Consider her opening poem, “Bricolage.”
Go every day a little deeper
into the woods, collect acorns,
twigs, thorns, fallen leaves,
pine needles, a fern’s curl,
a bird’s nest, a lost feather,
spring air, hot, humid air, a raindrop,
a touch of blue, a ripple,
and why not the hush
of your steps over moss …
She is the every woman that perhaps only a woman of international knowledge can be, finding the common in the uncommon that lives everywhere and in every heart and experience. The reader can feel at home, whatever Habra’s landscape, in communion with a close friend.
In “How the Song Turns into a Legend,” Habra shares her light as a poet, shining it on the importance, indeed the necessity, of telling our stories. Not in whispers to ourselves, but “in tongues, in parables, uttered in public squares,/whispered in corners/in sotto voce,/from mouth to mouth.” Engraved in stone or on paper, told or written, her gorgeous poem encourages all our many stories to be told and so made enduring. Her own need to tell her story comes through with a tender yet fiery passion.
Habra also crosses art forms, her poetry connecting with her painting (note the book cover by the poet) in a delicate blend—painting about her words, painting with words. In a tribute to her mother, “To Henriette,” also a painter, Habra writes: “You dream the painter painting his model,/merging dreams, erasing distances.”
Habra writes in various forms, and her poetry can take traditional form, to free verse, to haiku verses tucked into larger poems, to experimental and prose poems, such as “Amber Daum.” In whatever form, as a multi-lingual poet, she imbues language with a quiet power that seeps inside and blooms, at first almost imperceptibly, but then in breathtaking and near overwhelming beauty. If in “Vision” she mourns how a beautiful line can sometimes evaporate like water, this collection is as near perfection as any I’ve read, with not a drop evaporated. In her delicacy is her power, in her light touch she delivers great and powerful messages, in a whisper she produces longing, and with each poem a growing satisfaction in a body of work that can be read again and again, with each time new discovery.
Tea in Heliopolis is a finalist for the 2014 International Book Award and finalist or semi-finalist in a number of literary competitions.
Hedy Habra was born in Egypt and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of a short story collection, Flying Carpets, and a book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa. She has an MA and an MFA in English and an MA and PhD in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University. Her multilingual work appears in numerous journals and anthologies.