“Louder than Hearts”, poems by Zeina Hashem Beck

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Beautifully poised and profound, Louder than Hearts, a collection by Lebanese-born poet Zeina Hashem Beck, articulates the reverberations of home, exile and family history in the 21st century from the perspective of an Arabic woman, feeling her otherness and connection with communities locally and abroad, and her empathy towards the homelessness suffered by the refugees.

In this book, winner of the Mary Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize, Beck blends war poems with love songs, and fuses history with myth-making. Together with her experimentation with forms ranging from ghazals to concrete verse and prose poems, this is a book that will leave you vulnerable.

Louder than Hearts is a book of vision, freedom and originality.

Poems such as “Broken Ghazal: Speak Arabic” explore the relationship between a poet’s language and identity:

 

I write in English the way I roam foreign cities—full of street light
& betrayal, until I found a coffee shop that speaks Arabic.

 

If we were born in the cities we long for, Love—Paris, Prague, New York—
what languages would they have taught us to speak?

 

By situating herself between the East and the West, her longing to experience the foreign and her rootedness in Arabic culture and language, Beck’s poetry sheds light on the importance of rediscovering one’s language, and embracing the uniqueness of one’s cultural identity.

In “After the explosions”, a poem in memory of her cousin who was killed in the streets of Tripoli, she compares the role of the poet to a parrot that cannot stay quiet, and brings home the fact that nobody is immune to history: “The trees seem to remember / the human parts in their branches.”

 

Beck’s poems represent an honest and unflinching account on the aftermath of war, and the pain—both physical and emotional—endured by generations. In “You Fixed It”, she contrasts the possibility to make amends and changes in everyday life with the irrevocable damage of war, which “hardens” a country and its people. On the other hand, the poet sees poetry as an outlet for healing and understanding:

 

and if the lahm bi’ajeen was too crusty
you fixed it by dipping it in the tahini
and if your sorrow hardened you fixed it
by dipping it in seawater, and if your country
hardened, if your country hardened you fixed it
by dipping it in song.

 

Louder Than Hearts: Poems Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan, April 2017)
Louder Than Hearts: Poems
Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan, April 2017)

In her experimentation with poetic forms, one can see the close connections between form and content, and the amalgamation of cultural influences. For example, in “Qudud Variations”, she addresses Aleppo as a dear friend, and ponders about the possible measure one can use to locate and to understand history (“Dear Aleppo, what qudud now / to measure the breath, the percussion / in your artery?”)

There is also a lot to admire in her more personal poems, revolving around the family, such as the title poem “Louder than hearts and Derbakkehs”, an intimate account on her mother, whose sorrow and memories stretch beyond words, and the possibility to find healing in the next generation:

 

some days she boils
in my blood, says, Out of my way.
Some days i hold her in my arms,
rock her back and forth, let her cry.

 

In “Wallada Bint Al-Mustakfi speaks”, Beck contemplates the possibility for an Arabic woman to express herself, based on Wallada, the Andalusian poet in 11th-century Córdoba. She pictures Wallada as a strong woman with her own mind who makes poetry and engages with the world. Unmarried and without children despite the promise of fertility in her name, Wallada is the nonconformist heroine who defends the right to be loved for who she is, and refuses to be stereotyped in a patriarchal culture.

 

I walk the streets of Córdoba
with my hair, my poetry embroidered
on my sleeves, my lips a hunger
for you. Andalusian princess, I

 

open my palace to women who pine,
teach poetry even to my slaves, challenge men
to complete lines, defeat them.

 

In an interview with Tishani Doshi in The Hindu, Beck discusses the value of poetry as an act of resistance, of modifying what’s established or permissible in English as well as Arabic literature: “I guess what I’m trying to say is yes, I’m writing in English, but I’m going to write about things that are absolutely Arabic,” she says “and we’re going to build that bridge, so it’s an act of defiance…”

Imbued with subtlety, music and Oriental traditions, Beck has found a deeply moving and impassioned poetic voice that speaks to people across continents, paying tribute to her influences as an Arabic poet while at the same time remaining innovative and globalist in her use of imagery, forms and sound.

Louder than Hearts is a book of vision, freedom and originality.


Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her most recent book is Goldfish.

Zeina Hashem Beck will be appearing at

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