O (Penguin Poets)
If you live in Poetry World, you’ve been hearing about Zeina Hashem Beck’s O for a while now. The book, announced quite some time ago, has at times felt as slow to arrive as Christmas morning, especially as rumors have spread that—like holiday dawn—it is packed with gifts.
The rumors are true.
It is, without equivocation, a wonderful book, not just as a work of art but as a bridge between cultures. Between languages. Between the poesy of the past—before all beauty—and that of the present—before all, identity—and the future: before all, innovation.
You can feel her poetic influences here—so obvious they need not even be named—but also a clarity of voice and narrative that feels unique in an era that seems only to reward complaint or obscurity. Here the voice is reflective: Her poem on turning 36 closes “foolish gods that we were, that we are” and drives into a simple but stunning small meditation on the uneaten strawberries of her wedding day painted with all the colors that aren’t on the canvas.
One can feel the assembly of small observations writ large, the construction of life’s little beauties that become more obvious as time simultaneously slows and quickens with age:
“Once you mispronounce something / you can’t pronounce it ever.”
“It doesn’t matter because no one knows / what anyone else is saying.”
Make no mistake: There is no voice here but the artist’s own, and so it here succeeds at what the best poetry does best: teaches through empathy, offers a lens through another’s eyes, makes the specific universal. It is gendered and genderless. It is true to her age and ageless. It lives, like the artist, in one country and others. It is not a book but a portal, the very best of what poetry can be: We are all our specific lives, our specific experiences, our specific eyes. No one can ever truly see the same world that we do but poetry, in the best it is, uncovers a mirror through which we may see dimly, take a glance into another of the seven billion little worlds that wander and float all over our only slightly less little planet.
We can never feel what others specifically feel; true sympathy does not exist. When a doctor numbers her arm, but not enough, before a procedure the artist complains to success but no persuasion. “She reinserts the needle for more numbness, though she doesn’t seem convinced / I’m still feeling some pain,” she writes. No one ever truly is, of course, but now at least everybody knows.
“I wish we were still the same time zone” can be enough to make a love poem—the plums in the icebox of the heart—since no two romances are the same. But a lens on it—again, specific/universal—can be offered.
O is, at times, weird. This is praise. It is at times ugly. This is praise. It is also, unfailingly, beautiful. Weird and ugly and beautiful is specific, and it is universal. It is the truth of all of the little worlds we live and live in.
And so, Beck shuts the book with a prayer:
“What have you seen what have you seen
Little boat little boat goodbye
Little world little world I love you”