PATRICK MEIGHAN REVIEWS YAHIA LABABIDI'S BALANCING ACTS
Yahia Lababidi dedicates his collection Balancing Acts to his native Egypt. But it’s ostensibly not the Egypt of Giza and Tutankhamen, nor of Sadat and Mubarak (though there is a touch of modern politics here and there), nor of sprawling Cairo streets and bustling bazaars. Lababidi, an Egyptian-American writer of Egyptian-Lebanese descent, seems to have something other, and otherworldly, in mind.
The poet Lababidi crafts a mythic Egypt that permeates the collection of poems written over twenty-plus years. This Egypt is a land abundant with connotation, fertile with image and nuance. Its mountains are an “imperishable memory of the desert/craniums exposed, crumbling horribly” and a “School of inscrutable sphinxes/master storytellers sworn to secrecy.”
The desert “is a cemetery/picking its teeth with bones.” Lababidi the poet emphasizes that the landscape is imaginary:
The desert has its dark jokes
over which it smiles alone,
Mirage is the word for desert humor.
His native land is not a nightmare from which he struggles to awake, but a hard reality to which one repeatedly awakens, for better and for worse, as in the poem, “Egypt”:
You are the deep fissure in my sleep,
that hard reality underneath
a stack of soft-cushioning illusions.
-exiled, even after all these years
I remain your ever-adoring captive
This review attempts to draw a distinction, perhaps artificial, between Lababidi the poet and Lababidi the aphorist, essayist, blogger, and self-described “thinker.” To this I might add one more title, “storyteller,” in the tradition of Scheherazade, the collector of tales in the medieval Persian work, “One Thousand and One Nights.”
Lababidi alludes to the legendary queen and storyteller in the poem, “Homecoming.” In this poem, one of the very best in the collection, Lababidi compares the writer of poetry to an “Invalid physician” who nurses daydreams and recounts “tall tales/like Shehrezade (cq)/ to save (his) life.”
In the heart of the poem, Lababidi describes the essence of the poet’s work:
Playing with words
your only playmates
to lose words
To sustain the gaze
for an eternal moment
to stir the reader
to poetry of feeling
excite finer centers
sound profounder depths
Through the speaker of the poem, Lababidi – wearing the hat of the poet and thinker, as well as mystic – asserts the poet elevates, or perhaps reduces, “the world … to Myth or Metaphor.” The poet’s “Crowded, unanchored mind/without moorings, spiritually adrift” must ultimately come to terms with the idea that the poet’s craft “is mere apprenticeship” for some undefined, or indefinable, “promise” of a spiritual homecoming.
The poem “Homecoming” underscores a recurring theme in “Balancing Acts.” The collection contains a gallery of metapoetic verse in which hang a dozen or more individual poems, scattered throughout, which collectively trace Lababidi’s ars poetica. The central point of Lababidi’s theory of poetry is that words are an imperfect tool with which the poet tries to reflect a spirit that is the poem’s true subject.
One of the 160 poems in Balancing Acts is, in fact, titled “Ars Poetica.” “Words in a poem are merely the tip of the iceberg,/the bulk of poetry belongs to a mass beneath the surface,” the speaker asserts. Words serve only as an imperfect mirror to “the Spirit” that poetry attempts to reveal and celebrate. Lababidi isn’t a poet who views words as atoms, the essential matter of a poem. Instead, they are more like Bohr’s model of an atom, a stand-in for a truth they strive with partial success to represent.
Lababidi sets forth the power and limitations of words in “Words,” the first poem in the collection:
Words as witnesses
testifying their truths
squalid or rarefied
But, words must not carry
more than they can
it’s not good for their backs
or their reputations.
For, whether they dance alone
or with an invisible partner,
every word is a cosmos
dissolving the inarticulate.
In Balancing Acts, Lababidi creates a cosmos that articulates both a mythical Egypt and a theory of the power and limitations of art. His sixth book marks a milestone for a still-young poet (he was born in 1973). I suspect images of his homeland will remain forever an integral part of the landscape of Lababidi’s poetry, even if he continues to reside in the United States. But it will be interesting to note in future poems and collections how his thoughts about poetry evolve. Perhaps he will approach more closely the unreachable goal of mining the spirit that in his view masses beneath the surface of what a poet can directly observe or his words precisely describe.
Balancing Acts: New and Selected Poems, 1993 – 2015, Yahia Lababidi, Press 53, Winston-Salem, 2016
Patrick Meighan is raising the next big thing in baseball, giving us two good reasons to remember that last name. Patrick teaches a poetry workshop and composition courses in the New Hampshire Community College System. His chapbook, Jurisprudence, was published in 2014. He is co-editor of Images from Ruin, an anthology of 9/11 poems, and his poems and reviews have appeared in various online and print journals.
Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-American thinker, poet and author of 6 books in 4 genres. His latest book is Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015) Lababidi has been featured on NPR, Best American Poetry, AGNI, World Literature Today, On Being with Krista Tippett and has participated in international poetry festivals throughout the USA, Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, his writing has been translated into several languages, including: Arabic, Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch, and Swedish.