There Be Dragons: A review of Khaled Mattawa’s Fugitive Atlas: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2020)
A Book Review by Cindy Ellen Hill
By way of compass rose for his Fugitive Atlas, Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa invokes Egyptian folk-hero poet Ahmed Fouad Negm: “Traveler, nomad, hoarder of perceptions, you have no guide but the eyes of speech.” Given this collection’s powerful revisioning of formal poetry as a vehicle for navigating conflict, oppression, and love, he might have appropriately added “hic sunt dracones.” Fugitive Atlas is less a map than it is a deconstruction of Dante’s Inferno: Hell dropped on a tile floor, shattered into circles no longer concentric, but overlapping, replicating, and rolling off into dark and distant corners.
Evidence of Mattawa’s masterful and emotionally compelling facility with language begins with his poem-in-lieu-of-dedication, Taproot and Cradle. This poem embodies the essence of the two-part elemental power of Fugitive Atlas: Mattawa establishes an emotional landscape by the intuitively skillful employment of sympathetic, empathetic and contrasting aurality and then he moves the reader directionally through that emotional landscape so that reading becomes an act of navigation.
In Taproot and Cradle, within four short-lined tercets, Mattawa walks the reader through love and pain, grief and regret, and honor. The first two stanzas establish the conflict of love and pain with the contrast of soothing “m” and “n” sounds and the harsh click of hard “k”-sounding consonants, stitched together with a “b” sound that attempts to mediate between them (as if the author/narrator is saying “but, but...”):
Evening coffee, and my mother salts
her evening broth--not equanimity
but the nick of her wrist--
and my mother bakes bread,
and my mother hobbles, knees locked,
and my mother carries the soft stones of her years.
The words Mattawa selected and the phrases constructed have concrete meaning -- there is a cup of coffee, a bowl of broth, a loaf of bread -- but are also extant in the aesthetic realm of “mouth feel” and sound, and also in an invisible emotional landscape created by rhetorical devices like anaphora and alliteration.
Taproot and Cradle’s third stanza takes a sonnet-like turn into a stormy sea of regret. “O” is itself dangerous territory in a poem, implicating “o” words like overuse, overdramatic, overwrought, overdone. Here it resonates as the authentic rending of one’s garments in grief: Words like “late”, “darkened”, “scurrying”, and “drunken” all speak profoundly to things we wish we had done differently, or that we wish had not happened that way.
O pen of late arrivals.
O knife of darkened temples.
O my scurrying, my drunken snakes.
The final stanza grounds the speaker’s feet in the dirt beside the open grave, and switches emotional tone yet again, to the speaker’s declaration of honor for his mother and for a value set (an honor system) that establishes the parallel boundaries of the path which remains at ground level, rather than down in that grave. Here repetition is employed (I remember, I remember), but also the sibilant consonant sounds drawing down, reflecting back through the poem (soft stones, scurrying, snakes, summer rain), and the return of the harsh “k” (killed). The poem ends in a soundly grounded, simple, and optimistic phrase: good friends.
I deliver her to the earth under summer rain.
I remember the killed enemy.
I remember my good friends.
Mattawa’s use of alliteration, consonance, and repetition creates forward motion though the poem, but it is also a halting motion, a moving forward while looking back, while remaining tethered to or reflecting on the steps already taken. However, there is another layer to the reader’s navigation through this and each of the poems in Fugitive Atlas.
In Taproot and Cradle the word choices and imagery move the reader through sacred space. The first two stanzas portray maternal kitchen motions, back and forth--as all mothers and grandmothers move, even when it hurts. The third stanza rises upward into the mind, and swirls in chaotic knots. From this tangle of the motion of regret, the final stanza plummets us downward, both into the earth, and into the past. The navigational path of this short poem moves us in a genuflection -- seated at that kitchen table sipping coffee -- first side to side, then up and around in ankh fashion, then straight down, to end grounded and still.
Mattawa’s dedicatory poem is not unique but rather shows how Fugitive Atlas hits the ground running. The layering of language, emotional landscape, and navigational motion in multiple directions not only continues but expands throughout the book.
Tercets and other “sets of three” dominate this collection, and that in itself sets a spiritual and emotional tone with numerous iconographic implications: the holy trinity, the three Abrahamic faiths, the simultaneous imbalance (in being an uneven number) and balance (in the ground points of a three-legged stool), the sign of three rays to ward off evil. It’s not that Western poetry ignores the tercet, but it more typically looks to even numbers and relies far too predictably on the quatrain. If one wants to go down the political rabbit hole, one could even surmise that the four stone walls of the quatrain represent Western culture’s insistent dominance of walled city-states over the triple-hoofbeats and triangular tents of nomadic culture--so Mattawa’s insistence on the tercet as his base building block could be perceived as an act of cultural resistance.
The element of three is set like a brilliant gem in Mattawa’ Alams. These are presented as unit groupings of three very short lines, with stepped indentations, aligned in three columns. This invites the reader to explore; to enter and walk around and read the groupings in different directions, or in a meandering fashion to find winding paths of end-rhyme.
In ‘Alams from the Black Horse Prison, Tripoli Circa 1981, the unit groupings end with: town, town, crown, ground, ground, ransom; flame, fate, ablaze; glory, despoiling; and all by itself, aurally unrelated and therefore standing out, “crimes”. Navigating the round rhymes and consonances, and then running straight into the brick wall of “crimes” generates a visceral emotional response in the reader.
Another interesting form in Fugitive Atlas is Mattawa’s modified haibun. He presents several examples in which a piece of prose is followed, not by a haiku, but rather by a renga -- but a modified renga at that. Mattawa constructs his rengas of lines found in other documents ranging from the Book of the Dead to lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Mattawa also resurrects the qasida, and modifies this most ancient of traditional Arabic forms, substituting his thematic tercets for the usual couplets. That enhances the forward motion of these poems, which are also shorter than the qasida’s traditional epic length. Both Malouk’s Qasida and Qasida to the Statue of Sappho in Mytilini adapt the substantive narrative arc which forms a prescribed element of qasidas.
While the depth of poetical and rhetorical elements give Fugitive Atlas a geographical emotional context and set an immersive and navigational experience by the reader, the poems’ substantive landscape is global, dark and tangled. The settings are primarily urban, and reside in the forest of human flaws ranging from poisoned water in Flint, Michigan to war, oppression and injustice in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere and the paths of migrants forced to flee from such (inevitable and grossly human) events.
Mattawa provides only the map, that we might see these issues clearly, and in their proper place and context. His concluding ‘Alams for Sun on Shuttered Windows places the responsibility to act on what that map shows squarely back on the reader:
history or future
you won’t shed
read and reread