Steve Van-Hagen reviews
by Omar Sabbagh
Omar Sabbagh, the widely published Lebanese-British poet whose debut collection My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint appeared in September 2010, has followed up his debut with a delicate, thoughtful, often moving semi-autobiographical second collection, The Square Root of Beirut. It begins with two epigraphs, the first from Henry Miller and the second from G. K. Chesterton. The Miller quotation, taken from Sexus, begins ‘When one is trying to do something beyond his known powers it is useless to seek the approval of friends.’ So has Sabbagh produced something ‘beyond his known powers’ in The Square Root of Beirut’s relation to its predecessor? The answer is both yes and no – as its title suggested, Sabbagh’s first collection touched extensively on parent-child relations, even if this was sometimes in a different way from its successor.
This time, Sabbagh confronts the multiplicity and liminality of his Lebanese-British identity and of the nature of Lebanon itself, in a manner which is specific to these concerns, yet simultaneously (and self-consciously) preoccupied with questions of origins and originality in a more abstract form. The result is often compelling and, at its best, haunting and memorable; while specific in content, the poems nonetheless embody the fragmented, deracinated twenty-first-century post-colonial experience in more general terms. Yet the collection is never more than a heartbeat away from the particularly, perhaps uniquely tortured day-to-day geo-political realities and sectarian troubles of Lebanon, a land which is ‘Janus-faced, a rabble at work and play’, a land in which ‘Meaning is sieved, as at the end of a smoking gun’ (‘A Land Starved Of Caritas’, ll. 1, 11). It is a land, as one poem title reminds us, of ‘One-Way Streets’, where ‘The trees ... produce martyrs / And suicides, the willing and the unwilling.’ (ll.7-8).
In the hands of a different kind of writer this material could have been navel gazing and introspective, but The Square Root of Beirut is not these things. If origins are a major thematic consideration, another is connection, and specifically the question of the poet-narrator’s relation to the human world of which he is a part and, of course, to the places which define his identities. Conversely, The Square Root of Beirut is concerned equally with how these places are defined by those that inhabit them. The collection establishes this focus on the interrelatedness of the identities of place and self early on, and the first poem, ‘Epistle Home’, begins with wistful longing:
I miss the chalk of my home
And my clay red.
Knotting the tropes of a sudden nation
The poets here are maroon
As their rust-hues country. (ll.1-5)
The depiction of Lebanon is of a place ambivalent and conflicted, as much as the poet-narrator ascribes these qualities to his own fragmented, emerging identity. That the next poem is titled ‘The War Abroad And Within’ – with an epigraph of ‘In spite of being born during my parents’ exile’ – gives further apt sense of the interdependence of the conflicted identity of both self and place, as they are represented here. Similarly, the collection’s next poem, ‘Legitimacy Crisis’, depicts ‘The stick and stone and the edgy fear / [which] rive and rive and rive here, / still a nation in its teenage years.’ (ll.19-21). ‘The nation is a child at the window of its childhood’, begins the poem ‘Arachne in Beirut’, further developing the collection’s thesis of a young nation struggling with its growing pains.
One of the manifestations of the collection’s concern with connection is found in the number of poems dedicated to others, most often family members – the collection as a whole is dedicated to the memory of Sabbagh’s uncle and maternal grandmother. Two poems are also addressed to Sabbagh’s semi-mythical muse, ‘C’ (Sabbagh has claimed that she is based on a young woman he encountered as an undergraduate student at Oxford) and a wide array of intellectual and academic figures, including the Lebanese poet Ali Zaraket (‘A ‘Social’ Winter’), Tariq Ali (‘Berry-Alive’), the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (‘Reel’) and the psychiatrist George Resek (‘On Anger’). As if placing connection at the very heart of the collection, not just thematically or metaphorically, but literally, the concentration of these poems seems greatest at the collection’s physical centre, where poems about origins and identity are addressed to Sabbagh’s parents, maternal grandmother and uncle. Many of the poems represent – effectively are themselves – another kind of dedication, to Beirut, and to Lebanon, who are the addressees of this work as much as any living, human beings. The heart of Beirut’s mystery is not plucked out, but that this is not possible, and that the worthiness lies in the very contemplation of such a thing, is as close to an overall impression as is conveyed. As stated by the epigraph from Chesterton at the collection’s start, ‘Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea and so make it finite ... The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.’ The poet’s demeanour is calm acceptance, whatever the irreconcilable contradictions. We will not arrive at the Square Root of Beirut, however we search for it; as the poem of that title reminds us, ‘There are no remedies.’ (l.11). Reinforcing the theme of connection even further, a love poem is entitled ‘At One-Ment’, a fitting comment on the fact that the material within a collection so concerned with the nature of contradiction and fragmented experience actually appears so curiously coherent. A poem towards the collection’s end, ‘Ligaments Between The Notes’ – subtitled ‘After the Arab Spring, 2011’ – connects contemplation about the nature of identity with very recent political events. As if connection recedes towards the end of the collection, several late poems carry titles suggesting connection’s inverses, such as ‘Sonnet Of The (Latent) Stalker’, ‘On Loneliness’ and the final two, ‘Empty, Emptying’ and ‘The Solitary, His Fate In Dream’.
Sabbagh’s poems are very referential, though hardly obscurely so, and often advertise the author’s philological and philosophical learning (Sabbagh has a PhD from Kings College for a thesis on Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad and, after a year lecturing at the American University in Beirut, is now embarking on a third MA, this time in Philosophy). His third collection, Waxed Mahogany, is already available. The poems in The Square Root of Beirut have such coherence as parts of the same whole – although many of the poems were first published separately, arguably the totality is greater than the sum of its parts (or at least some of them) – that this reviewer is already curious to see what its successor might look like. The collection’s internal coherence is such that it would be hard to attempt a sequel, and it should prove rewarding to see what Sabbagh does next.
Dr Steve Van-Hagen is the editor of James Woodhouse’s The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Cheltenham: The Cyder Press, 2005) and the author of The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift (both London: Greenwich Exchange, 2011). His pamphlet collection Echoes, Ghosts and Others with Futures Ahead of Them is available from holdfire press.