Book review: Zeina Hashem Beck’s poetry sings in Arabic and English

Louder than Hearts is a symphony of words, composed to the music of Umm Kulthum, the taste of kibbeh and the grief of Aleppo.

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In the past year, Zeina Hashem Beck has gone from a writer beloved and celebrated in Dubai’s tight-knit poetry circles to one lauded on the front cover of Poetry magazine.

Last April, her collection 3arabi Song won the Rattle Chapbook Prize. And, just as 3arabi Song was being distributed to book shops last autumn, Beck heard her manuscript Louder than Hearts had won the May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize.

Louder than Hearts, Hashem Beck’s second full-length collection, carves out a shattering, sonorous new language from the interleaving of Arabic and English. It brings together not just words from the two languages but their poetic forms, songs, stock characters and collective memories. It borrows from the poetry of Iraqi poet Al Mutanabbi; the music of Umm Kulthum; the taste of kibbeh; and the grief of Aleppo. From the English, we hear echoes of the Harlem Renaissance, Nina Simone, William Shakespeare, Homer, a Greek chorus, ABC News and Franz Kafka.

The collection is arranged like a symphony, with its four sections titled solely in Arabic: Shafaq (Twilight and also, Sympathy/Affection), Ya’aburnee (You Bury Me), Ahwak (I Love You), and Adhan (Call to Prayer).

The first section centres on the Tripoli, Lebanon, of Hashem Beck’s childhood. In the deeply personal 3amto the poet clothes herself in the voices of five ageing aunts. In this visual work, there are pauses in the text where we imagine one of the aunts pausing for slow, asthmatic intakes of breath.

This section includes the breathtaking "Ghazal: This Hijra," which calls out "Ya Sayyab! Sing us the song of the rain, of this eve, this hijra." It weaves in both the Prophet Muhammad’s hijra, or migration, and others. And for readers familiar with Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), it is impossible not to hear the electric "drip, drop, the rain" of his famous Rain Song underneath Hashem Beck’s lines, with both poems unfurling in one aural and visual space.

In the third section, there is an incantatory love song to the Arabic word for sleep (yanam). Singers and song feature prominently throughout the collection, as does dance. The poem Carioca gives voice to Egyptian belly dancer Taheyya Carioca. But, here as elsewhere, beauty and grief are fused. Directly after Carioca comes Body, dedicated to Hasan Rabeh, a young Syrian dancer who killed himself by jumping from a seventh-floor balcony in Beirut.

Unlike in Carioca, the narrative voice in Body does not come from an imagined Hasan Rabeh. Instead, it comes from a narrator reading the news about his death. Rather than put us in Rabeh’s body, Hashem Beck creates a double space where we look at ourselves looking at tragedy.

Yet connections are also possible. In the moving Messages in the Dark, text messages scroll across the bottom of a TV screen while the celestial Umm Kulthum sings above. The startling and the banal reach out through scrolling messages. Some are shout-outs to friends and family, while others are cries to the unknown, as when "Hind the Wounded pines for true love so does University Teacher." Several are sweetly painful, as, "My life is torture Salaam from Palestine" or "Rami says Baghdad is sad today". This poem contains the energies of an enormous Arabic-speaking population living across a broad, varied region – with each person in their individual room, holding their individual phone, desperate to be heard. Still, Kulthum’s voice also soars, connecting them all and the "invisible wheels of hope transport us beyond these small living rooms of longing".

The collection’s final, anchoring work is Adhan. Inside its few lines, the reader is invited to reimagine the dawn call to prayer. We hear how it "lifts / your head from your pillow; how it pulls / you from sleep like a bucket from a dark / well". The muezzin calls out that "prayer is better than sleep / (and there’s something Shakespearean / about it, and somehow modern)".

In fewer than 100 pages, Louder than Hearts invents a fearless new language that shelters within both Arabic and English, borrowing from the two bodies of words and their multiple overlapping cultures.

There is no need for English-only readers to understand Arabic or resort to Google translate, much as we can enjoy Junot Díaz without knowing Spanish, or Andrea Bocelli without knowing Italian. Close your eyes and listen.

M Lynx Qualey is an editor and book critic. She edits the website