Have you ever read something that felt too smart for you? Winnipeg-based writer Trish Salah’s poetry collection Wanting In Arabic was like that for me, especially when I first picked it up. I’ve actually had quite a few unsuccessful starts with this book: I borrowed it from the library twice, and neither time did I manage to finish it before a) someone else requested it, or b) the library wouldn’t let me renew it any more times. There was something about reading this poetry collection that just couldn’t be rushed. I managed to find my own copy of it at Little Sister’s in Vancouver (yay queer bookstores!) and then, reading in fits and spurts, a lot of the time in the bath, I finally (re)read the poems in Wanting In Arabic.
So, needless to say, this book was a challenging reading experience for me. But—and this is a significant but—in the end, it was also very rewarding. So, if you want to read Wanting In Arabic but you’re intimidated, I have a few tips for you. One thing that I generally try to do with poetry is to try to resist the impulse to understand, or to “get it,” that is, for most of us, the governing norm of how we read, whether we realize it or not. Even more so then I usually have to, while reading Salah’s book I had to keep reminding myself to let go of this impulse. When you can relax into it, it’s actually really nice to read and not focus on the content, but rather on how something looks and sounds, without worrying about what it means.
It’s not that there’s not a lot of meaning in Salah’s poetry; on the contrary, there is so much meaning I doubt whether I will ever “get” some of these poems even after reading them many times (which I certainly plan to do). But don’t worry if you have no idea what Salah is talking about in some of the poems. I definitely didn’t. Just keep reading and see which ones you do get, or get something out of: that might be just that an image or line is beautiful, or it might be that you appreciate the play on words that you only realized was there the second time you read the stanza.
So, why should you put in the effort to read this book I just told you was challenging for someone like me who studied English literature for 7 years? Because it is beautiful, revelatory, and sexy, and there is quite simply no other book like it in the English language.
Wanting in Arabic won the Lambda award for transgender fiction last year, but that’s underestimating at best and a misnomer at worst. First of all, it’s really poetry, not fiction, or perhaps a kind of poetic memoir in some places. It’s also full of lesbian / queer sex. Also, in her afterword, Salah writes that “while trans identities, subjectivities, communities and their relation to writing is an axis for this book, it is only one of several.” In the introduction by Lisa Robertson—which I wouldn’t recommend reading unless you are interested in English literature criticism / the history of poetic forms—she basically traces the lyric form (the kind of poems Salah is writing) back to medieval Arabic poetry and “ungrammared” women’s language. It’s interesting to imagine contemporary poetry reaching back to these traditions–both feminine and Arabic–and this is certainly one of the other axes.
I like this idea of reaching back, because it feels like so many of these poems are taking up what, at first, seem like ridiculously tired, cliché images, like roses and the immortal beloved. They seem so old, but they’re really made new in Salah’s deft hands. For example: “What a heart is, is forever at risk. Reborn to you, / I know this, and to that condition, consent.”
I’m certainly at a loss for words trying to describe the intricacies of these poems, so I think I’ll just let a few favourites speak for themselves. If you’re wondering what they’re about, the list of themes that I made is pretty exhaustive: war, love, cultural belonging, the loss or lack of cultural artefacts (like language), the (trans) body, desire, mythology, language, and poetry. Or, you know, like everything.
From the title poem:
Face down in the deep olive crush
to my tongue yr imagined melting
What I can want is just to learn
just what learning is, though …
Oh linger here, warming my breath, secreted
furtive moment of fingers, clasped, released
for the day. It’s enough, today, strangely to grow
like this, desire’s plunge and deepening moment
You and I twined in looking, tender intake
roaring quiet under our friends’ clever banter
Shadows warm more than December sun
shadows blanket us. Until we might peel one,
another, press to heat winter skins, trembling
beneath glances like hands, hands…
Passion knows we breathe, what to do.
Goes airy and unseen the better to enter
you and I, our verging inward
maps, fold old futures, in. Might we
be eaten and eat my dear? As pomegranates
quicken awhile longer, come, inside me, you.
From “What Daphne wrote Georgia”:
You threaten, giddy and rudely, you promise
To devour me roughly, to take me wholly inside.
Under your mouth and in your hands, I become again,
So protean as to survive that, more, to grow wide and lovely.
Beloved, consider a carefully cultivated flame.
Of how it is that I want, with you.
From “when there are three”
because I was caught up in my own narrative, careening towards your
thighs, your lips & yours,
white tusks shining
like knights on white chargers off to slay sexism,
you know, though progressive non-possessive, wet and wild,
here in your shoulder it’s another story
i know, the rain
doesn’t ever stop
it’s a wash of falling down city in steady sodden desolation
it’s tearing rents in air
it’s tongue scarfing sexy down throat to thorax
From “Orpheus, the Muses’ return”:
Sometimes you can say, This is language
theft, sometimes, This is gorgeous blood.
Sometimes you take the winding path
to the water, sometimes in to the shore.
Sometimes, when you have been skinned, snake!
You kiss the one who peeled you,
slowly and with method
with infinite submission.
Sometimes the bell she has curled
of your dermis
flutters in the breeze,
and inverted tulip (nine aflush, prophet!)
some other you might stumble out of
I liked nothing about parades
except maybe you
in your tux and tails so handsome
leatherfag girl in straight boy-drag
a hot day in the park.
Seeing what was coming
I nearly wept
spoiling the picnic
Don’t you just want to tattoo some of these words on your body? That’s how I know a good poem from the great ones that pepper Trish Salah’s Wanting in Arabic.