Nettles is the most recent collection of poetry by Lebanese poet and novelist Venus Khoury-Ghata, who brandishes a long list of accolades that include the Prix Mallarmè and the Grand Prix de la Sociètè, for separate works of poetry. Nettles is a powerful exploration in five parts. The book’s first two sections, The Cherry Tree’s Journey and Nettles, inhabit the loss of the poet’s husband, mother and brother while also investigating their historical and political context. Khoury-Ghata is well aware of her own as an immigrant, and it’s perhaps the friction between her lived-in past as a Lebanese woman and the distance afforded by a littérateur’s life in France that makes her poetry most fruitful.
Her most recent work, particularly in translation, moves with fierce speed, which lends her blending of disparate images and emotions an all the more urgent beauty. While the collection is divided into sections, the images and themes – political, historical, and personal – spill freely from part to part, in constant dialogue. Her manuscript as a whole is perhaps best represented – in both content and style – by “Interments”, a central sequence in which each untitled fragment burrows deeper than its predecessor, weaving images almost as a code, dazzling with spectral collisions on a brightly colored, often gendered landscape. She writes from a very particular grief, very particular history of violence in her home country and abroad, but in her art these things descend into universal images: “She took them for cats when they were warriors/ they weren’t warriors either but curved lines walking in their sleep/… she says birds so as not to say war/ she says war so as not to say madness of the son and the pomegranate tree.”
When Khoury-Ghata struggles with a particular death, she struggles with all suffering. The warriors in her poetry are men, young and old, unable to nurture sweetness and lightness, choosing instead the destructive. As “Interments” descends to its center, Khoury-Ghata gives us an unguarded woman, urging man to forget transgression and to be redeemed in the present, the domestic, and the creative: “The woman open on the gardens/ urges the traveler to leave the rain behind him/ he has nothing to fear from the walls/ nothing to fear from the stroller/ which flew off as soon as the child went to sleep.”
At times, she seems to write explicitly from her own experience. At others, it is evident that she constructs a persona. Her speaker is often highly self-conscious, openly referring to the act of writing: “Blackening pages till words exhaust themselves and this character emerges, whom I’m seeing for the first time.” This can make approaching the book’s first two sections somewhat precarious. While understanding the narrative threads may be difficult, her lines have the feel of individual aphorisms that as a whole constitute disparate beauty of great range, but also of singular emotion: grief or ecstasy, gravity or grace. Nettles is both a fine example of Khoury-Ghata’s voice and a daring exploration of style.
By Venus Khoury-Ghata
Translated by Marilyn Hacker
120 pgs, $14.00