Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Poetic Borders and Landscapes

Khaled Mattawa’s lyrical cartography of human migration remembers, inspires

FROM THE CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This review originally appeared on November 12, 2020.


Fugitive Atlas, poet Khaled Mattawa’s fifth collection, arrives at a time when we have borders on the brain. From our heated social media diatribes over U.S. immigration policy to the stark realization of borders closing in the time of COVID-19, we sit in heightened awareness of who is allowed to go where. We have racial borders, socioeconomic borders, rural and urban borders we’ve yet to tear down. And, quite simply, many of us stay within the walls of our homes; when we do leave, we live within the new bounds of six feet. No hugs. No handshakes.

Photo: Khairy Shaban

In this melodious collection, Mattawa — a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — issues a timely invitation to examine our many migrations, gently calling us out of ourselves and into the world. He becomes a cartographer of reality across many countries, poetic landscapes, and styles. In a series of imaginative and provocative poems, he asks us to consider the borders — at times government ordained, at times personally, financially, and culturally imposed — that exist off the map and apply meaning to our real lives.

The chains await us like airplane seatbelts.
No place else to go.
Nowhere but this earth.

These poems remind us we do not exist as silos. Mattawa chooses to write only in three-line stanzas (tercets), except for the haibun poems anchored throughout the book, which are prose sections that end with a renga (two haiku-like tercets). Each tercet a reminder that we are community — not solitary lines, not neat couplets. The tercets also provide a sense of order and often delightful rhythm, even in poems where Libyan-born Mattawa confronts growing up under the dictatorship of Muammar Al-Qaddafi until migrating to the U.S. in 1979 (“death like air, everywhere”). They are psalms, songs. And the songs hold notes of brutality.

Even within his stanza discipline, Mattawa pushes himself in form with pseudo-ghazals, qassida, and list poems. “Occupation: An Index” describes the Italian occupation of Libya with a unique variation on the abecedarian form. A poem after American poet Gertrude Stein and Egyptian songstress Oum Kalthoum, “Alams for Cairo Nights,” upends the bounds of sexuality these women existed in and offers readers several ways to read the poem (poetically nonbinary, perhaps): “I can’t talk / a word where love is / and is caught.”

In this collection, bodies become internal landscapes that migrate (“Sometimes for comfort, I think of myself as a field … Or like a city that can be rebuilt again”). Language migrates — the poet once heard “plume” and thought only of “Carnival, flapper fashion, Cyrano de Bergerac’s hat.” Now the word evokes the threatening contaminated groundwater roaring beneath the Michigan soil about an hour south of Flint, where Mattawa makes his home. He touches on the forceful movement of humans in transatlantic slavery with borrowed language from American poet Robert Hayden (“Alams for Robert Hayden”). He laments a murder in a memoriam poem for Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor (“At Westgate Mall, Nairobi”).

While tributaries of the personal flow through these poems, Mattawa gives us deep rivers and combs wide seafloors to present the breadth of stories beyond his own. The penultimate section of the collection specifically explores the dangers encountered in North African and Middle Eastern departures through intimate portraits of refugees and asylum seekers:

boats filled with people and goods
and sailed off. A day or a week later,
the sea sends back the drowned.

Poetry migrates. Sometimes an ancient Iranian poet captures the imagination of a teen in the holler of East Tennessee and vice versa. Mattawa, who is also a poetry translator, highlights this much-needed poetic migration. Several times he knits together an Arab language poet with an English language poet in the renga section of his haibuns. In “Your City,” he even crosses the borders of three centuries, combining lines from 19th-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and 20th-century Egyptian poet Amal Dunqul with his own:

   Where sands stretch far
away, Adam stands, thronged by
   guards, adoring his towers;
his slaves milk his lean cows,
                                 feed on
hard bread and brackish water.

With all this movement — mostly trembling — how does Mattawa ground us in this substantial collection? With four delicate poems, each called “Beatitude.” In these poems, the poet’s daughter asks questions or offers moments of small wisdom in her tiny movements: “She points to a chameleon the size of a beetle, / teaches me the names of flowers and trees, / insects we can eat if we’re ever lost here.” We sigh every time she appears.

Perhaps we still have a chance to leave this Earth — our final, inevitable migration — in hands more care-filled than ours:

“I’m teaching you how to entrust the world
to me,” she says. “You don’t have to live
forever to shield me from it.”

Poetic Borders and Landscapes

Ciona Rouse is the author of the chapbook Vantablack (Third Man Books, 2017). Her poetry has appeared in Oxford American, NPR Music, The Account, Talking River, Gabby Journal, and other publications. She is poetry editor of Wordpeace. Along with poet Kendra DeColo, Rouse hosts the literary podcast Re\VERB.