Adele Ne Jame has published four books of poems, including Field Work and The South Wind. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and a Pablo Neruda prize for poetry. Her broadsides have been exhibited at the Sharjah, United Arab Emirates International Biennial. After reading the AWP conference statement below, she read “First Night at the Beirut Commodore,” which originally appeared in slightly different form in Poetry Kanto.
To preface my poems, I want to tell you a love story, one that speaks to similarities, one that transcends significant differences, and one that is emblematic of the force that motivates us all as writers. Walt Whitman put it beautifully in “A Noiseless Patient Spider” when he said the spider “launches forth filament, filament, filament out of itself…ever tirelessly speeding them…till the gossamer thread flung catches somewhere.”
In 2009, I went to Lebanon for the first time. Both my mother and father had been born there, but it never occurred to either of them to return. So much had been lost there. Those in my family who survived WWI and various sectarian wars fled and became part of a huge, on-going Lebanese diaspora. While growing up in a Christian home, I heard many personal, tragic stories, some dealing with the violence between Christians and Druzes (a sect of the Muslim faith), but my parents never actually talked about Lebanon, the place. We had the food, the language, the customs, but not the place. It was a mystery to me. For as long as I can remember, I had longed to go to Lebanon. Finally, in 2009, my daughter, an artist and environmentalist, and I had a collaborative poetry/painting project exhibited in the United Arab Emirates International Biennial, and we planned a six day side trip to Beirut. It was life changing.
But long before that—more than twenty years ago, a Lebanese American poet, Haas Mroue, came to Honolulu to read from his collection of poems, Beirut Seizures. From the moment we met, there was a deep kind of recognition. It was all about poetry, Arabic language and food and certain idiosyncratic Lebanese customs that created a profound and lasting bond. Haas had grown up in Beirut during the fifteen year civil war—starting in 1975. He had been educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and at UCLA. He lived in Bahrain and London, spent time in Nice and finally settled for half of each year in Port Townsend, Washington. He was a poet, a teacher, a prolific world travel writer and a moral force for peace. But he carried the weight of the war with him wherever he went. In addition to our many trips together, we had planned to go to Lebanon in 2006, but the war between Israel and Hezbollah fired up that summer, and our trip was cancelled. In 2007, while on sabbatical in Beirut, Haas died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 41. I lost a brother.
Prior to his death, I knew nothing about Lebanon, the place where my parents’ families had died violently. When Haas spoke to me of Lebanon, I had the uncomprehending sensibility of any outsider. After his death and two trips to Lebanon, I am still an outsider, of course, but my sensibility has changed. Writing about him and Lebanon, now inextricably bound together for me—and both lost in different ways, is about a kind of recovery in the face of such loss. It’s an affirmation of love for both. Haas’s own struggle with identity and issues having to do with exile, so urgently written about by Edward Said, has served to further illuminate my own. I see now that Lebanon, with all its confusion about identity, (seventeen religious confessions and a fragile coalition government) is a macrocosm of our own complicated struggle for identity.
I lost a man who was very different from me, much younger in age, gay, and from a Jewish-Muslim family. None of those differences mattered because he was close to me in the ways of the heart. His poems, bearing witness courageously, caught me powerfully. His voice, like the voice of all poets who wish to reach out and catch somewhere, is still with me.