Claire Zoghb’s full-length collection, Small House Breathing, won the 2008 Quercus Review Poetry Series Award and was published in fall 2009. A chapbook, Dispatches from Everest, is forthcoming from Pudding House Press.
Her work has appeared in Connecticut Review, CALYX, Saranac Review, Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, Natural Bridge, Crab Creek Review, and in the anthologies Through A Child’s Eyes: Poems and Stories About War, Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems, and CRUSH. Twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, Claire was the winner of the 2008 Dogwood annual poetry competition.
A freelance book designer and graphic artist, she lives and dines with her Lebanese husband Nicolas in New Haven’s Morris Cove neighborhood and works just across the harbor as Graphics Director at Long Wharf Theatre. Her late father-in-law, a native Alexandrian, continues to be her main muse.
Please visit: smallhousebreathing.blogspot.com
its size never up
to their expectations
—and me, married
They mean well
I remind myself
cruising the coffee-hour
when they ask
Fee shee at-tariq?
The first time,
I needed my husband
to translate this
something in the street?
They never ask him
what is coming
down his road,
they don’t see
the skin of my neck
taking on the texture
of khubz markouk,
47 years baked
into its parchment.
They mean well
these tired hands, marked
by decades of sizzling trays of k’nafeh,
pans of kibbee round as the full moon,
hands their grandmothers used
to stretch mountain bread
over the rounded back of the saaj
for hours until day broke—
all the women of the village
and the valley,
all the women in that garden
of milk and honey and bread.
At times I forget
they are well-meaning, and
I want to challenge them
in their own language:
I will make my belly a stone
hard with child
if you use your hands to make
and when we meet on the road
before first light in the mountains
we will know one another
by the warmth of our
own half moons.
I don’t know
their words for child
or stone or even hands
but they mean well
so I allow their hands
to smooth and pat,
like a pine nut deep
and ground lamb,
let them wish for me
what has been wished for them,
a simple round rising.
Published in Quercus Review
RIDING THE BUS IN ALEXANDRIA
In the thick web of their Egyptian, I pick out
White … her skin … Look at her red hair!
as two schoolgirls speculate about my origin.
travel the length of my linen dress, down to
my sandals embroidered with dragonflies.
I am the least chic woman on this bus: no Fendi shades,
no Prada heels, Chanel-lined lips or Hermès silk scarf
draped over my hair. As the bus bumps along the curve
of the Corniche, their eyes stay with me.
By the time Qeit Bey’s Crusader parapets appear,
the girls agree. I must be from England.
I reward their deductive work with my reality:
Ana Mish Inglesiyeh. Min Amrika.
Caught, they giggle, but do not turn away.
I welcome these girls’ innocent intrusion—
speaking their thoughts out loud
in this busful of May sunlight
reflected off the Eastern Harbor—
admire these girls who don’t hide their faces,
who hold my foreign green eye
while only yesterday near Montazah I watched
a woman, sheathed head-to-toe in black,
body-surf the scrolling waves, bubbling white
when they broke over pools of dark cloth.
Published in Quercus Review
THE DOVECOTE, EMPTY
underscores your absence.
Functional, unbeautiful now.
Place of fluff, droppings,
seeds and grains:
detritus of living.
Clear Alexandrian sunlight,
unequivocal, its attendant
pale shade—all that moves
over this balcony at the top
of the house in Cleopatra the Baths.
This poem, too, a vestige—
since these cages, thrown open one last time,
exhaled their spirit
into the wide, the crowded sky.
Published in Saranac Review
BREAKFAST IN ALEXANDRIA
Your father unwraps brown paper
packages from Shenouda’s market
arranges salami and mortadella
two kinds of olives
on red and green plastic plates
balances a knife beside yellow Turkish cheese.
He unties the bag of Lebanese bread
bought at the bakery on the next block
when it opened just after the first call
to prayer, when the sky, still star-filled,
goes lavender along the city’s rooftops.
Spooning tea leaves into slender glasses, he loses himself
in a whistling sound made through his teeth, less
like music than the sea-breeze along the Corniche
a song he had to squeeze through clenched teeth those
when he’d rise before anyone else
descend three floors to the street
with each flight, each step
steeling himself against the inevitable sight
of a corpse in the street, perhaps a neighbor or cousin
please no not a neighbor or a cousin
fasten the body or what was left of the body
to the back of his French Chrysler, drag
what was left of the body to another street
away from the streets his children
walked to their schools, and be back upstairs
to put the water to boil as his family awakened.
But the violent boiling of water signals peace
this morning and, across the sea, Lebanon lies quiet at last.
He turns off the gas under the pan, pours the singing water
into three glasses, one by one, adds more sugar
than any of us should have, sips his
to be sure it is sweetened enough
and only then, calls:
Y’allah! Breakfast is ready.
Published in Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art
Exploring Arab America [The Lebanon Issue]
THE LAST MORNING
Listen—your final pleasure—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are leaving.
You predicted it would come: rain.
Five, maybe six hours west of Alexandria.
Told your brother, both of you standing
On the kitchen balcony overlooking the best of Alexandria.
In Elie’s eyes, only sheer blue, kites motionless
As if painted on the horizontal sky of Alexandria.
You turned your back on the sea—just 60 years in your bones—
Headed to your bed, the morning papers of Alexandria.
But your soul—ah, your soul!—swan-dives from that kitchen balcony
Bound for the beach, one last swim in Alexandria:
Your soul arcs over the alley—ducks, chickens, lone turkey
And the squatters from lands south of Alexandria—
Circles over Omar El-Khayyam’s five stars, Délices, your old cabana
(Now paved over), even Cavafy’s flat—he, like you, well-versed in Alexandria—
Over the honking rush of the Corniche to your holiest of waters, diving
Deep, deeper, past spawn of all the fish you ever caught off Alexandria,
Deeper still to where bronze gods sleep in sea-sand undisturbed,
Verdigris vestiges of glorious Alexandria.
Rising to the surface without a gasp to face the east—
Oriented this way long before the rest of Alexandria—
As invisible rain-carrying clouds at your back crawl past Benghazi,
El-Alamein, Marsa Martrouh, tracing the desert road towards Alexandria.
Fouad, your time come, can your heart say goodbye to her after all?
Your soul bobs in the blinding sea, for eternity immersed in Alexandria.
Published in Connecticut Review
All poems on this post: © Claire Zoghb
Published with the permission of Claire Zoghb