D. H. Melhem

D. H. Melhem

D. H. MELHEM, Ph.D., is the author of eight books of poetry, including Art and Politics / Politics and Art (2010); New York Poems, an omnibus volume that contains two early books and new work; Country, a book-length poem sequence about the United States; Rest in Love, a widely acclaimed elegy for her mother; and Conversation with a Stonemason.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Lebanese immigrants with Greek ancestry, she is a lifelong resident of New York City where her two children were born and raised. Melhem is also author of the trilogy Patrimonies, comprising Blight (distributed by Syracuse University Press and optioned as a feature film), and Stigma & The Cave: Two Novels (published by Syracuse). Of two scholarly works, Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice is the first comprehensive study of the poet. The other, Heroism in the New Black Poetry, presents an introduction to and interviews with six Black poets, including Brooks. Melhem wrote and produced Children of the House Afire, a musical drama based on her poems about her Upper West Side neighborhood, published over 70 essays, and edited two anthologies.

Her Notes on 94th Street was the first poetry book in English by an Arab American woman and was proposed by Gwendolyn Brooks for a Pulitzer Prize. Among Melhem’s numerous awards for poetry and prose are a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, an American Book Award, a City University of New York Ph.D. Alumni Association Special Achievement Award, and a RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers, Inc.) Lifetime Achievement Award. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of New York University, she serves as vice-president of the International Women’s Writing Guild.

For audio of the poet, please visit the website www.dhmelhem.com


D. H. Melhem

There, by the rail . . .

There, by the rail, my mother at seventeen
pale, her thin white arm
raised, as in salute
to a seagull
trailing the ship, Homeric,
September, nineteen twenty-two.
Black dress flutters behind her,
a silken whispering
about her knees, covered
with black hose
above black shoes
mourning the year-hardened mystery of her father
who disappeared en route to a Turkish town.
. . . . . . . . . . . .

Mother, historian, I question you
as the past wheels in a wakeful spray
and you speak:

     Here at the rail, I am thinking of Mersine,
     walking with friends in my garden of flowers
     away from this ship. Seven children
     being taken to America by our mother.
     Our brother there:
     the first boy
     after losing a son
     two pairs of twins
     after three living daughters
     first boy
     pampered and brilliant
     reserved for his studies
     sent early to school by my father
     a prodigy
     long curls like Mozart
     sent to college in America
     and we follow
     with my father gone.

     I miss my friends
     the nuns at St. Joseph de l’Apparition
     my flowers
     the oleander
     fig trees
     the orange grove
     everything receding into sea foam
     the wake of this ship
     distantly distantly
     a piano is singing
     with a young man’s voice

     what’s ahead
     I don’t want it, I think
     but my mother
     is wisdom
     yet I suffer
     am not strong like her
     like the others
     all watching
     my brother,
     . . . . . . . . . .

Grandma’s Kitchen

It is warm in Grandma’s kitchen. Throughout this, her second apartment in the New World, the fiery steam heat rises with dawn and dinner from the coal-stoked furnace in the basement, but the kitchen is warmed all day by the cooking and washing. My mother, my grandmother sit at the white enamel kitchen table, kneading dough, shelling peas, measuring pine nuts into the chopped lamb and onions, soaking the crushed wheat for kibbeh, filling dozens of meat pies, stuffing chicken and squash and green peppers and eggplant, rolling stuffed grape leaves and stuffed cabbage like cigars, making dumplings for yoghurt soup among cans of sesame oil and boiled butter, peeling scores of potatoes for baked lamb necks and shanks and roast chicken, boiling rice, browning rice and onions, adding rice and tomatoes to large pots of marrow-bone vegetable soup, sitting and chatting over familiar tasks that are done must be done will be done every day without respite, my mother, my grandmother at the kitchen table with me between them on a stool in the corner where I watch and listen, tasting dough and stuffing, rewards for being content to observe and accept, with my silence, their love.

Waiting for them to acknowledge me, I absorb the strange names of relatives and friends I shall never meet, Beit this and Beit that, houses remote as the house of Atreus, incidents and characters recalled and savored as I anticipate the mention of meaningful names dropping from the flow of Arabic between them: aunts and uncles who live in the house, my mother’s sisters and brothers.

And I bear witness to a daily translation of two women’s lives into pots and pans, the circumscription of kitchen walls, with heat rising amid the smells and rhythm of effort, into patterns and patience, interchangeable days carried by movements worn to such precision that hand and object extend each other. How many times does the body yearn beyond clothesline and tar roof? Dough sticks to fingers; clock hands restrain.

Crescent Moon

the various light in my room
spun from a bedside candle
signalling the life from which I was
warmly separate

you took me to the window
saw the crescent moon
upon my face
an omen   love and luck
sometimes together

How Many Snows

how many snows have gone down to the yard from my window
white days in darkness
the yard has its own dusk   constantly fallen
one tree set on a second floor terrace

I am looking for
the sled with back rest

you run ahead
pulling me faster   your small feet in new snow
like a surface of clouds
hard to pull through

yet we go up
this chariot of myths
in cold air   endlessly lifting

© 1975, 1978, 1995 by D. H. Melhem, from Rest in Love
(Brookville, NY: Confrontation Magazine Press, 1995)

All poems/text on this post: © D. H. Melhem
Photo credit: Lorraine Chittock/Saudi Aramco World
Published with the permission of D. H. Melhem