Hedy Habra was born in Egypt and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of a poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis (Press 53, 2013), a collection of short stories, Flying Carpets (Interlink, 2013), winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award’s Honorable Mention in Fiction, and a book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa (Iberoamericana 2012).
She has an MA and an MFA in English and an MA and PhD in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University, where she currently teaches. She is the recipient of WMU’s All-University Research and Creative Scholar Award. Her poems were finalist in numerous contests, including Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize and recently in the 2012 Nazim Hikmat Poetry Award.
Her multilingual work has appeared in more than forty journals and thirteen anthologies, including Connotation Press, Blue Five Notebook, Nimrod, Prairie Wolf Press, Cumberland River Review, The New York Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Diode, Cutthroat, Innisfree, Bitter Oleander, Puerto del Sol, Cider Press Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Saranac Review, Sukoon, Letras Femeninas, Rowayat, Mizna and Poet Lore.
Please visit Hedy Habra’s website: www.hedyhabra.com
Was it Beirut or Alexandria?
Under the shade, you put aside
your Safari hat on an empty chair,
squeezed lemon over the moist flesh.
“Take all the juice,” you said,
holding the iridescent
shell to my lips.
Yet one day you chased me
around the house, menacing,
a slipper in your raised hand.
No one recalls what I had done.
I was never caught. Only nine
years of hide and seek
and you were gone.
I have searched for you in
every man, placed letters
into the wrong urns.
First loves, impossible loves.
I recall that time when
I wished I were his wife
until I saw him hold his child.
I would have given my life
to be his daughter.
Published by Parting Gifts
Reading the Future in Turkish Coffee
Let me take you by the hand,
enable you to enjoy every single step.
Savor every drop like nectar,
careful not to drink
the muddy bottom.
Cover the small cup with the saucer,
swiftly turn it upside down
swirling dregs as you circle clockwise…
one, two, three times…
Now, make a wish and concentrate…
Tap the upturned cup three times,
wait a few minutes…
See how the dark concoction
drips into rivulets like china ink
along the cup’s porcelain inner walls
See how black-veined
drawn by an imaginary brush?
See for yourself: unlike Rorschach’s
coffee dregs irregular designs
echo delicate Daum configurations,
sealing leaves, petals, feathers
in a translucent congealed liquid.
To see the world in an upturned cup,
your whole life unfolding,
a fleeting, ephemeral moment
in broken mirrors.
See how my finger points at the handle?
This area is your home.
At its right lies your future,
your past rests on its left.
Can you see this fish jumping from the depth?
This is money you’ll cash in soon.
Beware of these two women talking about
someone you know who is very sick.
You’ll get a letter soon.
See these three dots?
In three days, or weeks…
Keep looking. See these trees? They merge
over there in this clearing.
leads to a dense forest.
See how it darkens
as you reach the middle of the cup
opposite the handle?
You’ve just entered a remote area of your past.
Only you can decipher what lies
beneath its landscape.
You must project
your inner life on each sign.
the pulse of emotions,
breath by breath.
A butterfly opens and closes its wings.
I don’t invent anything, you know.
at the white spaces.
Do you see this dog?
Squint your eyes… Here is his snout.
He is a faithful friend,
unlike the cat.
The cat is magic, a mystery troubling you.
But believe me, you know best. You have all
Relax… it’s all within you,
Just close your eyes and conjure up
each image engraved in your cup
as if it were precious crystal.
Published by Parting Gifts
Even the Sun has its Dark Side
but does it really matter,
we could enter that hidden space,
the way grains of sand
would suddenly rise
in an hourglass,
regain their initial place.
I wonder what is lost behind a picture,
rippled in its negative
as I often try to read between the lines,
sense clenched teeth,
or grasp an unspoken word.
When I set to bridge these gaps,
my blood warms up in tides,
revealing a tightness inside the chest
as if memories,
pressed in a tin can
kept near one’s heart,
could sweep away the grayness outside.
We lost everything when we fled,
except for an album
full of my childhood pictures in Egypt
and my children born in Beirut.
“You’re so lucky,” everyone said,
our family unharmed,
not one of their fingers
was worth the whole world
Our beds were made in places
where the sun teased us, hiding
most of the time, forcing us to master
the local motto
…make sunshine inside…
Christmases followed one another
offering versions of our lives,
each fragmented image
evoking a new face,
a recipe …an absence…
Whenever I sort them out,
I see myself floating in a fluid
in search of a referent that has vanished,
leaving only an empty shell,
crumpled, discolored like fallen leaves.
I felt constantly renewed,
peeled off like an onion,
shedding layer after layer
until what was left
was so tender,
une primeur à déguster,
yet so vulnerable.
the repotted bulb spread roots
in the New World’s moist soil
like praying hands
in different tongues
overlapping its core
to mend what was undone,
until it looked whole again.
children rebelled against
whatever came from a distant land,
And year after year we learned
to sit in front of the camera,
gather a succession
of perfect moments
till I lost track of what lies
under these smiles.
How could I ever part
with my old black and white photographs,
taken when I was a little girl
and no one forced me to smile,
yet I knew how loved I was…
pictures of my parents proudly seated in a mock
airplane about to take-off…
…my mother’s delicate lace net
coming down her toque,
half-covering her eyes, head
slanted in an enigmatic look
a la Garbo…my father in
black tie and white scarf, a tall
hat in his hand.
I see you posing with us, mother.
Your age, the same as mine,
playing a role,
a proud, perfect mother. Yet, I never
saw you happy, I mean really…
Nothing like our pictures, the four of
year after year.
I got used to smiling, you know,
thought it made me look younger,
helped hide the wrinkles.
After capturing the sun inside me,
now the peer pressure…
…the need for American
Published by Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of
Contemporary Arab American Poetry, ed. Hayan Charara
It is a small apartment
on a rooftop overlooking
a Merry go Round,
and a big lighted Wheel
by the sea cornice,
lined with palm trees.
You check several closets
filled with your children’s
clothes, soft woolens and cotton
knits that never touched their skin,
toys they never played
with. You know,
the ones you saved
on the higher shelves,
scented with lavender
for when they’re older.
Someone lives there, an old
Lebanese who signals more
doors replete with boxes
marked with your initials.
He can’t return any.
Then, you realize these closets
are hidden somewhere
in the back of your mind.
You’re just too busy
to open them.
Published by Parting Gifts
Lost and Found
This could be an office, a Temple or a church
Its thick crimson carpeted floor
muffles all sounds
as if we were walking over clouds
Here people wait in line
drawn by an invisible cord
Objects with a will of their own, call names,
conjure-up faces, find their way
on pre-labeled shelves,
uprooted lares and penates reappear,
faithful to their hosts…
Behind a counter, three matronly women
display heteroclite items:
|a silver candle snuffer, a collection of thimbles, an enameled hand mirror inlaid with semi-precious stones, a crystal chandelier, brass engraved ashtrays and planters, an old gas Primus stove, a miniature locket, a silver samovar, a powder case covered with petit-point, an oval mahogany mantle clock, a jade Buddha, a copy of a pink lacquered lampshade with pewter cupids my mother carved when she was fifteen and even a deep-blue Sèvres porcelain bonbonnière–a Boucher’s pastoral painted on its lid–similar to the one my father presented the day he proposed…|
My mother and I have come regularly for years,
crossing oceans or land,
we never fail to meet at the threshold
of the crimson corridor
we still look the same we did thirty years ago,
before the fighting started
Hand in hand, we wait in line,
talk as if we never parted, reviving
a once congealed image, a never-ending moment…
She hopes to recover her paintings,
or at least one, the Galleon or the Shepherdess
Perhaps this is what I’d like most to see,
her own work
“May evil come upon those who have them
on their walls,” she says…
I’m afraid to go to some one’s home in Lebanon
and see my life scattered all over,
fetishes sold at black markets
As if I owned a palace
As if it mattered
As if anything mattered
since our children left
Published by Nimrod
Back to the house in Heliopolis,
wallpapered with oils, your oils. Were
they Renoir, Boucher, Monet, Manet,
Turner or Bougereau? So many, you
forgot the artists’ names. “I painted it
from a postcard,” you’d say, or “a picture
my Art teacher gave me. It was so long
ago. Before I married your father.”
You lived at your grandfather’s on Sesostris
street. I see you on the balcony, bent over
the easel, the crisp blue Egyptian sky
filtering through rod iron balustrades, lost
in other dreamers visions, you recreate trips
along the European countryside, smoothing
haystacks under the young peasant girl
awaiting her lover. An intimacy you never knew.
You carefully rearrange the mantilla
of the woman watching the sunset from her
window. An oval mirror reveals her concern:
Is her lover late? She fears she no longer
pleases him. Through the verandah, framed
by stone pillars entwined with vines, waning
golden corals tinge the dark waters.
Day after day you instill life, following
the master’s brush strokes, adding a touch of
blush, redefining the lower lip, preserving
the airiness of the gauze lining her profile.
Her confidante, you hear her intimate thoughts,
enter her world, visit places you’d only
seen in print. At night, the easel rests in
the bedroom shared with your mother, a widow.
You dream the painter painting his model,
merging dreams, erasing distances. You sleep,
smiling, inventing happy endings, excusing the
lover’s delay, convincing the reluctant father.
I see you mastering that tempest, redress the
sinking ship’s reclining masts, and blown sails.
Day after day, you wait for the paint to dry
next to the original, long months for the
fierce waves to reflect the lightning menacing
the deck’s flickering red lantern.
Does it matter if you forgot the artist’s name
when you possessed part of his soul? I’ll never
know your thoughts, Mother. You say: “I don’t
remember anymore,” then laugh at my wild
guesses: “We’re very much alike you and I…”
* * *
“There’s no such thing as true love,” you’d
say, “the greatest passion melts like ice.”
How I wanted you to be wrong. Your canvases’
message reaches me, muffled by time and
distance, as I paint stage butterflies pinned
by Degas or Turner’s gilded Venetian sunsets.
Was it a prince standing opposite the beauty
by the stream, above the upright Steinway?
Seated on a rock, her lower back loosely draped
in muslin, unabashed, she offers him her nudity,
turning towards us, eyes lowered, a perfect
profile. Myosotis crown her coiled hair, a
few falling, opalescent, over the nape of her
neck. The youth’s belt encrusted with precious
gems, his heavily ornate chain and medallion,
a sign he is not a mere hunter. One hand raised,
he addresses the nymph, ceremoniously.
A child, I thought him her older brother,
reproaching her carelessness, begging her
to fold the veil over her breasts. I scrutinized
each scene, encounters where men talked
and women listened, faces molded at my fancy,
shuffled in my dreams, in every page I’d read.
Farewell to the shepherdess, leaning against a
horizontal trunk, chewing on a long-stemmed
pâquerette, lost in rapture at the shepherd’s
speech. Her opulent breasts, freed from the
ruffled bodice, emerge, taunting as Caravaggio’s
pears. He looks sideways, pointing
an index finger, half-smiling, seduced by his
own words, lascivious eyes oblivious to the
flock fleeing the canvas.
“She’s looking for trouble,” I often thought.
“Did it take long,” I later asked, “to make
her skin so real?” “I don’t remember,” you
said, “but aren’t her nipples a little
merveille“? Schooled in a convent, you
chose to paint tender, playful scenes, always
telling your daughters: “Beware, never let
a boy kiss you,” warning of hidden perils,
the paintings above our heads, teasing us silently.
* * *
Two women, face to face, facing palettes,
our dreams reshape spaces, erase corners,
stretch walls, fill oceans of absences. I watch you
run rivulets through rocky shores, wildflowers
springing as your mouth creases, a reflection
of your mother’s pensive twitch as she pondered
the last notes of the Solitaire’s decree.
Two girls read under a willow, faces receding,
more distant every day. “Here,” I say, “let me
finish it.” Mouth twisting, I bring the girls
to life. “I gave you my eyes,” you said, that
day, smiling across the kitchen table, “I can
still paint Corot’s landscapes.”
Your late seasons revive in mine, against
the current, into your own. You guided my first
steps, the movements of the needle, the pen,
the brush. Now you play Solitaire, your hands
bring cards to wide-open eyes, hold magnifiers,
Psyche, immersed in endless tasks, too many
seasons bent over the easel, feathers, leaves,
flowers, emerged in silk, linen, wool, invaded
glass, wood, pewter, my daughter’s smock,
until your root lost moisture.
Seated next to me, all eyes, the palm of your
hands, your fingertips, your empty, absent look,
follow my progress. I wear glasses now.
The sunset over the russet field defies me.
From above the columns of Solitaire, a voice
reaches my canvas: “Try a dry brush, a dash of
color, a drop of linseed oil.”
The same smile sips Turkish coffee, turns cups
upside down. I read the dregs, you shuffle the pack.
Published by Negative Capability
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Poetry in this post: © Hedy Habra
Published with the permission of Hedy Habra