Lighthouse For The Drowning is Jawdat Fakhreddine’s first U.S. publication, but his poetry is known throughout the global Arab community. A native of Southern Lebanon, Fakhreddine writes in Arabic, and has, according to Lighthouse’s translators, bridged the gap between traditional and modern Arabic poetry. Because Lighthouse is a translation (and translating literature is an art form just as rigorous as poetry), one could argue that there are actually three poets’ voices in this collection, Fakhreddine and translators Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen. Someone who is well-versed in the art of translation could say quite a bit about Lighthouse, which contains both the original Arabic poems and the English translations. However, I am just an uncultured American poet, so I will stick to reviewing the English portions. Consider this a half-review.
Fakhreddine’s poems are abstraction/concept-heavy, as opposed to image-heavy. According to the translators, Arabic poets utilize abstractions quite a bit, a practice that is frowned upon by many Western poetry readers. In Fakhreddine’s poems, however, abstractions such as “death” (the most used abstraction in this collection) are either defined or discussed in terms of definition within individual poems. In “How Long This Day of Mine” on page fifty-two, Fakhreddine outlines death as desertion of the living as well as an escape from loneliness:
“Do the dead see, once they have settled
in their death,
what they left behind on the road
where they deserted us?
Oh! How beautiful death is,
if the dead look back at the loneliness of the road
once they have settled”
It is unclear whether the definition work is more Fakhreddine’s or the translators’ doing, but defining the abstraction that is death certainly makes navigating individual poems easier. There is some irony in the ease of navigation of these poems, though: Fakhreddine carries a sense of longing and despair throughout the collection, usually caused by a struggle to define what/where the speaker’s home is. Fakhreddine has a “September garden” motif in several poems, and the aforementioned garden is described as “trembling” and “disintegrated” on page twenty-two (indicating some sort of tragic occurrence), and “a gasp of fragrance” on page seventy-six (indicating something reasonably positive, perhaps nostalgic). The conflicting images used for this September garden shows the conflict and distress within the speaker about the place. *
The conflict regarding Fakhreddine’s poetic speaker finding a sense of “home” after some unnamed-but-present tragedy holds an oddly meandering weight. The poems’ lines are fairly short on the page (even shorter on the Arabic half), demanding a pause for them each to sink like stones dropped into a proverbial lake. While the importance of finding the sense of home is evident, each poem takes its time to complete an idea. The individual poems are even broken up into sections (usually three, sometimes four), and only one or two sections of a poem can fit on each page, so a reader is forced to sit in the physical space between each poem as they skip over white space and turn pages. The collection is not a fast read (at least not a fast read for 111 pages), but the contemplation time is worth it.
Lighthouse for the Drowning is modern poetry from the other side of the globe (not sure if it falls into the “contemporary” category if it was written in the 1990s). It is the go-to collection if you want to remember how it feels to yearn deeply for someplace you cannot find anymore. In addition, an investment of time and/or capital in an Eastern poet makes the poetic world a little less white and Western, which is always appreciated.
*This September thing may refer to the event known as Black September, when the Israeli/Lebanese conflict made Southern Lebanon a war zone, and people like Fakhreddine had to seek refuge elsewhere.