I Will Not Fold These Maps was published on 11th May 2023 by The Poetry Translation Centre, in their World Poet Series. The poet, Mona Kareem, is stateless. Kareem has been writing poetry for over 20 years and this book includes new work as well as poems from her previous three collections. It is translated from the Arabic by Sara Elkamel, but the original language is included on the left hand pages. This writing is not only very beautiful in appearance, but it also allows the reader to see the original shape of each poem, line lengths and so on. The book itself is delightfully small, easy to slip into a pocket. The cost is £9 and it has 66 pages, including an essay by Andre Naffis-Sahley at the back. The translator has written an introduction to help put the work into context.
I was interested to see these poems because I firmly believe it is wrong for anyone to be stateless. Kareem’s family belongs to an Arab minority denied citizenship when Kuwait became independent. Her family is classed as illegal, and therefore denied employment, education, and welfare. Despite this, her father is an erudite man. In her early twenties, Kareem went to America to study. She was not allowed back into Kuwait, so she was forced to take asylum in the USA, where she eventually gained citizenship. The suffering her family have endured is appalling. Out of this suffering, she writes. However, these poems are life-affirming, and perhaps a way for her to be present in Kuwait with her family, if only in her imagination.
Her poems are strongly visual and metaphorical. Everything is precarious and temporary. In ‘Perdition’, a series of images conjures up different losses. These images often yoke together beauty and pain: ‘the night is strangled / by a choker of stars’ is one example. The images are often surreal: Roses jump to their death/ from the rails of my bed/ as my mother/ tries to tuck me into the desert of life’. This poem is a strong opening to the book.
‘Cosmic Haemorrhage’, with its short punchy stanzas, reminds me of William Blake’s aphorisms in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Its 46 stanzas each encapsulates a truth about life as she experiences it. For example ‘A river drowns in itself /Does it weep like I do?’ and another ‘The flute is the eye of the earth’. These quick images are like fleeting visions or a series of gasps, short intakes of breath. The images are beautiful but disturbing.
The impermanence of life as an exile is expressed in ‘My Body; My Vehicle’, where she imagines her body is an old car she drives around, acquiring further injuries, unable to settle anywhere. There is wit here, when she compares herself to ‘a Canadian on Mondays’ having to dig the vehicle of her herself out of the snow. If your body is a car, you cannot be free of it, you can’t just leave it anywhere, it must keep travelling. There are places a car cannot go. This extended metaphor helps the reader understand what being stateless must feel like, in a way we can all relate to.
Kareem’s poems can take surprising turns, which delight the reader. ‘Genetics’ appears to be a poem about fruit and vegetables and personal preferences, but it turns into, by a series of turns, into a poem about how mothers try everything to save their children, in this case, her mother juicing carrots to help her daughter’s eyesight, before realising you can’t compete with genetics. The family’s dining habits before and after getting a dining table are contrasted: ‘there was nowhere for our fingers to dive /and dig’. Family dynamics are recalled with love. A prose poem, ‘Lot’s Wife’ updates the Bible story and transforms it into modern day parable.
These poems are not what I expected when I agreed to review the book. I’d imagined they might be distressing to read, considering stateless people like Shamima Begum, who I believe has been treated unfairly. Kareem’s family are not alone in their statelessness; there are many such families not allowed any rights in the country where they were born. They had no choice in this. Citizenship should not be withheld; the planet belongs to all of us. It is vital that Kareem’s voice is heard. The maps must remain spread out.
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