by Britton Gildersleeve
In this time of virtual realities—and real isolation—it’s a small miracle to “get away.” Reading Mohja Kahf’s book My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit is a perfect daytrip to a life almost certainly different from most of ours right now. And beautifully so.
Kahf, a Syrian-American Muslim, offers windows into her daily life: several poems on various Muslim holidays (Eid, Ramadan), many on foods familiar to those of us fortunate enough to have spent time in the Middle East. There are poems of language, and poems of bodies, and poems of desire. Some poems are braided from each of these parts. One of Kahf’s shorter poems—“Olive Oil & Thyme”—lauds friendship, comparing it to bread dipped first into olive oil, then into thyme, sesame, and sumac. The spice mix is a riff on za’atar, a spice familiar in Arabic cooking, and becomes an image of a “lifelong friendship / never the same flavor twice.”
There is much of eating, of desire, of sensual beauty, of sex and its progenitor lust, in Kahf’s vivid poems. Here you’ll see eroticism in a grapefruit, that it could become a “tender membrane / exposing rose-glistening / grapefruit flesh / wet wedges opening. . . .” Who knew a date could transform, when seen through the lens of Kahf’s poetic eye, into a woman’s inner body? And who but Kahf can help you see a man’s body as a sonnet?
Even language takes on a languid nature—“Can we speak together over time and space / naked of our names?” the poem “Woman-Crisp” asks. “Say you have been entrusted with a packeta / A word to give to me / I am ready // Text me from your Galaxy / Message me from your apartment of fire / inside the sun . . . Hurry! Before I fry / into burnt woman-crisp // All that needs to be written is a single word.” And we are left conjuring a word that might save her. . . .
In the Author’s Note at the end of her book, Kahf highlights the “poetic foremothers” mentioned in a few of her poems; her note is its own poetic polemic. Kahf (rightly) impugns the “racist imperialist heteropatriarchy” for not “listening” to Arab women poets. And she asks, “How can I, plus the roving writing crowd of Arab women alongside me, write the body within a world that wreaks violence on brown and black bodies?” And Kahf succeeds, eloquently, in writing the body.
Drawing from centuries of varied literary heritages, Kahf is intimately familiar, as her work demonstrates, with quotidian Arabic experiences. Ramadan is eloquently summarized as “slow-ticking day . . . blink-quick night.” Having lived through several Ramadans in two Muslim countries (Algeria and Saudi Arabia), I love that metaphor—the days move so very slooowly, and the nights of feast and family are over in a blinking of moments.
Agile dance of rhyme, rhythm, and the musical interplay of idiom and prayer and science scaffold one of my favorite poems from the book, “Moonbopped.” Kahf deftly juggles references to Michelangelo ( “he careens / twirling into chapel walls and smearing paint”) with “the moon / lumped me a great big shiner just today / bopped me clear / into the electron-humping subatomic Quark-o-sphere.” Jazz riffs, sub-atomic physics, Renaissance greats . . . each as necessary as a line break, as the lack of stanzaic white space. Do not be seduced by gorgeous images alone—this is a writer who knows her craft.
Perhaps the most evocative poem for me is the final one in the book: “Bury Me in Arabic.” Kahf articulates the rhetorical flourishes of so many mannered exchanges with Arabic friends—“Always multiply the gift— / ‘welcome’ to ‘two welcomes’ / ‘a hundred welcomes and kinship and ease’ / ‘Keep offering tray after tray of words.’” How vivid is that? Words piled like dates or pistachio and honey sweets, on an inlaid tray, offered in largesse to friends and family.
Kahf then turns to the reply and response of ritual politeness that far too many of us have lost the inclination to take time for:
Wishing a sneezer “mercy” is a three-step dance
They reply “guidance and rightness of mind”
You match “guidance for you and me both”
When you cough you get “health”; top it off
“health and vigor!” or raise it to “two healths!”
But the wryly poignant double-play of the title is fully realized at the poem’s close, when Kahf moves from “burying” us in the formalized exchanges of Arabic social conversation to the poem’s final stanza, where “May you bury my bones” becomes a beautifully succinct metaphor for “supreme love / and has no utterable answer.”
It seems very appropriate these dark days to look through Kahf’s eyes into rooms filled with such love—of all the daily happenings in a full life. That it is also a life with which too many of us are unfamiliar is a bonus. I, for one, am grateful to remember.
My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit
Press 53, April 2020
Paperback, 84 pages
Mohja Kahf is a professor of comparative literature & Middle Eastern studies at the University of Arkansas. The author of the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Kahf has two other poetry collections, as well as a nonfiction work. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize, the Arkansas Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and the 2020 Press 53 Award for Poetry.
Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.