Art and Politics/Politics and Art

Reviewed by George

D.H. Melhem, Art and Politics/Politics and Art

The back cover this eighth book of D.H. Melhem’s poetry posts this trenchant observation by fellow poet Philip Appleman:

Belying all of prior literary history, a currently fashionable critical dictum holds that any poetry engaging the real world is necessarily impure and unworthy of respect and admiration. D.H. Melhem’s powerful Art and Politics/Politics and Art kicks down the door of that comfy salon and lets in the fresh air of heroism, of racial equality, of courageous feminism, of social conscience, of pacifism.

Melhem herself writes of how she came to compose these poems:

More and more, however, politics was cramming my consciousness. It jumped fences. It mixed and merged with aesthetic material….[M]y category restrictions seemed arbitrary, cumbersome; the sense of urgency profound…. […] And so art and politics, politics and art, moving together, bestir these pages. They continue to engage some of my deepest concerns. (xi-xii, xiv)

Melhem, daughter of Lebanese immigrants to the US, is an accomplished writer and scholar who, in addition to her poetry, has published a novel trilogy, scholarly works on black poets, a musical play, and anthologies of poetry. A lifelong resident of New York City, she grew up in Brooklyn, earned her Ph.D. at City University of New York, and has received numerous prestigious awards. Yet, as Art and Politics/Politics and Art clearly demonstrates, her work moves far beyond the academic cloister to engage the people on the streets.

She knows the concerns and tribulations of those who inhabit not just New York but Beirut, Bagdad, Fallujah and Gaza. While inspired by the fine art of New York’s galleries and museums, she is above all a people’s poet, who grew up admiring the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt. She learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, yet understands deeply the plight of the Palestinians. As an Arab American feminist, she comprehends the horror and injustice of war, racism, ecological crisis and women’s oppression intellectually, and feels them emotionally. Further, she does so with a keen sense of the aesthetic as well as the political. In short, she is committed—to a humane, justice-seeking, vigorously antiwar politics, and to using the power of art to express them.

The thirty-three poems comprising this collection are arranged in three categories: ten poems in “Certain Personae,” which are on persons; “Mostly Political,” which is about politics, in a broad sense that embraces love of life and commitment to living fully; and “War,” which includes specific poetic looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two Gulf Wars, and the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, as well as war generally. Written in a variety of styles, these poems were originally published between 1976 and 2009, but none of them are dated—for Melhem has a great gift for expressing the general in terms of the specific, and expanding on the specific to bring out its relation to the general.

One stylistic mode that Melhem uses with great effectiveness is to incorporate the matter-of-fact, didactic prose of journalism, the encyclopedia, and the reference book into her own language of poetry. Seamlessly and without self-consciousness, she makes this prosaic language integral to her own poetic style, uses it to concretize, inform and enhance her own poetic expression. Expressing this juxtaposition of language particularly well are “Poem for Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” with its adaptation of what might be an encyclopedia entry, and “Gulf War” and “Variations on a Theme by Andrea Mantegna.” “Gulf War” gives poetic voice to the horrors of the First Gulf War of 1991 through incorporation of details from reference books and contemporary journalistic accounts. “Variations …,” about that same war, relates its horrors through a triptych comprising a painting by a contemporary of Columbus, Columbus’s enslavement of the Arawak Indians who had originally welcomed him and his men, and the accidental shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane and subsequent attempt at cover-up by US forces—and ends by bringing all three of these diverse, seemingly unrelated, parts into a thematic whole.

Six of the poems are ekphrastic – a word Melhem discovered which, as she relates in her Preface, describes exactly what she had already been doing—writing poems on paintings that particularly inspired her. In “Chanel, Arbus, Duccio” she expands that to include works found in three separate museum galleries: one devoted to fashion, one to photography, one to medieval paintings of the Madonna and Child Jesus. Her other ekphrastic poems focus specifically on paintings denoting war and fear—eloquent poems about eloquent paintings that traverse war from the days of Hannibal to the present, that capture the primal terror and despair of children as well as of young men made into soldiers, abducted from their lives.

Indeed, Melhem’s poetic vision as a woman is especially focused on the maternal aspects of war—women dying clutching their infants; children turned into haters, old and world-weary long before their time; mothers imploring their sons not to war; and the warriors themselves, of two types—young men of ideals but bereft of hope who become suicide bombers; and combat soldiers forced to submit to other men, men who are generals, lieutenants and sergeants ordering them to fight and die—for what purpose? This last question is especially raised in “Artillerymen in the Shower/Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1915,” with its two lines repeated for emphasis: “I do not want to go there. I do not want to be here.

As an Arab American with special awareness of the Holocaust, Melhem writes of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with a poignant pacifism in “Those Policemen Are Sleeping/A Call to the Children of Israel and Palestine”:

War keeps taking, taking sucks marrow, marries the dead to the dead and the living to the dead. War is insatiable, it has a stomach for youth the delectable sweetness of babies it spits out old people it spares lives as lottery prizes.

And faith? What of faith? I have faith in sunlight, in moonlight, in a dandelion that gives its bitter food and plain beauty, in a smile, in the smell of soap, in a page turned slowly, faith in the Jesus of Peace, the Muhammad of Peace, the Moses of Peace, the Buddha of Peace, I have faith in the possible footsteps of Gandhi and King.

The section “Certain Personae” is comprised of artfully understated eulogies for the aforementioned Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her soulmates, Angela Davis and Abraham Lincoln; the sonnets of John Updike lovingly reminding her of her mother; the hapless Hannibal crossing the Alps to invade Rome; and three kwansabas for (respectively) African American novelist Richard Wright and African American poets Amiri Baraka and Jayne Cortez – the kwansaba being a poetic form of seven lines of seven words each, no word consisting of more than seven letters (except for proper nouns and certain foreign words). This section also pays tribute to an anonymous woman in “Naked Woman Walks Down the Street,” whose au naturel form Melhem sees “clothed in rainbow and light from hummingbird wings” as she leads in rebellion the homeless of New York City, whose “hands are raised and their fists are clenched” as we sense “their malice, their might.”

The section “Mostly Political” was to me the most aesthetically pleasing. It is a potpourri of themes about life broadly and politics specifically, politics as delineated through a variety of images. In “Capitalism” Melhem describes the market relationship through streetwalkers and their pimps, who are “Adam Smith, Vanderbilt, Morgan or Rockefeller.” “Polar Icecaps” raises the question, “Where will we all go when global warming melts the icecaps and causes the sea to rise?” In “Turtle” the accidental crushing of an innocent reptile under the wheel of her car reminds her of “collateral damage” in warfare, while in “A Chipped Tooth” real war games played by children across the globe resulting in non-restorable losses are compared to the restorable loss of a chipped tooth resulting from a game of her childhood.

These are but some of the many striking images, statements and evocations found in Art and Politics/Politics and Art: Vivid in imagery and elegant in vision, it triumphs aesthetically as well as politically.

George Fish Indianapolis