Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review of The Jinn and Other Poems from 29.2

Amira El-Zein, The Jinn and Other Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Arrowsmith, 2006. $10.00 paper, 28 pages.

Reviewed by Roxana Cazan

Amira El-Zein’s 2006 chapbook, The Jinn and Other Poems, follows her other works Bedouin of Hell (1992) and The Book of Palm Trees (1973). Among the attractive features of this book is the fact that El-Zein’s poetic interests find nourishment in her scholarly preoccupation, especially as her book Jinn Among Humans in Classical Islam: The Hidden and the Manifest is forthcoming. Her vision commingles perspectives: from the Qur’anic and Judeo-Christian canons to Greek mythology and Zoroastrianism. Her poems employ exquisite metaphors belonging to the realm of the exotic, bringing into the text local and temporal color, archetypes, and, most importantly, the private self captured at a moment of both spiritual and physical alchemy.

As the title announces, the thematic focus of the collection is anchored in the poet’s attempt to define the jinn. Scholars have debated whether the jinn are vanished souls, invisible creatures endowed with free will, entities with bodies of smokeless fire, good, or evil. Belief in these creatures precedes Islam. In fact, the ancient Semites, probably influenced by Zoroastrianistic doctrines, believed that the spirits of primeval men, the jinn, rummaged the earth at night, bringing disease and madness, and metamorphosing into animals with the first light of dawn. Etymologically, the singular form of the noun comes from the verb root janna, which means “to conceal,” “to hide.” Having the advantage of this connotative richness, one can understand the versatility and elusiveness such creatures afford the poet who places the speaker in a crucial transformative situation. Whether this can be called death or not, the reader may postulate.

The opening poem, “The Jinn,” proposes a symbolical miscellany. References to ceremonies, myths, epics, or totemic representations open the poems to both Eastern and Western audiences. Allusions to a geographical reality with “ecstatic horses,” “tiny boats,” “a Beirut balcony,” the “desert,” etc. establish the setting. Within the setting, the speaker witnesses the arrival of the jinn, a phenomenon that corresponds to some sort of physical transformation. Somber details hint at death: “fish bones / into the water of life,” falling into “a deep pit,” birds drizzling “soft feathers” (which happens when a bird molts or is killed, then plucked). Contrapuntal, the metamorphosis of the body points not to dissolution, but rather to revivification:

my pores break open
and algae bloom on my skin.

Intimations of another type of transmutation suffuse the following poem, where the poet waits to be transformed by the jinn and thus write her verse. This move is not surprising since the early Arabs believed that a poet is inhabited by a spirit at the moment of poetic creation. “I Hear My Ink Spill” does not contain straightforward references to the jinn, but to a totalizing spirit who can be, in a pantheistic or panentheistic mode, an aspect of the divinity. The call of the spirit, made audible in the poem through the usage of refrain and epanalepsis, allows the speaker to travel from a heaven to Hell:

When the spirit called
I descended,
The light flickering,
My oil lamp dying,

When the spirit called
I descended
Toward shapes
Of intact whiteness.

Alchemic phenomena surprise the reader in “The Returning Spirits” as well. The images take a Dali-esque turn: horses vomit stones, tongues gyrate, and the Qur’an’s opening chapter is recited while jazz music plays. The speaker becomes plural and represents a society, and the transformation experienced at death (or birth for that matter) is closely supervised by an unforgiving time, anthropomorphized into a personage whose nature is stern and unbending: “Our sheikh is Time.”

Past and future generations establish contact in these poems even though such contact opposes Judeo-Christian-Muslim teachings. The invocation of these past generations recalls the summoning of the jinn in the preceding poems, which creates a correspondence between men and spirits. In this interaction and interconnection, one can read a continuous and tireless evolution:

note the sunflower’s
blazing mouth, and that foot-basin of rose-petals

What sounds like someone kicking a soccer ball
around the backyard must be that sheikh.

The concluding poem, “Square is Jerusalem,” calls on other poetic traditions. With stanzas of only a few lines and the rhetorical mode of imploration and sigh, this poem is first reminiscent of Sufi poetry. When the rhetoric blooms in images of Bedouin women lamenting over an abandoned campsite, or when the speaker invokes the reader/listener, the poem also recalls the qasida, an Arabic form. In this sense, El-Zein employs several aspects of intertextuality which not only propose an interesting decoding of the text, but also point to a transmutation of form and content in Arab poetry. El-Zein’s technique of interlacing references and symbols transforms her poetry into a beautiful weaving, a carpet with vibrant colors and exquisite details which invites any reader to take a seat.

1 comment:

Linda Torok said...

Roxana's analysis of these poems is very astute.