cover image A Red Cherry on a White-Tiled Floor

A Red Cherry on a White-Tiled Floor

Maram Al-Massri, , trans. from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa. . Copper Canyon, $15 (145pp) ISBN 978-1-55659-264-5

Short, vivid, frankly erotic and remarkable for their emotional intelligence, Syrian poet Al-Massri's poems are as startling in English as they must have been to their first Arabic readers. Her acute renditions of pain and pleasure are more than a bit suggestive of Catullus—or rather a female Catullus, whose mix of the familial and the bodily, of worries about motherhood with expression of lust, first shock, then draw admiration for their concise artistry: “Before you fell asleep,” a one-sentence poem asks a lover or husband, “why did you forget/ to switch off/ the lamp/ of my burning desires?” A lover appears “in his old cotton clothes/ and his torn socks,” “the way the need for love/ strips naked.” A woman with unconsummated yearnings compares herself to a fruit tree the birds leave alone. A happier woman, at the end of a tryst, will “search for pieces/ of my clothes/ to wear me,” leaving only “tears/ of pleasure” behind. Mattawa renders the traditional Middle Eastern forms of Al-Massri's lyric sequences into brief English free verse. The results sound just familiar enough to draw Americans in, just strange enough to keep them in memory. (Nov.)