The publication next month of Omar Sabbagh's third poetry collection, Waxed Mahogany, is a further highlight in an eventful year for the 31-year-old Lebanese-British poet, critic and scholar. Waxed Mahogany is published by Agenda Editions, the book publishing arm of Agenda poetry journal located in the English town of Mayfield in East Sussex. Agenda Editions produces small, beautifully printed, limited editions of an individual’s poems.
The new collection comes with high praise from, among others, poet and physician Norbert Hirschhorn (whose latest collection Monastery Of The Moon was recently published in Beirut by Dar Al-Jadeed). Hirschhorn writes: "In Waxed Mahogany you will find poems written by an audacious young poet that cover the topics most young poets write on: parents, elegies, lust and longing, mortality; but unlike many published today, you will not find ordinary language in any of them."
Hirschhorn adds: "Perhaps it comes from Sabbagh’s dual identity as Arab and Englishman, but one hears echoes of Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, Fady Joudah in the poems’ alliterations, bold rhymes, surprising metaphors, richness in noun and verb. Sabbagh writes with a refreshing, muscular formalism to challenge the pallid ‘free verse’ so much in vogue. A winner."
Sabbagh recently returned to London after spending the past academic year as Visiting Assistant Professor in English Literature and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Earlier this year Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press published his second collection The Square Root of Beirut. It was Cinnamon that published his debut collection, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, in autumn 2010. The Square Root of Beirut was launched in March at the Poetry Café in London along with two other Cinnamon collections - Frank Dullaghan's Enough Light to See the Dark and Bill Greenwell's Ringers.
Sabbagh produced a steady stream of poetry and essays during his sojourn in Beirut. His essay on youth poetry in Beirut appeared in the Spring issue of Poetry Review. The June issue of the Warwick Review carries in its Notebook section his essay 'Letter from Beirut'. Two of his poems - 'La Veuve' and 'Music of The World's Defeat' - appeared in the March issue of the Warwick Review, together with his review - entitled 'Three Kinds of Atonement' - of new collections by poets Carole Bromley, Christopher James and Fawzia Kane.
The back cover of Waxed Mahogany carries a warm appraisal from Dr Jan Fortune, editor of Cinnamon Press and of the poetry journal Envoi. She writes: "Sabbagh is a rare and gifted poet. He brings enormous pressure to bear on his themes – love, existential meaning, the rage against darkness, an identity finely tuned to both Beirut and the West – marshalling philosophy and literary allusion with intelligence and elegance so that the reader is immersed in his distinctive world in which ‘…sense has two meanings: / To make you see and to make you see.’ ('After Conrad’s Preface'…)."
In her view, "Waxed Mahogany has the hallmarks of his previous two collections – an emotional intensity and vivid honesty in constant dialogue with the metaphysical and analytical – but with an increasingly assured voice and daring range; an extraordinary and exciting poet."
Sabbagh says a good half of the 62 poems in Waxed Mahogany were written between late April and mid-July. Of the unusual speed with which he writes he says: "I take a romantic view of poetic praxis: it must come in one fell swoop, which is to say within 30 minutes, or, most of the time, it is just dross."
He adds: "I believe in boldness in poetry, which is to say I want to affect people, make something happen, not intrigue them or fascinate them. Thus, for any subtle understanding or sophistication or insight I may have as a critic/philosopher I'm more interested in humane communicability than in cleverness (in my poetry at least)."
He cites Professor Najla Hamadeh, who writes of his new collection: "Though philosophical even while singing 'a song fresh to the flesh', his poetic good sense pre-empts sophistication and knowledge from overshadowing the felt and imagined."
Sabbagh says he often composes "more by ear than by eye; which is to say that 'imagery' isn't as important in my poetry as sound pattern. This makes my poetry, or some of it, a bit like abstract art rather than representational art. That said, my best work is able to realise both simultaneously, immanently...which is the ideal."
Asked how Waxed Mahogany compares with his first two collections, he says: "I don't think this third collection is in any way an 'improvement' on my first and second collections. In fact as I get older I become a lot less 'intense' and a lot more 'realistic'/conservative...but it certainly to a large extent, in relation to the latter, evinces less resentment and bitterness/negativity than my first two collections. I'm just a more mellow(ed) human being now."
In the view of Professor Hamadeh: "Between his earlier poems and Waxed Mahogany, Sabbagh has turned resentment into love, has polished his linguistic play, and has given more room to his fascinating wit."
Asked how his year teaching in Lebanon has impacted on his art he says: "My teaching is in a way like my poetry - it is performative, charismatic, and I often teach by way of outlandish analogy. So in a way my teaching practise is or was very poetic, but there is no causal relationship between my experience teaching at AUB and this third collection."
Nor did living in Beirut really affect this collection: "What it did affect was the more occasional/rubbish/(literally speaking) reactionary poems, rather than the ones in this collection, which are better in that they act, integrally, rather than 'react'."
Sabbagh has two MAs, in English Literature and in Creative Writing, and was awarded his PhD at Kings College, London University, last year for a thesis on 'Narrative and Time in the Writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad'.
He has a provisional offer to publish his PhD thesis, as part of a philosophy series. In preparation for the rewrite of his thesis for publication, he recently set off for the family summer vacation in Marbella armed with "25 hardbound notebooks and about 10 files and my PhD...hardly any books (for the first time in maybe 20 yrs!)"
Next term Sabbagh starts a third MA, in philosophy, at Birkbeck College with a view to eventually doing a second PhD, in philosophy. "As evidenced from my first collection, my critical understanding, say of Freud, or Lacan, or Hegel often gives me my (implicit and partial) 'discourse' for poems...in the sense that my thinking is part of me, as is my poetry..."
The enchanting cover image of Waxed Mahogany is a detail from ‘Cendra / Vida’ 2009 (meaning Ashes / Life 2009 in Catalan), a mixed media and collage work on canvas by the distinguished Catalan artist Assumpció Mateu. The artist is married to Sabbagh's maternal uncle, the art and design consultant Waddah M A Faris, and the couple live in Barcelona.
Omar Sabbagh reads from The Square Root of Beirut at its Poetry Café launch
Sabbagh has a distinctive voice, with a striking use of language and the poems are both intimate and universal. He has a fondness for humour, punning and wordplay. The literary references include John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Cavafy, Durrell, Kafka. The first two couplets of Canto One of Vladimir Nabokov's 'Pale Fire' were well chosen as the collection's epigraph and postscript.
As in his first two collections, members of Sabbagh's family are a constant presence in Waxed Mahogany. His previous collection was dedicated to the memory of his maternal grandmother Sabiha Faris, and her son Bisher Faris, who died within a week of each other in summer 2010. The new collection is "For my family, sanctum, sanctorum" and also in loving memory of Sabiha and Bisher. 'Of the Licit and the Dear' is dedicated to "both my un-met grandfathers", just as in his first collection 'Easy Going' was dedicated to "the two grandfathers I never met".
'His Scarf By My Heart ', dedicated to Bisher, begins: 'I wear his octoroon scarf / Like the mettle / And vault of my heart. / It reminds me of how little / The dead are.' And further on: 'Advancing on a different summer now, / All that’s literal in me crows / Into metaphor and figure. // Longevity’s a truth for verse...'
In 'Villanelle', for his mother Maha Faris Sabbagh, Sabbagh writes: 'I’m unsure which way this mannish wind blows, / Lust-dependent, skin-dependent from a fruit tree, / Inside the square orchard where a frail psyche grows.'
'C', Sabbagh's muse from his Oxford University days, again features in several poems. From 'Heart-Ford': 'We culled what was to be culled / From each other // And in a wide-mouthed emptiness / Preferred the stir / Of what didn’t happen, / What we didn’t do, gram / For gram // In the fleet of the hourglass...'
A number of the poems refer to Beirut. 'This City' - subtitled 'After Cavafy's conceit', includes: 'Beirut, if Beirut could, would / Make war with the sun. // Beirut’s like a struck drum / Which fails to resonate / To, or mate with sound / Or understand / Anyone.
'Uncle Waddah Recommends Durrell's Alexandria Quartet' ends: 'The old man died unhappy, alone, forsook. / The old man: my first truly loved book, / The first ‘City’ in which I flowered and emerged // To gambol and to look, / Circumspect, panoramic, / Like a desert-Oryx, // gazelle-pure // And tome-thick,/ And well-nigh Rabbinic – // The inheritance of my mother / And of my mother’s Other / Brother.'
report by Susannah Tarbush