The poems of Yahia Lababidi recall some great names: Borges, Pessoa, and Baudelaire. The spirit of Baudelaire looms large in the poems of Balancing Acts. But I think of visual artists too. Striking, novel images are conjured, mysterious and dreamlike, of a quality that bring to my mind the images of Francesco Clemente. The “Faces turned heavenward/pitiful little satellites/transmitting intolerable Longing” of Hard Days seems Blakean to me in its iconic beauty. Six names, six languages, six countries. Add the fact Lababidi, from Cairo, resides in the United States and writes in English and we have a seventh. Even without the title, we would know that Anatomy Lesson describes the great painting by Rembrandt—an eighth. Add Columbia, Ramadan and Open Letter to Israel, and no doubt different readers will find accents from other names and flavors from other places. Lababidi is a world poet. Rather, he is a poet of the world in the sense that someone like Kurt Scwhitters, once proud citizen of Hannover, became an artist and a citizen of the world.
Lababidi straddles the world, as it were, one foot in Egypt, his homeland, the other in the United States, his current place of residence. He has written on the dedication page: “For Egypt, the real and imaginary Home I carry in my heart”. He calls Egypt “the deep fissure in my sleep” (Egypt) and in the final poem reminds us that “exile is never/really a choice” (Voluntary Exile?). In between he is haunted by Cairo as by a ghost or the face of a lost loved one. He “buried” the face, he tells us, so that he “would not trip over it/every morning” and yet he is “helplessly drawn/to the scene of this crime/for fear of forgetting/the sum of your splendor”. And yet, like that face fading in memory, he does begin to lose his city and, “like a dog”, goes back to “pick at the earth like a scab” (Cairo).
The split consciousness of an exile may be the root “balancing act” occurring in these poems, spanning the years 1993 to 2015. It is also the act of a mind catching a glimpse of itself: “the balletic leap and twist/of a tremulous curtain or thought…. or the secret thrill/of eavesdropping—/on inner processes/and conversations” (Moment). And yet such glimpses—truly momentary—reveal primarily a slipping, as the whole self, if there is such a thing, is so multilayered or multifarious that it cannot be held in consciousness like a neat unitary concept. Self-awareness catches one off-balance, and so we sometimes see the poet, who would like to dance with grace, stumbling:
I have not found the key to myself
the one that will get the high gates
to swing wide open and the lights
to come on, at once….
I knock my head against false ceilings
and trip on traps I forgot to remember
then start at the sight of my reflection
bumping into myselves.
This is the part of Lababidi’s poetry that puts me in mind of Nietzsche and Pessoa: from the former the unimaginably complex thing a self is and from the latter the disquieting, hyper-conscious struggle with ego resulting from this realization, giving us Alter Ego, one of the most striking poems of the collection, in which a disturbingly anemic creature languishes all day in “the cruel sunlight” only to come alive after nightfall. The poem’s title and its final word—“fearless”—bookend the disquieting portrait. Just who are we, for ourselves and for others, at any given time? Lababidi’s honesty regarding such a question exposes the deep vulnerability of a soul: “as if/some great spoon/had stirred me to the depths/and left everything, swirling” (I Saw My Face). Looking this deep into one’s self can lead to irretrievable foundering. And yet, as we shall see, Lababidi is able to take us to unexpected places of hopefulness.
I mentioned the spirit of Baudelaire. We see it in poems like Artists—“Most artists are parasites/the way some orchids are”—and The Museum-going Cannibal—“Upright specimen, looking to be fine-tuned/on weekends by the civilizing influence of beauty”. But even the language of some poems, Shadow Box for example, is reminiscent, at least to my ear, of some of the English versions of Baudelaire’s poems. He is named outright in Rejections, a poem that is Baudelairian in more than one sense. It is the poet in his solitude after many public encounters, poised for the next one, “in search of the New” Lababidi writes, with double emphasis on the final word. It would be wrong to say that these poems are unoriginal or derivative of Baudelaire. But they do point to him as to a fount, the fount of the spirit we have come to call modern. In the poem E-café the patrons engrossed in their devices are described. Paris has been replaced by the new Baudelairian metropolis:
traveling side by side, like passengers on a plane
though each in parallel planes of thought
racing in separate lanes, never touching
with nothing and everything in common
Baudelairian, yes, but in the sense that our world is still Baudelairian.
I have mentioned great names, not because Lababidi’s poetry is derivative of them, but because he resides with them. And we see why in the poems that resound with a voice that we can only attach his name to. In Kneeling in Stages, a remarkable poem of two stanzas, we are told that twenty years prior an encounter with a “mighty spirit” enjoining him to “drink…. of solitude…. left [him] a writer”. In the second stanza the spirit is back:
Renounce, it insists, both word and world games
and I have no choice, but to submit and bow.
Poems are not the point. Life is. But when a poet, after twenty years of learning the craft, comes to understand this, then the possibility of finding his own voice emerges. I have heard this voice, a voice I can only put the name Yahia Lababidi to, in the poem Poet Try:
trust in longing to sing itself
ushering you to the horizon
of your hopes
the liberation of undifferentiation
awaits the well-ventilated soul
pouring through open pores
what cannot be captured
Kafka wanted a book like an ax to chop into our frozen inner seas. Bataille wanted a book like a hole the reader falls into. Lababidi’s book shows us, if we have the courage to see, the hole at the heart of our soul, and the clear sky on the other end where we both fall and make ourselves anew every day.
Surprises, terrifying and delightful, await us. In Arrivals, one of my favorites, a mysterious fish has suddenly appeared in the speaker’s aquarium:
Perhaps, this creature of the depths
always was, just out of sight
secretly feeding on hidden longing
and now demands acknowledging
What is it? Who is it? Is it a part of ourselves we haven’t yet encountered; is it a part of the world we do not yet recognize? Sometimes we have to make a decision and go with it. Is the universe friend or foe? In the poem Loft the poet asks similar questions. What is metaphysics, eternity, hope? Sometimes, “you must change your life/before your life changes you”. There are other pearls of wisdom sprinkled throughout Balancing Acts. In You’ll Know we are told, “You’ll know you’ve finally arrived when/you get to the point where you can leave/life’s bustling marketplace, empty-handed”.
Wisdom is not something I often encounter, not even in poets. Lababidi has an even rarer quality: he is often at his best when he uses fewest words. He’s not afraid of simplicity. I Ran is only six lines, twenty-five words. But it takes the breath away. What If is a shockingly beautiful poem that asks the question shall we be afraid of our own angels. It puts me in mind of Jacob and the angel and reminds me again of Poet Try, in which Lababidi writes, “Poet try/and endure/your Wisdom”.
Poems that are shocking in their beauty, their nakedness. Perhaps that is how I can best describe them. Hope is stellar. “Hope’s not quite as it seems,” we are told:
Hope’s not quite as it seems,
it’s slimmer than you’d think
and less steady on its feet
Sometimes, it’s out of breath
can hardly see ahead
and cries itself to sleep
You really have to read the rest. I have to admit, it brought tears to my eyes.