Review of Hedy Habra’s The Taste of the Earth, by Roula-Maria Dib

Hedy Habra is a most articulate and well-rounded poet, and her intense feeling, silken rope of nostalgia, and exquisite cultural and educational background are all woven into the senses stirred by The Taste of the Earth. Habra’s new poetry collection reflects her strong, positive soul and its ability to create a world of beauty and happiness stemming from her experience and perspectives on life. There is a floral quality to Habra’s delicate and graceful images of beauty, as readers find flowers scattered across different poems: damask roses, jacarandas, henna flowers, moonflowers, myrrh, mimosas, jasmines, honeysuckle, oleanders, and bougainvilleas infuse the poet’s verbal portraits. The tesserae of poems explore “What Every Blossom Hides”, from love to pain and strength.

Habra’s words are like brushstrokes she uses to paint a beautiful meaningful life for herself and her loved ones. Colors are her experiences, her translations of the earned wisdom in her life. This only adds to the synesthetic touch in the poems, as in “Visiting the Generalife”, where the olfactory and verbal unite and synesthesia appears in “fragrant language”, and in “The Burma Pearl”, where the visual and auditory combine when “the music of a light that once ran over my cheeks”.

The Taste of the Earth is a sensual, mnemonic journey back home, and for Habra, memory is quite nuanced and comes in many different subtle forms. There is a focus on the corporeal map of memories engraved in the cells of the human body. In “Topography”, Habra speaks of cell memory, where she thinks of her face as a map, with “each line a faint record of hidden scars, of what I’ve seen or felt.” This idea returns later in the poem “Deeper Than Tattoo”, where the human body is again perceived as a map for memories, where we “unravel the plot behind each hurt”. The skin-deep physical quality of memory is something witnessed by our mirrors, as the poet illustrates in “Stepping into Mirrors”. If mirrors had memories, they would remember every detail recorded and would have numerous stories to tell. The carving edges of memory is also found in the reflections of our own skin, reaching even deeper–Habra sees mirrors as a portal into the human soul. In “The Hall of Mirrors”, there is the mirror of memory, which is refueled with lies and illusions where “you seek yourself and lose yourself”; there is also the mirror of forgetfulness, which gradually swallows your selective memory, “the elusive mirror in which you drown night after night”. Remembrance, in The Taste of the Earth, also transcends the personal images within us as she observes the memories we also leave on others, as in “The Dust of Legends” where the poet wonders “if we’ve left a furrow, or a trace of ourselves in someone else’s thoughts?”

Habra further reveals how our personal memories strengthen our sense of attachment. The poem, “The Taste of the Earth”, describes the bond memories create with the different places people live in. This collection of memories is a sense of belonging to the earth as a whole. There is a strong nostalgic voice for the poet’s Mediterranean roots in “Once Upon a Time, an Olive Tree” and reflections on memories of space in “The House of Happiness”, which is viewed through the sieve of time. Historical memory, rituals, and traditions find their way into Habra’s verses like in the poems such as “What’s in a Cup?”, which portrays memories of the practice of reading fortune in a coffee cup and links such traditions, rituals, to power of imagination; “Eating Pizza in a Renovated Hammam in Granada” is a concoction of history, art, food, memories, and tradition. “Phoenicians Once Sailed from These Shores” synthesizes the ancient Phoenician civilization with the present conditions of the Lebanese people, highlighting the lifelong (lost) battles of the Phoenicians. For the poet, time loses its linearity through memory, making one “dizzy with the illusion that past, present and future come together at once” (“Riding the Winged Tricycle”). Habra shows how memory, whether personally or historically experienced, is map into all times, “an amnesic reconstruction, sweeping dreams from stones” (“The Map of Memory”).

Furthermore, The Taste of the Earth brings the traumas and anxieties of wars into verse, looking at the suffering of those who lost their homes, and those who lost the ability to return to them again. Traumas of lost chances, lost worlds, and crushed souls of children and adults alike are shown in many poems such as “Recurrent Dream”, where “war traumas where memories and fantasies collide” and “home is the enemy”; and in “No Man’s Land” and “The Green Line”, the poet graphically details war terrors and sniper scenes. The horrific fear of a mother fleeing a war with two of her babies in “Vanishing Point” pictures the war scene from an actual lived experience, resonating with “Reading by Candlelight”, which captures the war through the news, where “the flames of violence filtered by the TV screen, more virtual each day, still color the news, images hiding the smell of blood and charred skin.”

In “Meditations Over the Eye of Horus” Habra masterfully continues to weave in memories and reflections synesthetically. Six senses unite in the eye of Horus, just like they do in the rest of the poetry collection.  In her meditations, the poet speaks to the collective human soul in the language of poetry, mythology, and history written and carved in the senses, returning to the skin again, which “remembers the scent of essential oils”. Furthermore, to (literally) add to the richly palatable poems, the most exquisitely portrayed sense in “Meditations Over the Eye of Horus”, is that of taste, “grounds us to the earth…Words and tastes are like grains of sand that form and gather, melt and solidify to form the most unexpected natural or man-made monuments”. For Habra, “Each recovered taste/opens a liminal space/ filled with stills and scenes”. And the recovery of taste, along with the other senses, is an art achieved through Habra’s exquisite use of language and her mosaic arrangement of memories and meditations.

With Hedy Habra’s poised and elegant voice in every poem of The Taste of the Earth, the collection is a powerful synthesis of the senses that blurs the line between the mnemonic and the corporeal, experience and emotion. Habra delves into the depth of her inner beauty and wisdom, capturing images of what goes on behind closed eyes—the visions of a creative soul.

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