Review: Omar Sabbagh’s “Morning Lit: Portals After Alia”

On Omar Sabbagh’s Morning Lit: Portals After Alia

(Cinnamon Press, 2022)

by Rowan Fortune

Making Sense, the Limitless in the Small

[…]she is reaching, you might say, for utopia, or a place she’s never been to as yet; a place in fact that none of us know; though distantly, perhaps, once a place we looked-to too, searching the illuminate distance. (69)

But to know the how of it, then comprehend
The achievement in her face (103)

Omar Sabbagh’s Morning Lit: portals after Alia is about a daughter, and how our humanity is found in these types of familial bonds. It is comprised of what Sabbagh calls ‘smallish labours of love.’ Although that smallness here is not a bashful one; we are concerned in these pieces with the vast amount of space the small can take up, when given their due. Like Pascal’s extraordinary minds, we are asked to pause at the ordinary and to fully take it in. The seeming paradox here is addressed over and over again, the ‘tender limits that, delimited by one small body, one small bundle of proverbial joy, are limitless.’ (19) We see echoes of that limitless smallness throughout; in ‘Heartbeat’, for instance, where the heart, belonging to the poet’s daughter, is ‘a small part of this curving parcel of life’. (30)

      Sabbagh is aware how a poet ‘can sometimes produce his worst work where his heart is most engaged or invested.’ (19) That risk is carefully offset by the poet’s breadth. This includes poems focused on other relationships, with the domestic and the familial taken as a whole: his own parents, the relationships of lovers, both his own marriage and other couplings. Moreover, these are poems that encompass all facets of the heart’s engagements; as well as its joys, its pathos and regrets. What we gain from each other exists despite obstinate grief since grief and love are ineluctably bound up for Sabbagh. In ‘Fatherhood’ he concludes, ‘I think this girl, my girl, is now my only, final fear.’ (31) That backgrounded concern with loss especially elevates the book from a mere ode to a particular type of love; there is a constant awareness of love’s absolute contingency, one that is coupled with the assurance that it is no less worthwhile for that.

      The collection is also prevented from becoming mere sentiment by Sabbagh’s always-ready humour. In ‘The Princes Gospels’ subtitled ‘Diary of a Newborn’ the rituals of the life of a married couple are amusingly reordered around the task of caring for an infant. Not as something onerous, but as a kind of ceremonial process. These daily patterns become an alchemical experiment, so that ‘The Art of Shit’ proceeds ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ and so on. (Referencing alchemy’s scatological fixations.) In these poems, burps and farts are juxtaposed with Socrates’s reflections on philosophy as preparation for death and a baby’s demands set against the intricacies of Marxist crisis theory and the contradictions of class society. But the humour is not at variance with the book’s primary interest in the ordinary, rather it emphasises, even in moments of the most abstract jokes, that this is all about the everyday: about a new born girl, who farts, burps, and shits, and her mother and father’s role as caregivers.

      The occult allusions are something Sabbagh also returns to seriously in pieces like ‘The Spelling of Our Skies’. In these pieces he asks sweeping questions, such as: ‘How does one reach a girl from whom/ A woman comes and goes; and then, how to/ Unfurl the secret of the text: and how/ With a humble hermeneutic/ Find the clock beneath, traveling, tick-tock?’ (63) Hidden knowledge is related to the idea of time’s purposeful (even teleological) passage, time as narrative, meaningful time, a Kairos permitting ‘a girl from whom/ A woman comes and goes’. It is in this sense of time that, several poems on, Sabbagh can write, ‘I am younger than she is’. (66) Such revelatory moments do not arrive cheaply, they are hard-earned. For every existential truth and metaphysical fancy, Sabbagh grounds us in a life of diapers and parental toil.

      As well as poetry, Sabbagh has long experimented with prose fiction. As with many poets, however, his prose is suffused with the rhythms and word-play, the aesthetics and ellipses more common to verse. This collection brings both forms of writing together with fluidity, so that prose poems (or happenstance prose, as Sabbagh puts it) create sustained moments of taught narrative amidst the more implied story of the collection’s greater arc. Sometimes the prose picks up refrains from the poems. In ‘Fatherhood’ we read that ‘Fatherhood is like a tree, cut, then found again’. (31) In ‘Deliverance’, which concerns birth, the arrival of a first child is ‘the first real true fruit of the otherwise rotten tree of his life’. (34) Through repetitions, interconnected moments form a single thread: a birth, a ‘first footstep’, (51), with such echoes recalling in retrospect the continuity of life events, cementing the collection’s focus on growth, rejuvenation, and anticipation.

      The daughter on which so much of this collection pivots is not an abstract symbol of life for the poet. She is more ‘a maze to yourself, a maze/ Without point as yet or center’. (109) The enigma of the other, especially the other in becoming, is something at the heart of the collection. The value of the other rests precisely in how they resist reduction to the self. Sabbagh’s words bring into being this full, autonomous human life, with her own wants and will still forming but apparent nonetheless. That sense of her self-emergence has already been highlighted, and it makes her so much more than a mere literary device. The gathering thread that connects poet and daughter must first cross a chasm, and in its fragile crossing the collection speaks to our humanity, one formed by the criss-crossing of all such threads.

            Sabbagh’s Morning Lit is about a daughter, a very particular daughter and the relationship between her and her father and her mother. It is a warm and intensely felt celebration, in all its rich ambivalence and complexity, of all such relationships, and the sense they make of our otherwise fragmentary lives. This is what poetry is uniquely suited to do; to make sense out of our connections.

Rowan Fortune is a writer and freelance editor. They have published utopian fiction and nonfiction, literary and poetry criticism, and political theory in Envoi, The Tablet, Rituals & Declarations, Two Thirds North, and elsewhere.

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