Today I read a poem by the Lebanese poet (and former miss Beirut) Venus Khoury-Ghata in the English translation by Marilyn Hacker. It has a few things in common with poems I wrote about here earlier: It is short, but not too short and contains some surrealistic images that can shake the prepared reader.
we filed the dead leaves by size to ease the task of the forest that was absent for
reasons known only to itself
The parents had left with the door
We mistook puddles for creeks
pebbles for meteorites
the wind’s hordes for wolves
A child would liquefy as soon as a snowflake touched the ground
We could hold out till Epiphany
handling our feet like toys
waiting for a redistribution of parents
Children are sorting fallen leaves to help the forest. If you focus on the individual leaves (or trees) you don’t see the forest, but it’s still there. Here, the forest is absent “for reasons only known to itself”. I don’t see what’s happening here, so let’s read on. The parents had left “with the door”, what does that mean? Did the parents take away the distinction inside-outside?
The children were erring: the mistook “puddles for creeks / pebbles for meteorites” and so on. They blew up every small thing, so perhaps that’s why the forest became absent? After this, they horrifying line about the liquefied child projects us in the middle of a surrealist painting. The softest impact would make the children lose shape. I read this as a metaphor for hypersensitivity. So the poem is perhaps about sensitive children after their parents left them.
Against all odds the children made it, they “held out till Epiphany”. What is it they will see? A redistribution of parents, so they could get parents who don’t leave with the door and will again know the difference between inside and outside: be home somewhere. Why are they handling their feet like toys? Because it was cold in the snow and by objectifying their feet they could forget that they were freezing? Because the children were too fragile to handle their feet like parts of their own bodies. They know that if they don’t play with everything, if they don’t let play dissolve everything, they are vulnerable. So here they are: still filing the dead leaves by size to create an imaginary order, an order that is safe because it is invisible to the parents. The obsession reminds the reader of the autistic spectrum.
The Epiphany, a restribution of parents, is impossible. But what if the “handling of the feet like toys” and the “filing of the dead leaves” brings about some sort of imaginary epiphany, in which the parents are redistributed and the order is restored?