In 1985, Audre Lorde wrote in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.” Lorde was vehement believer in the political necessity of poetry, a form that, to her, is not frivolous or high-minded but rather “the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” The long history of political poetry bears this out.

Political poetry is crucial to the Palestinian literary tradition, embodied perhaps most famously by the poet and author Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), who was displaced as a child during the Nakba. This rich literary tradition also includes Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), displaced to Lebanon in 1948 and assassinated by the Mossad at the age of 36. Many readers are familiar with Refaat Alareer, the poet and literature professor whose poem “If I Must Die” was circulated widely after his assassination in 2023. His colleague and close friend, Mosab Abu Toha, enters this impressive lineage with his debut collection, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear

This collection of 51 poems depicts the stark political realities of living in Gaza: the loss of friends, the destruction of a university and the knowledge it holds, the ubiquity of surveillance drones. Horrifying images permeate the collection: “a headless doll / lying in the rubble”, or “Fresh baked bread with hot red blood, / and sand for yeast.” But the love of Gaza and its people is persistent as well; Gazans cannot be reduced to tragic figures who lack political agency. A painter imagines a house and garden undestroyed by bombardment; Jerusalem is alive with the smell of herbs; a robin watches a mother and baby from its nest. Beauty and destruction are braided together – rarely is there one without the other. A beautiful beach bears footsteps from a one-legged child; a rose emerges from the rubble of a house. The poems attest to an existence in which joy is always marked by violence – and conversely, in which violence can never obliterate the possibility of joy. Abu Toha’s work defiantly insists on the endurance of life, political resistance, and the preciousness of Palestinian lives. He writes about realities that are often difficult to talk about straightforwardly, approaching these topics through lyrical and metaphorical means – exactly what Lorde wrote about in her essay.

Abu Toha’s poems are accessible but not overly simplistic; they invite a close reading, careful consideration of the images and ideas, but inexperienced poetry readers (and I include myself in this category) will not be lost.

There is beauty and complexity in the language, which I enjoy, which I have the capacity to enjoy, even as the subject matter is difficult, even brutal. This is, in part, what makes poetry so powerful as a political tool: it allows us to look at things sideways when looking at them directly is incredibly painful. The numerous images, piled atop each other in these deceptively readable poems, create a vivid portrait of life under occupation. The poems revel in the particularity of their imagery, providing an expansive image of Palestinian life in its many forms. It is impossible to look away, and it should be.

The numerous images, piled atop each other in these deceptively readable poems, create a vivid portrait of life under occupation … It is impossible to look away, and it should be.

Mosab Abu Toha is a Palestinian poet, scholar, and librarian who was born in Gaza and has spent his life there. He is the founder of the Edward Said Library, Gaza’s first English-language library. Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear is his debut book of poems. The collection won an American Book Award, a 2022 Palestine Book Award and was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, as well as the 2022 Walcott Poetry Prize.

Publisher: City Lights Publishers (May 6, 2022)
Paperback 7″ x 6″ | 144 pages
ISBN: 9780872868601

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.

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