Set to Music a Wildfire
by Ruth Awad
Southern Indiana University Press, $14.95, 84pp.
There seems to be only one way to read Ruth Awad’s debut collection of poetry, Set to Music a Wildfire, and that is to plunge in and allow yourself to be submerged. The winner of the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize, this book is colored by the experiences of Awad’s father during the Lebanese Civil War. The first section immerses us in scenes of Lebanon: we’re carried along through the streets of Tripoli on a bus before the war breaks out, we journey with Awad’s father to collect water amid the sound of gunfire, we catch a glimpse of a tourist boardwalk turned battle ground. Later sections explore the ways that Awad’s father carried these moments with him to America, and the way they echo through generations.
This documentary style of poetry invites the reader to bear witness to the trauma of war. It lingers in the jarring sounds, smoke, hunger, and sorrow of a country in conflict. Awad displays a diverse control of language in order to reflect the varied landscape. The sparseness of her words imply desperation:
White building, throat necklaced
with clothesline, each scarf beats with a stolen pulse.
Too many to count.
The whole land nailed under that gallop.
Yet moments of rich color and sensuality shine through the rubble:
Watch the palm leaves fanning your path,
waving you to Jezzine
where knives are made of gold and waterfalls kneel
over mountains like women, long rivers of them.
Wind through the ridge-cut road
whittling past the wind-wrought pines,
wracked branches green-washing
the wrist of the valley below.
The thread of conflict follows from Awad’s illustration of the Lebanese Civil War into her depiction of her family in America. In “Lebanese Famine in America” she shows how her father contrasts the hunger of famine in Lebanon to the hunger of the working class poor in the US, and tries to convince himself of the latter, “it’s enough / it’s enough it’s enough” (29). She portrays the shaky foundations of her parents’ relationship and the fear that arises from the creation of new life amid struggle. Her mother’s voice comes through heartbreakingly in “New Mother” as she writes:
No, sweet girl, don’t drink in your inheritance,
this grief you can wear like a locket and open often,
this grief that will wring your hair over its knuckles
and pull up the dark roots.
The chorus of voices characterized in Awad’s poetry collection create a complex diorama of her family, and of the people and places that have influenced them. She represents the alienation of the immigrant experience, as well as the first-generation child’s sense of not quite belonging anywhere.
Set to Music a Wildfire is a picture album of a divided country and a divided family. Ruth Awad’s poems work to show us what is at stake when we love something. Through the bullet riddled buildings and scattered bricks we glimpse images of earth and water, sun and sea gulls. There are flashes of Awad’s father as a child with his sisters as “we sailed through bright saffron scarves, / past barrels of grain and earthy bins of pine nuts” (39). These moments of stunning beauty are woven throughout the text and drive home the complexity of the human experience, highlighting the underlying quality of endurance through misfortune. This experience of surviving and enduring is central to Awad’s collection, and she gives a powerful voice to its intricacy.