Ben Hession reviews These Wild Houses by Omar Sakr
These Wild Houses
by Omar Sakr
Reviewed by BEN HESSION
In a departure from most poetry books, the series issued by Cordite Publishing features a preface by the poet, as well as an introduction by an established writer, who in Omar Sakr’s case is his mentor and tutor, Judith Beveridge. Unlike the prefaces of the other poets in the Cordite catalogue, Sakr does not delve into overarching literary or philosophical theory about the ensuing text. Rather, Sakr speaks of life experience, observation ‘It is a statement – an exploration of me and what I’ve seen.’ (xi) Indeed, compared to the other writers, it would be easy to judge Sakr as something of a naïf. But this would be to deny his real ability as a poet, which, in These Wild Houses, sees a disarming honesty matched by an acuity of poise, nuance and craftsmanship.
Sakr’s collection opens with a quote from the prominent literary critic, James Wood, who in an interview with literary website electricliterature.com, speculated that in a society without religion and a belief in immortality, that not even houses would remain, since through the death of their occupants they would remain unattended. Houses, in the collection, have many structures, some physical others figurative, but each able to induce a real response. Aptly, the first poem in the collection is ‘Door Open’ which both suggests a threshold and a chance to view the interior. Towards this end, Sakr use of enjambment breaks open sentences to reveal something very human and even sensual:
Wild houses we
live in licked brick & sun
warmed stones, in grass blood mortar
and flesh. Listen up the halls, be careful (3)
later he invites the reader to “Come inside, let me/ warm you with all I am. Mind your head/ here on the ridges of my teeth.” (3)
‘All My Names’ demonstrates that “these houses” can be the nicknames one acquires, but are less than comfortable to live inside, which become the reciprocating metaphors for McMansions and housing commission homes which people must also live within, leaving scars.
An almost prosaic rhythm pervades much of the poetry in These Wild Houses, lend a sense of the unaffected or the low-rise ease of suburban living. Suburbia, despite this apparent sensibility is also a contested space, and Sakr’s choice of rhythm serves to make pellucid the innate tensions that arise. In ‘Here is the Poem You Demand’, for example, Sakr provides a list of identity markers one might expect from a ‘queer Muslim Arab Australian from Western Sydney’ that is both a strident affirmation of lived experience, as we see in
Here is the uncouth domestic abuse & plasma televisions,
the marbled fruit of my skin. (4)
and we also see in
Here is the mosque you despise, minarets pinked
by sky. Never forget it in the foreground (4)
and an ironic statement on alterity as a source of stereotyping or tokenistic spectacle, being on demand by the reader, who might not empathise with the sense of pain or struggle that comes with that experience and its articulation
Here is the noose I hang myself with
every day. Here is the blade I trust will sever it. (4)
The couplets in this poem show Sakr’s ability to distil of his world and journeys within it into economical lyric poetry. In ‘Dear Mama’ the longer lines ensconce the prosaic feeling, as they navigate the casual extremes of the poet’s upbringing. The second stanza notes:
Your god is capricious, strikes no reason, some days (the hours
you had full gear, I later found) you’d grin and order us a pizza
in and we’d lounge about our smoky temple as your silver screen
apostles entertained us, shot & bled & fucked & spat & died
for us. Those days were the best. Others were nails-on-chalkboard (6)
Sakr then details the abuse he received from his mother, and it is here that the restraint inherent to his lyricism perhaps becomes the most salient. In stanza three, motivation is stated succinctly:
You saw my treacherous father in the closet of my skin, my face
his imprinted sin. (6)
The line break serves as emphasis, taking over from words themselves. Economy heightens the severity of the abuse and the strength of the poet’s own resilience later in the stanza:
I remember when the locksmith came, his confusion, dawning
pity when he asked, ‘You want the lock outside his door?’ Your cash
and a small gold chain sealed my cage. How could you think walls
would hold me? If you knew how I made that cell a world, hard
but free, you might refashion yours: a hundred books, each one key. (7)
The enjambment and the use of the isolated line in ‘Harmony of Dirt’ allows a treatment of death that is not overwhelmed by the distraction of emotion, allowing rather to reader again to share in loss and its unspoken profundity:
All around him a circle of bearded men stood confronted
with finality, a father with son,
a cousin, with cousin, life with echoes.
His funeral made a Friday morning (54)
This poem marks the deep bonds Sakr has with family despite the abuse depicted in ‘Dear Mama’. Identity, as defined through relatives or community is fraught with various tensions throughout These Wild Houses. Identity for Sakr is Lebanese Australian, a hybrid of two distinct cultures that is constantly renegotiating itself. In These Wild Houses, Sakr is mapping its landscape. ‘Landing’ notes the children growing into forgetting the Arabic of their parents and grant parents; ‘ghosting the ghetto’, meanwhile, sees a sort of ersatz hajj taken to Warwick Farm in the Australian made vehicle, the Holden Commodore.
‘Call Off Duty’, examines the anxieties anticipating the poet’s coming out to a brother, who appears to be consumed by the virtual machismo of video game warfare. By implication, this might reinforce an incumbent, culturally conservative and exclusively heteronormative view of masculinity. However, the acceptance by his brother of his sexuality – besides offering relief – also displays apparently changing attitudes within the Lebanese Australian community.
‘Botany Bay’, takes suburbia as contested space to another level – but not without humour -where Muslim Arab Australians picnic adjacent to a museum for Captain Cook, the bringer of British colonization over Aboriginal land. The poem challenges the resulting marginalization, particularly towards his, own, Muslim Arabic community, with the narrator musing over a clash between the older Anglo hegemonic orthodoxy and the newer assertion of a multicultural cosmos, with its “hijabbed sky”. (17)
‘The H Word’, which was included in Puncher and Wattman’s ‘Contemporary Australian Poetry’ anthology, again demonstrates the power of restraint shown in Sakr’s other poems. As the “H” of the title is an initial to undercut expectations as it is to help trigger signifiers. “Home” for instance, is scarier than horror or homicide; whilst “a little H” is the italicised cry for help rather than the escape offered by what might have been inferred, heroin. The main “H” word, “hood”, and its variants, is a pun on the hip-hop abbreviation of neighbourhood, with one being emblematic or stereotypical of the other. As clothing it serves as a sanctuary from the straits of the narrator’s environment. Importantly, whilst Sakr is often explicit about his background and his feelings are clear, he indulges neither self-pity nor street-wise bravado. We see, instead, the strength of silence through the spaces between the couplets, which, in turn, endow both measure and powerful nuance to the poem, particularly in its concluding lines, expressing what he would see in death:
I expect to look down and discover in my chest
A hooded heart, lying heavy and still. (11)
While many of the poems in These Wild Houses are definitely gritty, the aim is not for a prescriptive aesthetic for Sakr. Rather, it serves to establish the profound authenticity of the poet, something which we see he takes to the United States in ‘America, You Sexy Fuck’ and ‘A Familiar Song’. In the latter poem, his situation creates empathy for the beggars around him. The nature of what Sakr has explores in the collection is probably best summed up in its closing piece, ‘A Biographer’s Note’ where he rhetorically asks the reader:
what is tragedy and how might it play
to see a life where we now recoil
from the stink of desperation? (58)
These Wild Houses has shown that Sakr has tamed the more formal aspects of poetry, rendering the extremes of his past and their attendant, potentially distracting, emotions is no easy feat. As a debut collection, it holds great promise for a relatively young poet. The recognition of his talent is evidenced by being a runner-up in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize and his appointment as the Poetry Editor of The Lifted Brow. Judith Beveridge, in her introduction, describes Sakr’s debut as” impressive” and says that it “announces a new and important voice to Australian poetry.” (xiv) He has invited us into his houses, most certainly, but now he has made us, his reader-guests, hungry.
Paulson, Steve. ‘The Art of Persuasion, an Interview with Critic James Wood’, electricliterature.com, 1 July 2015.