In Ruth Awad’s debut, Set to Music a Wildfire, the winner of the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize, Awad undertakes the daunting task of imagining the world through her father’s eyes, often writing from his perspective and voicing his experience growing up during the Lebanese Civil War. The Lebanese Civil War lasted fifteen years, extending from 1975 to 1990 with Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims among other groups fighting for power. While the book is filled with emotional and physical trauma, I found comfort believing Set to Music a Wildfire can be read as an affirmation of bonds shared between a father and daughter, sisters, and family, as they endure. The first section, “Born into War,” focuses primarily on her father’s experiences during the war while the second and third section, “House Made of Breath” and “What the Living Know,” depict aftermath, memory, and life after immigration to the United States though poems affected by the war continue throughout the volume.
“Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion,” a proem placed before the three named sections, introduces the collection. Initially, the poem’s speaker straddles omniscience, and the poem possesses the quality of parable with the first line leading, “In the beginning, there was an angel with cloven feet…” In the next section, the voice transitions, weaving through rhetorical patterns with electrifying moments turning with the lines like, “If someone gives you water, drink. And if they hand you a glass of blood/ tell yourself it’s water.” Moving into the final section, context suggests Awad’s father emerges as the speaker, “Heaven, leave your light on a little longer. I looked for you on earth/ and found my daughters.” While many of the techniques introduced here do not repeat throughout the rest of the collection, the poem introduces thematic underpinnings, and certain words recur, including, “blood,” “feathers,” and “country.” “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion” also casts the collection as a blend of narrative and lyric, and I found myself returning to this piece often as I read as words and themes reappeared.
While endurance may be at the heart of Set to Music a Wildfire, content is turbulent and violent. “Karantina Massacre,” an ekphrastic of a photograph by Françoise Demulder, titled “Distress in Lebanon,” is one of the most arresting pieces in the first section. Awad’s first three lines syntactically echo the final lines of William Carlos Williams’ famous “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” beginning, “The smell stippling down/ from the slaughterhouse, metallic,/ is Karantina burning.” The end of the moment captured in the photograph becomes the beginning of the poem which transitions quickly from visual to olfactory, animating Demulder’s image. Amid chaos, the photograph shows a woman pleading with a masked man holding a rifle. Fear and panic spill across the twenty-two lines as the speaker of the poem recognizes her fate. The haunting ending suggests she will be entrapped in the massacre that follows, declaring, “When they are through, there will be/ nothing. Not a fingerprint.” That the speaker endures and foresees beyond the poem is mortifying, while pointing towards the erasure of the massacre. At the same time, it also upholds an important task for poetry and art, which outlast and record the fingerprints that disappear. Sources suggest the Karantina Massacre resulted in approximately 1,500 deaths with the worst imaginable atrocities committed including infanticide, mutilation, rape, and indiscriminate murder of innocents.
While the war’s violence overhangs, the second section appears to center around the courtship, marriage, and divorce of Awad’s mother and father, after her father immigrates to the United States. It often feels rare to find a collection such as Awad’s that dwells within multiple speakers, including her mother’s point of view, and, more sparingly, her own in addition to her father’s. To balance shifts in perspective, speakers of the poems are generally located within the title or first few lines; however, when points of view shift between mother and father over brief pages, the narrative can become difficult to track, especially since the father’s point of view encompasses the greatest volume of pages. That said, poems where the mother speaks add a helpful balance, and the shifting vantages undertaken are more often refreshing than not.
More lyrical poems resonate with their use of sound. For instance, Awad spotlights, “Chimera,” which contains the book’s namesake in its last line. The voice enacts some of the out-of-body experiences felt in the first poem:
I climbed each rung of your ribs
and my foot passed through room
you made for me inside an hour of rain.
Because I’m hunger and flame, I circle
you like rope circles an animal circles a tree.
The irregular but insistent long a sounds in “made,” “rain,” and “flame” parallel the alliterative r’s in “rung,” “ribs,” and “room,” while the disruptive syntax with the repetition of “circles” melodically embodies the chimera described. Within this twelve-line poem, Awad further evidences a special propensity for deploying similes, which abound throughout Set to Music a Wildfire and help reveal potentially unfamiliar terrain. Throughout the volume, Awad places the similes’ vehicles (in this case, “you”) and tenors (“...rope circles an animal circles a tree”) irregularly, trading enjambment across stanzas with end-stopped lines to prevent the figurative language from becoming predictable.
The final section, “What the Living Know,” recalls Marie Howe’s elegy, “What the Living Do,” and offers a more autobiographical speaker, as Awad details experiences growing up with her father as the caretaker and her mother often absent. “Town Gossip” reflects alienation imposed on the speaker due to class and ethnicity, pulling found language from letters and conversations. While no connections are explicitly made by the author, the multi-sectarian violence in Lebanon hangs gloomily over the racism in America and the emotional canvas of divorce.
At its best, Ruth Awad’s Set to Music a Wildfire further convinces me poetry, among many things, is a living testament to both art’s unique ability to arise—and our need for art to arise—from suffering and tragedy. As Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “...we need to know each other. It is an imperative, not a luxury.” Perhaps, with books like these, we may find greater empathy for one another and the closer we come to empathy, the nearer we become to enacting compassion.
Mike Good’s recent writing has appeared in or is forthcoming at Sugar House Review, Salamander, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares blog, 32 Poems blog, Forklift, OH, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. from Hollins University and helps edit the After Happy Hour Review. He lives in Pittsburgh and works as a grant writer.