Vanishing Clarity

I want to show you something special, the poet said. We stepped into the night. The street, except for a few sweating lights, was dark, and curved down. I had a girlfriend who lived there, the poet said, nodding at a building on a corner. The windows were black. Some were holes. We could sense the sea about the building—we were a few blocks from the Mediterranean—but the sea, in the holes, had stopped moving.
             What happened to her?
            A bomb fell. She was killed.
            We slowed down in memory of the poet’s girlfriend, but the poet kept walking. He was now a middle-aged man, walking down the street he once walked down to meet a young woman he loved. She was still inside—the poet, and also the hole, in which the sea was arrested; suspended in the poet’s memory, embryonic inside her own impending death. Our walk had suddenly become a pilgrimage, but this was not the something special the poet wanted to show us.

Then we were staring at ourselves in a black mirror. A door slid back. Inside was a small bar, an old woman and man sitting at the bar, four tables, hundreds of faces on the walls. A young bearded man with a small head and eyes like burning haystacks stopped us, but the poet insisted: They are poets. They are Americans. They are okay. I did not think poets, definitely not Americans, would satisfy the man’s criteria for entering, but he was, surprisingly, appeased.
            The bar belonged to a man named Naya, but Naya was not there. The young man was Naya’s son. There was a shotgun behind the bar, bullets hanging from a shelf. Passport photos, paper money, a revolver, a white vase, Lenin surrounded by purple flowers, flags (Cuba, Argentina, Lebanon) on the ceiling, thousands of faces on the walls: Fairuz, Mahmoud Darwish, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Neruda, many of Che Guevara; Farajallah el-Helou (head of the Lebanese Communist Party, d. 1959), Assi Rahbani (composer, d. 1986), Maroun Bagdadi (filmmaker, d. 1993), Sheikh Imam (singer, d. 1995), Samir Kassir (professor of history, d. 2005), Souha Bechara, who attempted to assassinate the head of the South Lebanon Army, and was imprisoned for ten years in Khiam (still alive), Kozo Okamoto, former member of the Japanese Red Army (also still alive; it is rumored that he is living with a Palestinian family in a refugee camp on the edge of Beirut.)
            The poet’s name was Iskandar Hibache. He had invited us into the contemplation of these faces, and their hard-won sacred space, by way of an admission of grief.
            He could have said: They have seen where she died.
            He could have said: That is why I am a poet.

When we first met Iskandar, earlier in the evening, he looked disappointed. You are young, he said. He was in his fifties, bearded and bald, with a light blue polo shirt and glasses around his neck. Dot Devota was 27, I was 31. I thought you were going to be much older, he said. He ushered us into the Jadal Bizanti, a restaurant up the hill from Naya’s bar. A wall near the entrance was covered with poems (handwritten, typed, signed) by poets who had read in Jadal Bizanti. The wall was thick with paper, soft, a good place to rest.
            We sat at a table next to two sisters and their father, who introduced himself as the mayor of southern Lebanon. Iskandar brought out dozens of small plates of meats, cheeses, vegetables, hummus, stacking them on top of each other. The audience was small—a poet at the bar, the cook and bartender behind the bar—but for the predecessors on the walls.
            We read our poems in English. I read two poems:

            ... A room brightened loose from the ground
            Fallen away with the grave ...

            ... Love fell from the window, I love how it fell from the window
                Turning lead
            Into a small circle of dried leaves by a river ...

Then Dot read two poems:

            ... consuming what consumes it, blooms inside
            what blooms inside it ...

                              ... where one imagines
                              the end is successful,
                ends at all upending ...

Then Iskandar read our poems in Arabic. The translations were by the poet Sabah Zwein. She was not there. But the sounds were hers.

We had written Sabah a letter—a fan letter—from the United States. She wrote back recommending that we meet by a river. We made it, a month later. She appeared in a small white car on a narrow road hanging over the water. We stood against rocks. She put her head out the window.

            The windows in Sabah’s apartment were tall. The white buildings across her narrow street were turning blue. The sea blew across the high ceiling. Sabah’s husband appeared in a doorway, brought out tea. Sabah’s neck was long, her face long, her eyes flashed. The lines on her forehead, between her brows, stood out as the stems of her compassion, curiosity, elation, solemnity, concern, which I write now in quick succession, because in truth, very few details of our time with Sabah remain. It is, in one way, the lack of details, or the details’ lack of definition, that continue to impress upon our memory the force of a dream. Sometimes we stare so intently at another person’s face, trying to memorize every feature for the purpose of some future recital, that the person disappears.
            Sabah did not turn on the lights in her apartment. We sat in the dark, and did not want to leave. Sabah died five years later, from lung cancer. Her death took two years to reach us. When it did, the room in her apartment reopened. The room was still dark, but with shoals of blue, the sun rising up the river, admitting itself over the mountains. Sabah, a silhouette, whose name, upon death, was returned to the fertile and fugitive ground out of which was originally insinuated the life, the future, the enshrinement, therefore, of a poet.

We are bathed in what we cannot remember. A gondola climbed up the side of a mountain. To Mary, the Virgin, Our Lady of Lebanon. Above the wreck of a small plane. To the moon. Monkey flowers, orange, gripped the cliffs. The gondola, rising along the wires above narrow alleys, grazed the apartment buildings on both sides. Potted flowers on sills. Dark green leaves, growing straight from the blood. Ears. Curtains. People arranged against shadows. The movements of people between darkened doorways. Some windows open, curtains parted.
            The gondola moved slow, fast enough, to transform what we passed into theater, every window permitting a view, open or opaque, of a scene, performed, sometimes in the absence of actors, for several seconds. Slow, fast enough, the scenes registered most fully seconds later, after the windows were passed.
            To remember is to suspend one’s body, like a piece of silk, in the mundanity of abbreviated half-rapture.

Naya’s son slipped behind a curtain. Reemerged with a bowl of fruit. The bowl was thin wood. The fruit was frozen, took a moment to materialize. The peaches, grapes, plums marked the son’s final approval, which we won by virtue of having endured until early morning. The fruit mixed with hours of alcohol, arak, lion’s milk. Fairuz’s voice flowered a vine across the ceiling. I saw the bowl of fruit on moonlit waves. Our fingers melted the skin.

How many times, in the years since she was killed, had the poet walked passed the young woman’s apartment? How many times, in the years before and after, had he passed by the death sites or the living sites of his dead friends, on his way to or from anywhere in Beirut?

            As we were leaving for the night, Iskandar reached for us and said: I’ll call you tomorrow. We were leaving early the next morning for the mountains. Plus, we had no phone. He looked, for a moment, in his light blue shirt, like a fish. Then a very young boy. When he reached for us, my eyes brushed his neck. His neck was soft.
            He shared with us the death of a woman he loved. He shared it so casually, or so it seemed. The street he once walked down to meet a young woman he loved, he still walked down. He still loved. It was only later when he said he would call us that I realized he did not want to forget. You are young. He meant it. He was going to call us. Just call, without numbers.

In the vanishing clarity
of ruins
everything happens within the breath
of the sea

Etel Adnan, The Manifestations of the Voyage

Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently The Grave on the Wall (City Lights, 2019), which received the PEN Open Book Award, and The Desert (The Song Cave).