I came on the manuscript Eyes, Stones during the Arab Spring. I was a shut-in because of illness and had the television going night and day. At the same time, I was reading visionary, unusual, beautifully executed and nuanced manuscripts by young American poets. This collection by Elana Bell jumped out at me for lines such as these:
This is for Amal, whose name means hope,
who thinks of each tree she's planted like a
whose family has lived in the same place
for a hundred years...
I felt, when I began to read, as if I had stumbled over a stone, turned around, and noticed that the whole city was made of stone. Bell's poems are hard, basic in the vocabulary and structures of a tightly refined free verse. They have the formal constraint of translated poetry; there is nothing vernacular or common to American speech as it stands today. The poems are narrative, sort of, and the identities of the supposed speakers appear under the poems' titles. The voices would be indistinguishable otherwise, except at the level of story, what they want to say about themselves. The importance of the similarity of voices, to the point where each could be the other, is that Bell is engaged in a search for common ground between neighbors who are equally enemies. She as the poet undertakes the task of entering each person as a god might enter a tree or a river to see what it feels like. She pretends to be the people she sees. She is more than a witness to a disaster; she enters into the disaster and becomes a guilty survivor. She is fully identified with everyone.
Bell's grandmother survived the Holocaust, and her ordeal has become the marrow of Bell's social conscience and her ability to empathize with others. I later learned that Bell has worked for the Arab Jewish Peace Organization and in prisons and has led writing workshops for teens across the country. In this collection, she remembers the passage through history of a people she calls her own, but she feels equally open to the perplexity of Amal and others who have stayed still. It is the paradox of history that empathy can be transmitted backward and ahead to generations who came before and will come after.
Amal loves this land
When I say land I mean
This exact dirt and the fruit of it
And the sheep who graze it and the children
Who eat from it and the dogs who protect it
And the tiny white blossoms it scatters in
Bell adopts the voices of the powerful as well as the dispossessed as they recount their status and their feelings for the states of Israel and Palestine. Their voices, like the poems, are without inflection or personality; rather, they are self-descriptions—they name themselves, explain themselves. They are reduced to a kind of translated version of speech that foregrounds the particularity of the story they are narrating.
In a poem called "How I got my name," Arafat himself speaks.
The name they whispered
in the alleys of Damascus, of Amman:
Abu Ammar, my nom de guerre, Ammar,
meaning, the light I captured
in a jar for rationing, meaning immortal,
how many lives had I stolen?
It is always mysterious to me how, when American poets leave North American soil, they are emancipated from ordinary speech and are free to take on a firm—even stern—syntax. If the subject matter is history or current events, the poems tend to mark a stony path line by line so each work stands alone in a line of others, reduced to function. The words are the servants of the situation the poet is in.
Bell saves her own outburst until the end, when she speaks about her confusion at feeling empathy for the given enemy: "What have I done?" This question calls readers all the way from Antigone, Iphigenia, and even before to the times of the gods.
The landscape of desolation also seems particularly ancient and modern simultaneously:
I am from a people who move,
who crossed sea and desert and city
with stone monuments, with clocks, with
on foot, on skeleton trains, through barracks
with iron bunks, aching for a place we could
These poems are an offering to the river of poetry eternally moving around the world, but they are also very specifically intended for those people who are caught up in the world's recent history. The trouble is not over yet. As Elem Klimov, the Russian film director, said in the seventies, "Kill Hitler" still means something. The twentieth century will have a proper mourning ceremony only when it can produce an exchange of narratives among the leftover strangers. This collection of poems contributes to that exchange.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2012 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.