Review: The Lost Arabs by Omar Sakr

At the recent digital Melbourne Writer’s Festival, bisexual Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr, talking about his short story White Flu published in the future-looking anthology After Australia, said that he was, “Just focussed on trying to survive my past”. It could be the statement of reason for his second collection of poems, The Lost Arabs. 

Across 60 poems Sakr reckons with the past and present, and searches for god and belonging. It is cosmological, mystical poetry, turning as much towards the heavens as towards more earthy (you might say “dirty”) matters. “A palace in hell is still in hell,” the poet proclaims in Here We Are, the poem that comes before the contents, suggesting a framing for the collection.

Where is this hell? It could the cratered cities of the Middle East, as in Boys With Their Pins Pulled, which suggests the violence of war and masculinity in its title alone. Or the colony of Australia. “There is no good way to be here/or anywhere else,” he writes in Federation (Square). He has “never known a hill/or a river that wasn’t stolen from someone/and so can never know their true shape” in the titular poem. Certainly hell is on Earth, and the creation of people. 

The poet writes that he is “in search of my inheritance” (Searchlight). Some of that inheritance is the legacy of colonisations, old and new, and US-led “interventions” in the Arab world. Islamo- and xenophobia in the new world. Displacement, alienation. And all of that reaching down through genealogy to become terrible violence within the home. There are suggestions of an abusive father, an addicted mother. Factoids, about a mother, is to the point: “Her first husband beat her. He was high on heroin. He hit her at home. Cracked her skull with a pistol. Now she forgets her name at least once a day.” While many of the poems address this trauma openly, it is Kennel Light, about the poet and a rescue dog, that most gutted me. The dog, “presses her neck on my foot … as if any touch is better than/no touch”, speaking to a ruinous lack of love and tenderness. 

These are heavy things. I felt deeply the poet’s longing to become “a boy without edges” (Birthday), to “burn all the maps” (A Moratorium on Cartography), to destroy all those names borders that define us, those limits that are imposed on us. Many of these themes are specific to the Arab experience; for deeper look at them, have a read of Jumana Bayeh’s review on the Sydney Review of Books. 

So the poet is in search of love and tenderness. But the love he seeks is an illicit one, one that estranges him from his family. “He blamed himself for the men I want,” he says of his father in How to be a son. There are hookups, both real (Fridays in the park (or how to make a boy holy)) and lusted after (Extermination). In This Is Not Meant For You (a title which suggests Islam’s, and other religion’s, rejection of homosexuality) he finds “a man to lend me his tongue”. 

Many of these poems are thrillingly profane, even as they reach for the sacred. The moon in Blues, an exquisite ode to the planet and its satellite, appears “as waiting hole to be plunged into, as drop/pearling on the tip.” This could of course simply be riffing on a previous line describing the moon as a scalpel, but it could also not. I think one of the collection’s aims is to unify the holy and unholy, play them off each other, as Caravaggio did in his paintings of light and dark (and Caravaggio was also very likely bisexual). Even though I found some of these juxtapositions jarring, they are always interesting. 

Men are dangerous in this collection, but they are also holy. Sometimes this love can be redemptive, as in Breath, when on a trip to the country the poet is “lodged like a fishbone in a boy’s throat, the only/time I become a language.” Or in Out on the Way to Melbourne:

… i am a vulgar prince

with an invader’s tongue

         in my mouth & i love it. 

i go to the olive groves

 

ready to wear a dress of flame.

I particularly enjoyed Sakr’s writing about nature, which offers escape from the burdens of humanity, even as we threaten it, as in Heaven Is Bad Name (“heaven is a bad name/for what any man can conjure, just look//at what we keep doing here, the damage/to every kind of green”). Then there are stranger poems like No Goldblum, No Matter, which uses the startling image of baby chickens as dinosaurs (technically true!) to riff on the ways we are defined by others. He sees:

a raptor light come into their being,

which is to say, emerge from forgetting

as I once did

So does Sakr find redemption? It comes very late in the collection, but the exquisite offering of Meaning suggests he might have: “Yaani [the Arabic word for “means”, and also an interjection], I have come to love belonging nowhere, I priest absence.” And then there is his love for his grandmother, a woman whose shrugs are “historic”, which radiates from the page throughout the collection, as in Chances: 

…’Now I have everything,’ she says,

‘God gives.’ And the loss in her could make paintings

Weep. ‘But inside?’ She shrugs. Her country is 

Waiting 

It’s enough to make you hope, and perhaps believe. 

Gay rating: 4/5 for substantial queer themes (including religious intolerance) and gay sex 

 

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