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'O' takes readers on a journey of abandonment and reclamation

Penguin Books

It is easy to subscribe narratives to each memory – and each feeling – so that our sense of self fits neatly into a box. But poets can be good at defying the confines of boxes.

In her third poetry collection O, Zeina Hashem Beck is graceful in that defiance. She embraces the multitudes – mother, citizen, poet, warrior – and presents herself to the reader as one whole.

Made of ghazals, odes, triptychs, and her own form of a duet – in which she writes both English and Arabic verses – O is a musical compilation of poems. The concept of a prayer is elevated as Beck contemplates on motherhood and exile. The very first poem, a ghazal, asks, "What to do with prayer?" It lists the ways in which prayer is both a necessity and a farce. It ends, "I'm through, I'm through, I'm through with prayer." The book has just begun.

Beck is from Lebanon (now living in California), and many memories of her selfhood are tied to Beirut. There is constant tension between "having abandoned" and "being abandoned." Just as the poet remembers her late uncle's flower shop, she remembers taking him to his grave. She remembers afternoons with her brother, and "the burning" of her city. She remembers hands that "shatter window glass" and also how they "knead flour, water, grief." Beirut, like the poet, is "multitudinous."

It is this relationship between the city and the body that centers the book throughout. She writes in "Ghazal: My daughter" of her baby's first few days on a ventilator:

"What rush you were in to leave the womb! No one told me the real odds were not with us. You in the incubator, & I without my daughter."

She waits for her daughter to recover – "my tiny, my defiant, my stout, my daughter." The next poem, titled "Flamingos" is for her other daughter, also in the hospital – "Perhaps I'm saying / life will sometimes infect your daughter's lung / & fracture your ankle in the same week." In these poems, the poet's body – and her daughters' bodies – are intertwined in pain.

Later, in "Ode to Lipstick" she writes about having an abortion: "You took the pills. You bled. You cried. / You want an empty uterus, & to dance." The feeling of abandonment returns as the poet considers her bodily autonomy against the pressure to feel guilty. But she writes, "You will rise / when a favorite song comes." Again, there is tension in abandonment; sometimes it is the only way.

It is striking how the poet writes about her daughters the way she writes about Beirut. "Ghazal: Dear Beirut" is about her city after its devastating explosion in 2020. She writes, "You were never mine. I, never yours." Now as the poet reads about the tragedy from her "exile" – she no longer lives in Lebanon – she suggests that even from far away she wants to care for her city. And her verse indicates she feels about Beirut how she might feel about her children. The poem ends:

"I carry a name & many cities. They're light & they're heavy,

Tonight & every night, it's you I want to hold, dear Beirut."

Be it of her body or of her city, Beck writes about her pain without shame. She is unafraid to convey the tension between wanting to own up to the pain and being free from it. And she is aware of how pain can pass down through generations. The poem "Heirloom" begins, "I come from a line of women who describe / flinging themselves into death / but don't." Recounting memories of her grandmother or mother being captivated by suicidal ideation, she captures the all-encompassing feeling of despair that is rooted deep in her family history.

Still, Beck fights the brutality of this pain with even more brutal honesty. Thinking of moments in her own life when she leaned into thoughts of self-harm, she writes, "This scares me." It is brave of the poet to admit to her vulnerability.

Ultimately, it is by knowing her pain so intimately that Beck builds her faith. In a world where all the tensions of motherhood and exile exist, there is an understanding of being whole – not just in memory, but in reality. The last poem, "Morning Prayer" is a list of what the poet is thankful for, and it ends, "Little world little world I love you." O has taken the reader through a journey of abandonment and reclamation – and now it is back to prayer. It is a full circle. It is all-encompassing. It is "O."

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Jeevika Verma
Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.