Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Omar Sakr’s compelling debut poetry collection, These Wild Houses, explores both writerly and readerly themes through the extended metaphor of the house as human body. Some houses stand for the constant reader, ponderous and seemingly solid; others, as Judith Beverage suggests in her perceptive introduction, are “metaphors for states of being” (xiii) experienced by writer and reader both. Sakr’s poetic states of being are complex and nuanced almost to the point of paradox. This riddling complexity is occasionally ruptured by a bluntly-delivered and vivid observation, so vital and so powerful, creating a visceral reading experience.
What could be more visceral than corruption? The body is organic but so, too, are most suburban dwellings, with possums tap-dancing on the rooftops, pythons finding refuge in the ceilings, and skinks and geckos clinging to the walls. Although the house takes a valiant stand against nature, it cannot hold out forever. Nothing is safe as houses; especially houses.
Thus, Sakr’s book opens with a quotation from James Woods: “What will survive of us? Not houses. If left alone, they begin to fall apart very quickly” (ix). Woods suggests that a house left untended will soon become dilapidated; so, too, will a person who is isolated “begin to fall apart very quickly.” In his poetry, Sakr recognises the innate sociability of the human; that we need others to keep the complex and often contradictory self together. Hence, he dedicates his work to “the friends I made family” and writes, simply, “I couldn’t have done it without you” (v): a homely expression to counteract the often unheimlich nature of the universe.
Yes, the universe owes us nothing beyond our own existence and rarely lets us forget it. But Sakr’s poetry rails against such bleak assertions to emphatically affirm life in all its murky, contrary glory. This is strong poetics in its prime, sensual and self-assured, yet vulnerable in its very potency. There is no dissembling here. The metaphors are imagistic rather than euphemistic and the central imagery defies equally the Manichean and the Machiavellian.
The first poem, “Door Open” (1), invites the reader to step inside not Sakr’s world but, rather, his view of the world. He bids us a seductive welcome — “Let me warm you with all I am” — as he instructs us to step
Onto my polished tongue,
there flies and fiction breed
into some thing resembling a truth.
Here, at first, my history begins. (1)
He asks you to “Mind your head / here on the ridges of my teeth” (1). As we crawl through the crack in the poet’s face, we see that it is a smiling gash both seemingly sinister and familiar: the terrifyingly-toothy leer of the Luna Park clown-face entrance.
“You are welcome to come in,” Sakr seems to say, “but this is my home so things will operate according to my rules of hospitality and truth-telling. “Truth” is of course not inherently virtuous and “history” is clearly constructed but, in this age of relativity when certainty is the rarest of commodities, I suggest the reader take up Sakr’s invitation with relish.
Sakr has achieved a certain fame as a “queer Muslim Arab Australian” poet (xi). He has adopted this identity label as a means of self-defence and identifying with others in similar outcast states. Specifically, Sakr identifies as bisexual. The 90s British band Living Colour sang, sarcastically, ruefully, and bitterly, that “Everybody loves you when you’re bi.” Love and hate are often inextricable and Sakr clearly knows the pain of stigma. The West’s mistrust of queerness is notorious while, in many Muslim countries, people are imprisoned or killed for homosexual practices. And there are those who repress the queer in more covert ways.
To be Muslim Arab in Australia is to be hated and feared by some, loved and defended by others, attacked, pre-judged but almost always, and most evidently, misunderstood. To be a self-declared queer Muslim Arab Australian poet is to risk becoming a curiosity meant to be kept in a cabinet, a darling of the privileged literati patronised and prized for his otherness more than his exceptionally-adept poetic ability. And to be dangerously different is to risk violent rejection.
Indeed, violence simmers in “Call off Duty.” Sakr opens the poem with a word that is both a greeting and a desire for peace: “Salaam, brother.”
I am rekindling
when last we met: your body knotted
into a fist around the controls, screen aglow.
‘Search & destroy,’ came the instruction
and your fingers fired, the machine gun
your only avatar on screen. It speaks
in bursts of you, and men fall prostrate
as if praying echoes of the azan
bowing on the air. (28)
Sakr voices his certainty that his brother will reject him upon discovering his “secret / loves” (29), the line break severing the surety of love. He sees his brother, whom he loves and must always love, as dealing him a loss he has “yet to bear” (29), knowing that “your hatred is foretold, inscribed in Arabic, // in the holiest of texts” (29). “Salaam,” he says, over and over again; an incantation, a plea, a recognition of what soon must be lost: peace.
Eventually, he hits send on his “letter of years / in the making” (30). The reply, instant for the reader but speaking of eternity for the writer, who only wishes “for salaam to exist between us — / in this life, or the next” (30), is marvellously anti-climactic in its brevity and sincerity: “Don’t be / silly. I’ll always have your back” (30). “Always” usually speaks hyperbole but here Sakr’s brother’s words are a kind of casual shrug of litotes. The loveliest line in the collection follows: “And everything I thought I knew / broke into a sound like prayer” (30).
There is so much more to delight in. The masterfully-crafted “Landing” features the words Sakr imagines his uprooted grandparents might say to him: “‘You do not know what it means to take, / to rip your roots from clay and craft them into sails // ready for the sky’” (5). But of course he does know: he has risked wrenching his roots from the soil of family by coming out as queer. Like Icarus, this poet flies close to the sun, flirting with it, daring it to melt his waxen wings. And the flight of his poetry is spectacular.
Indeed, Icarus features in “Not So Wild” as a young boy who, despite having wings that are “burned and beaten off your back,” is “always / able to rise again” (13). The poem describes the final break-up of a boyhood friendship, a truce between smouldering flames of fury and disaffection, affected through mutual distraction from their volatile home lives, with worms and weeds and cobwebs and rocks becoming their language of both play and peace treaty. This poem is a masterwork.
Another standout is “Dear Mama,” which records both fear and pity felt for a violent mother who locks her son in his room. His salvation is found in the written word:
How could you think walls
would hold me? If only you knew how I made that cell a world, hard
but free, you might refashion yours: a hundred books, each one key. (7)
He almost thanks her for “the urge for independence / you sang into my bones” and “for teaching me that holiness is no more / than moments lent with loved ones whether bonded / by blood or not. Especially not” (7). Friends become family when blood, no longer thicker than water, is shed as freely as tears of loneliness.
The first line of the final poem of the collection, “A Biographer’s Note” reads: “A house should, above all, be still” (58). A “still” house rests on solid foundations. A “still” state of being is receptive but not passive. A reader of poetry must be statue-still and exploring still: always open to encountering new poems and poets. Still reading, we let the written word instil vicarious emotions inside our minds and bodies. It is fitting, then, that Sakr makes a request: the reader must not stop with him. “Discover the other diverse writers and poets in this country,” he implores in his Preface. “Find us, find our books. We’re here, and we’re growing” (xi).
Sakr’s work is vital: it is the here and now even as it speaks of and to eternity. Like the word emblazoned briefly across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and chalked in gorgeous copperplate across the pavements of his hometown, his poetry is merely a finite gesture towards the infinite: but what a glorious, breathtaking, and magnificently-human gesture it is.