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A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor

Whenever a man
leaves me
my beauty increases.

Whenever a man
leaves me
my beauty increases.

Increases…

Maram al-Massri’s A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is comprised of poems from two book-length sequences, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled floor, first published in Tunis in 1997 and awarded Le Prix Du Forum culturel libanais en France in 1998, and I Look to You, published in Beirut in 2000. Written first in Arabic and then translated into English by the poet Khaled Mattawa, the assembled collection of poetry is a powerful portrayal of the female experience of love and intimacy.

Reminiscent of Sappho in their self-contained buds of verse, seemingly fragments brushed on the page, the work is divided into one hundred different sections. Each division is meticulous in its brevity, just as al-Massri’s language is unaffected and pure, as if such verses exist already in the space between man and woman.

I know
I shouldn’t have
let him
uncover my breasts.
I only
wanted
to show him
I’m a woman.

I know
I shouldn’t
have let him
undress.
He only
wanted
to show me
he’s a man.

Al-Massri’s writing encompasses a lifetime of experience, unwaveringly self-aware in all situations so that the reader may benefit from the emerging truths. She disguises nothing, but instead bears up the boredoms of marriage and the violence of loneliness, bodily and spatially, as all people must to survive.

In the third section of the book the speaker is confronted with the delicious draw of lust, “Desire inflames me/and my eyes glimmer./ I stuff morals/in the nearest drawer,/ I turn into the Devil/ and blindfold my angels/ just/for a kiss.” However, as the speaker progresses into the sixtieth section, she is forced to suffer through the frustrations of her familiar life: “With my delicious fruit/ I light/ the way leading to me./ Your stupid birds/ prefer/ old bread.” It seems as if al-Massri has captured “woman” in every shade of her complex experience, distilling her down into a formidable, yet shapely simulacrum.

Al-Massri also has a magnificent ability to seize a moment in ordinary time and fire it into an extraordinary thing of beauty. Where one may easily overlook a slant of light or the subtle reactions our physical body yields to the material world, she refuses not to celebrate them:

I looked at him
through a thread of light
beaming from
the window of my mercy—
the tired body
spread beside me
hungry like mine.
I signaled to my hand
to come closer
and it refused,
I commanded it
and it disobeyed.
I forced it,
and it bent closer
shivering with the pain
of touching
another body.

A Syrian poet and translator originally from Latakia, Maram Al-Massri’s A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is a brilliant introduction to modern Arabic poetry. A quick read, if only because the stanzas are short, the sincere search for meaning in her writing will linger on in your thoughts like a fragrance.

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