1800 A mother’s love
by Rayya Liebich
Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2021
$18.95 / 9781771338714
Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch
In Arabic, Rayya Liebich explains, Hayat means life, Hayati playfully means “my beloved” or “darling,” and Min Hayati means “Who is my life?” and “Who is my darling?” With these two words, we are introduced into the love and grief at the heart of this book.
A mother is life to her infant daughter, who in turn is life to her mother. When the mother’s life is over, the daughter holds that life, as the mother’s role, both in memory and, with good fortune, as a mother herself. From mother to daughter, who eventually mothers her own child and her aging mother as well, this is a sacred trust.
For Liebich, these transformations came all at once. Her mother, Hayat Salam-Liebich, died of cancer in Geneva at the same time that Liebich became a mother herself. Liebich told me that facing the grief was so intense she could only do it for short moments. Poetry was the only way. “It chose me,” she said. “I didn’t choose it.”
“It was a wonderful way to stay connected with her,” said Liebich. “I wanted more.” Some of this “more” is in the prose poems in the centre of Min Hayati. Here’s an example:
In French it is called a crazy laugh, the kind that comes out of nowhere and cannot be controlled. This is the only kind my mother knows, and she has perfected the art. Her mouth drops open and her silver fillings shake (from “Fou Rire”).
Liebich soon realized that she was looking for her mother everywhere. When she went to the ocean, it was her mother she saw. When she went to Ruby Beach on the Cascadian Coast, the ruby sand and the walkers stacking rocks on the shore did not make it into her poem, because she concentrated on those things that spoke her mother most clearly to her in her feelings of loss:
There is hope in darkest places,
..in anemone breath and bloom,
Magic in impossible spaces,
.. the hermit crab embedded in stone (from “Ruby Beach Washington”).
Liebich’s mother was there, not in the grey sand, “that place where I envision your ashes / scattered wide on waves of sand,” but “mother/ocean in all things.” Liebich had found her mother in the world.
This is Arabic wisdom. It appears, for example, when the sufic spirit Khidr, protector of people who have lost their way in life and love, renews the lost by filling the hole of grief with nature, making new identities out of the world.
This unity with the world is most profound in Min Hayati when Liebich views a lotus opening and sees mother leaning over her, her hair swinging down. She is a child, and through her, so are we. Or is she the mother? Both, of course. In this exquisitely and gently sculpted kinetic energy, Liebich softly transfers connection to her readers. It becomes our life as well.
This mingling of substance is not an Anglo Saxon approach to poetry, one concerned with the interaction of objects and people in the cause-and-effect relationships of noun-verb-object sentences. In English, such approaches risk sounding sentimental.
Liebich largely avoids that trap by combining cultures and by honestly assessing her progress across their interface. “I had always wanted to be a mother,” Liebich told me, “and if anyone was going to have an easy time of it it was going to be me.” Instead, she had two difficult caesarian births and was set off-balance by colic, post partum depression, and her mother’s death. “It was not what I was told,” she said. “It unpacked the idea that grief is finite, that you mourn for a little while, not too long, that motherhood should be documented in how wonderful it is and how much love motherhood has been.”
A moment of such awareness is recorded in Liebich’s poem “La Pivoine Pardon.” In it, she looks closer and closer at a peonie, her mother’s favourite flower. With each look, she sees an image of her mother, and sculpts each image like a flower, so exquisitely that the touch of her fingers on the petals is transferred to us. By the end, however, the petals, pulled back layer by layer,
……..like owlet feathers,
each one tumbles in full surrender
rests on a scattered ground (from “La Pivoine Pardon”).
That scattered ground is the shape of the poem.
When I asked Liebich how out of all this grief the book could be so joyous, she said, “It really surprised me that at the heart of grief is love.” Eventually, the process of writing Min Hiyati woke her to the fact that, in her words, “there is something hopeful and beautiful about grief. The more you love someone the more it hurts when they are gone. I was so lucky to have this incredible mother. Unfortunately, grieving her is life-long.”
So, of course, is the life and the joy. Min Hiyati presents it in a weave of six cultures at an intersection of the global diaspora. The book is Arabic, for its social and evocative imagery of nature, often lushly artificial, French for its sense of poetry as reverie, scarcely attached to the Earth, Polish for its slavic romanticism, so bluntly stated, and English for its Anglo Saxon directness and linearity, focussed on the here and now. It is the English of today’s global culture, replacing depth and irony with breadth. It is also one of the Englishes of Montreal, lightly graced with shapes and forms drawn as much from French as from English tradition and presented as a kind of reverie attached to neither. Something is being born here.
There is much free verse here as well. It’s not the chiselled art nouveau porcelain of Georgian culture, not HD’s or Pound’s desire for luminous images intellectually arranged, but the 1970s-era tradition born out of translation. Back then, the form was rather flat. What rescues Min Hayati from drowning in the flatness of this form is that it draws on a long tradition of poetry by women, including the anti-modernist imagery of Amy Lowell in the 1920s. In Lowell’s tradition, and Liebich’s, sonorous images and reveries are built and stretched back through Georgian poetics to create evocations, even charmed bodies, even souls hovering around words but not held to them. This is not a male tradition.
What lasts in this poetry is the delicacy and dance of the evocation, the feeling of spirit of a poem moving through you as you read the words. Liebich uses words to communicate social gestures, not metaphysical ones.
Amin Maalouf points out that in his family culture in Lebanon (along with Montreal, Liebich’s ancestral homeland), people do not put down roots in land but in movement, in the road, and in each other. Families and communities are nomads moving together. Similarly, in her grief Liebich sees her mother within herself. They move together like Maalouf’s family through the world. The writing of this book, Min Hayati, making the book a mother-daughter, becomes itself “min hiyati” and passes the mother energy along, all the way from Lebanon, Geneva, Montreal and Liebich’s home in Nelson to wherever, like Khidr, it finds us.
The book is a promising debut and a welcome addition to women’s lives in Canada and those others of us born in their intimate language of gestures. It is especially so whenever a line breaks open these gestures in breath and the intimate kinetic energy Liebich is strong at, forming a body in us, her readers. It is her mother, living, even as we share in her loss.
Liebich is now working on a multi-disciplinary exploration of the connections between language and culture and the transformations that happen when they change. I look forward to more of her embodied wisdom.
Harold Rhenisch has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. He is working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon. Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has recently reviewed books by Sarah de Leeuw, Roger Farr, Stephan Torre, Don Gayton, Calvin White, and Garry Gottfriedson for The British Columbia Review. His recent book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne Armstrong; The Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick. Harold lives in Vernon.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster