Elevate Difference

Breaking Poems

In her third book of poetry, award-winning Palestinian American poet Suheir Hammad explores the resilience of women’s bodies across borders in a fluid set of poems entitled Breaking Poems. Hammad embraces life at the border, refusing to translate her identity to fit a bounded-identity construct of what it means to be Palestinian or American. She uses a diasporic language, blending anglicized Palestinian Arabic with English. She fuses cultures, dropping names of inspirational figures like Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin.

Exploring the theme that wars are fought on women’s bodies, Hammad writes, “in gaza still flesh is ashed/wa smoked wa denied/a women’s chest caves in/smoke escapes legs.” (Wa means "and" in Arabic). In fact, the violence in Gaza is a constant topic in her poetry, summoning us to act and react as she evokes images of exploded bodies, rubble in place of homes, and empty stomachs. She connects the experiences of women in New Orleans to Gaza, capturing the resilience of women’s bodies as they encounter multiple forms of violence.

Breaking poems is also about breaking with old identity constructs. Hammad undergoes a personal transformation as she finds it impossible to fit into fixed and bounded notions of identity. Instead, she embraces border identities that are contradictory, fluid, and multi-sited. She refers to herself as “translinear me” and allows herself to exist simultaneously across time and space as a young girl in Deheisha to a woman in Beirut to a refugee in Brooklyn. “We lived there once my parents sisters and me,” she writes about Beirut. “I left my skin there still boiling.” Beginning to find home in change, Hammad writes:

sometimes I leave my body wa I leave my country wa my religion sometimes leaving is my religion.

Hammad also offers up the poem as the space for home, writing, “Poem is my body my language my country.” By exploring transnational and border identities, Hammad joins the ranks of women like Gloria Anzaldúa, Uma Narayan, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ella Shohat, and Nadine Naber.

Hammad’s poetry is never conventional; she plucks words that evoke the sensations of sight, smell, and touch. She induces feeling and meaning by convincing the reader that her words describe their memories. Nuanced and complex, breaking poems explores a new space in twenty-first century poetry.

Written by: Arwa Ibrahim, March 29th 2009