London Grip Poetry Review – Omar Sabbagh



Poetry review FOR ECHO: Mark Fiddes explores a new collection by Omar Sabbagh


For Echo 
Omar Sabbagh
Cinnamon Press
ISBN 9781788641487
98 pp     £9.99

In the Afterword of his latest outing with Cinnamon Press For Echo, Omar Sabbagh cites Saint Augustine. To understand something, the Bishop of Hippo claimed, we must love it first. And the poet finds much both to love and understand in this ardent collection.

Family members take precedence, particularly the poet’s young daughter Alia. As an Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai, he also dissects academia while taking a grieving glance at the tragedy of geopolitics we find ourselves surrounded by here in the Middle East.

As the book’s title For Echo implies, he wants us to give Narcissus, in all of his modern incarnations, the elbow.

In the book’s first section, Sabbagh sheds light on the poet’s original state of innocence in “Reading Tolstoy Once Again”:

…a certain youth
shared and shaped by the two of us, 
an enchanted boy and the majesty of his enchanter, without a single ploy
or sham or feint 
who wished only to paint the daylight in the day.

Echoes of the Metaphysical poets resound even more clearly in the poems about his daughter, the dedicatee of almost a quarter of the 57 poems in this book.

…Her mind’s
slumber opens a gorgeous fruit, its flesh, its rind,
its pip, and then, as I imagine it, she devours it,
                                                                     (“A Nap”)

Indeed, she often works as his muse to organise the wild surmise of ‘this daftly broken man’:

His hands move across the keys,
moving like the unpaid fee
of his heart – his heart, a glove
for the hand that moves – 
                                                                (“The Artist”)

Memories of the poet’s father, too, evince a telling perspective on parenthood: ‘And then, entering the truer flesh of age/ he did the things a man might mostly do / to lift and light the way… /our lives were lived as though on a starlit stage.’

But then the ache and strain beneath the fabric 
began its deathly pull, and the skein of what was rich
turned on a pivot, went unknitted, stitch by golden stitch…

Later “Gradations” wonders ‘how words / like blunted spears go hurled / at no enemy but at / oneself?’ Good point. Is the poet recognizing his own tendency to let metaphors gang up on him?

…and the debt 
I owe, in the currency here beneath my hat, 
in the mind’s labile lucky latch, is a debt that I’ll 
be paying, I know, through the razing of each tall 
storm these hands were given to quiet, quell.
                                                       (“The Dyer’s Hands”)

Here it’s as if Sabbagh wants to impress us with the sheer sound of language. You feel the presence of the poet more than the poetry. Yet at other times, particularly in his opening stanzas, he can set a scene with cinematic clarity.

The boys are playing sports outside,
gambling with their bodies 
in the luck of the early evening air.

He often achieves this enrapt lucidity on the occasions he praises other writers, among them Joyce, Kafka and Proust:

I’ll sleep better tonight than most nights
and rest will sliver through my mind
like a death with nothing left behind,
a circle closing-in upon itself, so pure and so refined…
                                                   (“The Wisdom of Marguerite Yourcenar 
                                                     After reading Memoirs of Hadrian for a second time”)

All anguish is stilled. Indeed, Sabbagh’s aim is to be ‘a man of ultimate repose… whose poetry writes itself back into silence…who goes off to his day in daylight, waddling or striding, and thinking no more of mirrors.’

Mention of mirrors brings us back to the title For Echo. Echo was the nymph Narcissus rejected in favour of his own reflection. In the age of Trump and selfies, Sabbagh spikes many vanities. While admitting to a few himself, he powerfully reminds us that what really matters may be much closer to hand than adulation.