Mohamed Metwalli’s “A Song by the Aegean Sea” Reviewed

28 March, 2022
The Aegean Sea on the coast of Turkey.


A Song by the Aegean Sea
, poet­ry by Mohamed Metwalli
Trans­lat­ed by Gretchen McCul­lough and the author
Laertes Books (May 2022)
ISBN 9781942281269

 

Sherine Elbanhawy

 

In a world where it is increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to trav­el, whether because of the pan­dem­ic, finan­cial con­straints, or the relent­less­ness of our rou­tines and dai­ly respon­si­bil­i­ties, Mohamed Metwalli’s poet­ry col­lec­tion A Song by the Aegean Sea becomes the per­fect form of escapism.

A Song by the Aegean Sea is pub­lished by Laertes Books.

Trans­port­ing and trans­plant­i­ng the read­er to cap­ti­vat­ing Izmir, his words bring the cos­mopoli­tan Turk­ish city to life, each vibrant scene teem­ing with nuance and detail: gyp­sies sell­ing flow­ers along­side the pro­test­ers in the poem “One Flew East, One Flew West, One Flew Over the Izmir Bay”:

The gyp­sy sell­er of nation­al flags
Wished to join the demonstration

or the rov­ing musi­cians stop­ping to play soccer:

You belched rov­ing musicians
Play­ing ball in their leisure time
Lean­ing their instruments
Against the wall of your exhaust­ed lung

and the mus­sel sell­ers in a heat­ed duet with the State:

As for the mus­sel sellers
Chased by the municipality
They blew safe­ly out of your nostrils
With the smoke of tobacco.

We walk beside him through the streets of Izmir, lis­ten­ing to his con­ver­sa­tions and observ­ing through his eyes:

An orange moon
Above the Aegean Sea
Viewed by a cou­ple of tourists com­ing from Egypt
From a hotel balcony
Who nev­er believed—till this moment—What they had beheld!

This is Metwalli’s fourth col­lec­tion, and it is beau­ti­ful­ly cap­tured by Gretchen McCullough’s care­ful and per­cep­tive trans­la­tion. In her intro­duc­tion, she describes the poet trav­eller as a “singer of the Aegean song who yearns to become part of the scene. (…) It’s an impres­sion­is­tic yet sur­re­al can­vas from a stranger’s point of view.”

I become enam­ored with the Izmiri land­scape, and I am not alone; the pic­turesque coastal moun­tain bathed in sun­light moves the gyp­sy into song: “The gyp­sy rose-sell­er as well/Gazed at it/And burst, out of the blue, into a melan­choly song.” As well, mem­o­ries stir, “How rem­i­nis­cent of Beirut is tonight! Pins of lights adorn the coastal moun­tain” and intro­spec­tion pre­vails, in “Who Dares Approach”:

And remem­ber the word of Gibran 
Whence, an Egypt­ian poet stood 
In front of his tomb—on the moun­tain top—in Beirut 
Get­ting the goose bumps
Since the spir­it of Gibran was infused into his veins
Telling him some of the old parables.

And, in the same poem, ghosts encroach:

Yet the words of Hipponax
Kept hov­er­ing above the place
Accom­pa­nied by his ghost
And ready to assault the veins of any poet
Who dares approach!

The poems are in chrono­log­i­cal order, with one 2014 Jan­u­ary win­ter sand­wiched between two June sum­mers (2013 and 2014). All the poems emanate from the poet’s stays at the Izmir Palace Hotel, where his view­point, inter­ac­tions, and obser­va­tions are almost voyeuris­tic, in “Occu­pied by the Sea”:

When he met her between the two palm trees
And kissed her beneath the hotel
When she glanced above
And the Bohemi­an poet, from his bal­cony, smiled to her
And she smiled back.

Mohamed Met­wal­li was born in Cairo in 1970 and received a B.A. in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from Cairo Uni­ver­si­ty in 1992, the same year he won the Lebanese pub­lish­ing award, the Yussef El-Khal Prize, for his poet­ry col­lec­tion Once upon a Time. He was poet-in-res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go in 1998. His col­lec­tions include The Sto­ry the Peo­ple Tell in the Har­bour (1998), The Lost Prom­e­nades (2010), and A Song by the Aegean Sea (2015). He com­piled and co-edit­ed an anthol­o­gy of off­beat Egypt­ian poet­ry enti­tled Angry Voic­es. Gretchen McCul­lough is an Amer­i­can writer and trans­la­tor who grew up in Texas and lives in Cairo, where she is Senior Lec­tur­er in the Depart­ment of Rhetoric and Com­po­si­tion at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo.

We meet the Greek Smyr­na, today Izmir, through its liv­ing inhab­i­tants, its unsung heroes, the restau­rant wait­ers, street ven­dors, con­struc­tion work­ers, gyp­sies, tourists, and even its birds (seag­ulls, ravens, larks, one dove, and one hoopoe), “To the car­cass of a dove/Struck by light­ning in front of my very eyes/Devoured, lat­er, by the raven and the seag­ull.” The street cats and dogs are some­times described as fat or stout and pep­per the poems, inter­act­ing with the humans, the Aegean Sea, and the city at all hours of the day and night. The dog’s song, “The coastal dogs howled/Steering their heads towards the sky,” con­trasts with the lazy loung­ing cats, “Who spend half of their time/Devouring the left­over fish from the restaurants/Or from the fishermen/And the oth­er half, sleeping/Or lick­ing their bod­ies.” There are even poems ded­i­cat­ed to each, “The Smile of a Dog” and “The Cats of Izmir.”

A pal­pa­ble lev­i­ty can be found in sev­er­al of the poems, for instance, “A woman in her white wed­ding gown/Wails in front of the sea/After the groom jumps into the water for his life/Nothing of him lat­er appeared but a black smok­ing suit/Afloat with an excla­ma­tion point on top!” and Metwalli’s tone is often play­ful: “A raven alight­ed on my table/Pecked at my pis­ta­chios and tast­ed my wine/Then gave me a quick reproach­ful look.”

Love is a theme, a thread that runs through Izmir. “Two lovers froze under a shrub,” and Met­wal­li cap­tures many inti­mate moments, “Two lovers in a sea­side restaurant/Clinked their glasses/To an illic­it night,” as if sim­ply being in the city enables these moments to occur, “And the lovers who sheltered/Under the shade of a shrub/Away from the sun and the curi­ous eyes.”

The orange moon also recurs, “Who viewed an orange moon the day before—Gradually dim­ming into utter dark­ness till it dis­ap­peared—” with two poems ded­i­cat­ed to the moon in gen­er­al, “A Raven, A Moon” and “A Smoth­ered Moon”:

Oh my, oh my!
Where did my moon go
Behind the black clouds
Or did you not know?

Thus sang us the gypsy
For a pair of liras
That night, we,
Wax­ing lyrical,
Almost jumped into the sea,
A smoth­ered moon
For which the farm­ers in my country
Kept beat­ing the drums, bang­ing the pots
Until it glowed

Is it so, you Aegean Sea,
That your moon sud­den­ly vanishes,
Smothered,
Behind a black cloud?!

There’s a sen­su­al­i­ty to the poems when Met­wal­li describes the body:

Then, the city was teem­ing with­in your body
You dis­gorged a few beauties
Sashay­ing along the coast
In skimpy shorts

and in the many moments of affec­tion, embraces, and warmth:

In the night of Izmir
Giv­ing him a deep kiss
Lean­ing back with her body.

The Aegean Sea is men­tioned in prac­ti­cal­ly every poem; it is the life­line of the city and of the poet. Met­wal­li ques­tions, “Is it in the Aegean Sea that souls get fathomed?”

As read­ers, we search for the answer in the sounds and lit­er­al places — the seafront, the park, cafés, restau­rants — and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, in “the bed of the sea” and “the dark sea.” The poet wants the read­er to under­stand that all answers lie in the sea’s warped, out-of-sync, blur­ri­ness, that “the sea is enough.” “The page of the sea blends” with his words, and “the sea pen­e­trates your pores/You sweat in beads of salt,” and he advis­es the read­er to relin­quish their body to the sea, “You still sit on your balcony/Between the two palm trees/In front of the water/And there comes the sea to absorb you/To draw the best out of you.”

It is an invi­ta­tion into his sur­re­al world, where life exists in a dif­fer­ent dimen­sion, a dif­fer­ent col­or, beat­ing to a dif­fer­ent tune, “Don’t resist the sea when it occu­pies you—I know some­one who tried to resist the occu­pa­tion of the sea/Searching for an alleged inde­pen­dence, He end­ed up depressed and drowned—”

I feel swal­lowed whole by Metwalli’s words, and rebirthed in Izmir, sur­round­ed by bustling tourists, larks, and lovers, in thrall to the city’s mag­i­cal charm and its resound­ing sea, for­ev­er indebt­ed to its orange moon.

 

Arab poetCairoEgyptian poetGreekIzmirThe Aegean SeaTurkey

Sherine Elbanhawy is pursuing an MA in Islamic Studies with a specialization in Women and Gender Studies at McGill University. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She’s the founder of Rowayat, a literary magazine showcasing Egyptian writers. Her writing has been published in The Malahat Review, Room Magazine, ArabLit and others. Find her on Twitter @cairenegirl.