Bard’s pensive rhymes—an anthology of life entombed in anguish

Published in 2022, Mosab Abu Toha’s debut book of poems, Things You May Find Hidden In My Ear, is a study of life in Gaza. It won the Palestine Book Award and was a finalist for the Walcott Poetry Prize.

It is difficult to make neat distinctions of themes and investments when writing about this book. There is also the difficulty of writing about poetry as a form. Prof Refaat Alareer describes the impossibility of explaining poetry in his course at the Islamic University of Gaza. He notes, “To explain a poem, you have to rewrite it. If you want to talk about poetry with people, show them the poem.”

In this brief reflection on Mosab’s book, I try to point at instances and reflect on them, rather than attempting to add to a book that is already brimming with language that is honest, and alive; a language that reinvents the world around it.

The very first page of this book is rife with questions of imagined borders, the theatre of everyday life, and the sound and silence of death. In Gaza, news travels faster than people and their bodies. Making a sound is criminalised, yet silence is hard to find. In Gaza, the smaller violence fits inside the larger violence of everyday life. Mosab writes:

“I wish I could wake up and find the electricity on all day long.

I wish I could hear the birds sing again,
no shooting and no buzzing drones.

I wish my desk would call me to hold my pen and write again,
or at least plow through a novel, revisit a poem, or read a play.

All around me are nothing but silent walls and people sobbing without sound.”

In an expression of sumud, or resilient resistance, Mosab says, “We love what we have, no matter how little, because if we don’t, everything will be gone. If we don’t, we will no longer exist, since there will be nothing here for us.” Steadfastness becomes a road to home, a way to affirm life, and a way to live the word of God. An expression of love for a besieged land is also an admission in indigeneity. The land is the source of existence, and in all its forms, an object of love.

Mosab knows the Gazan to be in a strange relationship with time, human life and meaning are constantly subject to the violence of time passing. He writes:

“I am weightless, a speck of time in Gaza.
But I will remain where I am.”

Prof Refaat Alareer describes poetry using its linguistic root poiesis, “To write a poem means to make something, to build something” (49:03). The house is a text on which we write our history, apart from just being a casualty. Mosab responds to this linguistic history of poetry by comparing it to materials that make us and our places of refuge, “A poem is not just words placed on a line. It’s a cloth. Mahmoud Darwish wanted to build his home, his exile, from all the words in the world. I weave my poems with my veins. I want to build a poem like a solid home, but hopefully not with my bones.” There is a harmony between the body, the home and the poem as spaces where we can build a sense of life.

In his interview with Ammiel Alcalay, Mosab explains, “We are forced to live in the nightmares of our own current life. And they are creating more misery for us, wounding us again and again, so that we forget those earlier wounds in the face of the fresher wounds.” Poetry builds a home for the memory of these wounds, it is a living archive that refuses to let the oppressive work of forgetting happen unchallenged. Poetry is a means of instruction in what Refaat Alareer calls “a universal struggle against oppression.” Poetry is one step in that long journey of a political commitment to hope.

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