A promising debut work from a young poet and a valuable reminder of the glories of Islamic culture.
At 28, Albaba can already boast of a full life. He’s lived in three countries (Syria, Saudi Arabia and Canada), mastered multiple languages, and has two computer science degrees. And if that weren’t enough, he’s published his first book of poetry in English. However, to call it merely a collection of poetry (or “divan”) is to underestimate its lofty aspirations, which include introducing readers to Arabic and Islamic cultures. With these goals in mind, the author opens each of the 20 poems with a preface that situates it within Islamic history or his own fascinating life. All the introductions, in unpretentious prose, helpfully introduce non-Muslim readers to the beauty, depth and complexity of Muslim literature and lore. Perhaps the book’s only failing is that the prefaces are sometimes more compelling than the verses that follow them. Like many young poets, Albaba frequently uses end-rhymes to structure his works. However, his over-reliance on them can make his language feel stilted. More than once, he presents a poem in monorhyme—in which the last word of each line rhymes with all the rest. Hence, “The Sun that Never Sets,” an ode to the Prophet Muhammad, features off-kilter lines such as, “In mercy, love, and tolerance you are the greatest instance,” “When allurement intensifies and becomes within striking distance” and “ As [my parents] sacrifice for me and were the reason behind my nascence.” Such awkward usage results less from the author’s newness to the language—which he humbly admits—than from the fact that his structure forces him to come up with 18 other words that rhyme with the word “guidance.” No poet should have to do so much.
An often satisfying mix of poetry, religion and history.
A collection of poetry focuses on everyday beauty and wonder.
Over the course of 50 poems with straightforward titles, retired high school English teacher Hathwell (Between Dog and Wolf, 2017, etc.) explores the world around him. Nature is a touchstone of his poetry. In “Poplar,” he expertly describes the titular tree “catching a breeze, flutter sage and silver wings” while in “Sunflower,” he lingers on the “wide blank face” of the “saddest flower.” The author also showcases culture in his poems. “Fred’s Girl” is a propulsive ode to the Fred Astaire–Paulette Goddard duet in the film Second Chorus, and “Sunday at the Symphony” captures the ethereal experience of live classical music. But the poems aren’t limited to the author’s immediate surroundings. A visit to the Spanish Steps, where Keats died in 1821, is the subject of “Readiness Is Everything,” which encourages readers to “imagine the world without you.” Hathwell plays with humor in “Dust Is Winning,” about the futile fight to keep things clean, and shows his cynical side in “Red Dress,” which describes the “ruby radiance” of an ensemble depicted in advertising. The act of writing is another recurring theme in this collection. “Song” depicts a successful writing day, in which “I rise from my desk, / Majestic, and I dance,” while “Sure Thing” warns readers “that language is prepared to lie / When you ask it to.” Quiet moments are also rich material for the poet. Throughout, he matches his message to the pacing of the poem, creating an immersive experience for readers. In “Finding Myself in the Morning,” readers sink into Hathwell’s serene, solitary scene where he can finally “not wonder / who is speaking, or what comes next.” In “Ten O’Clock,” the audience can sense the descent into a “deep, forgiving sleep.” The one flaw of this collection is its breadth. Because everything from Astaire to flora is fair game, the individual poems don’t always flow from one to the next, and transitions can be jarring.
Like the demigod from which it takes its name, Defining Atlas is a durable, uplifting volume.
A strong current of self-affirmation, self-love, and self-confidence runs through this work, and readers will come away feeling their spirits improved. We feel some of this current in the clever “Limited”; Michaels takes the titular subject and turns it on its head: “I’m new, but I’m old / Not limited beyond my means and methods / But limited because I’m special / Special beyond the heavens and everything that surrounds me / That I’m among…limited.” Elsewhere in “From the ashes…I am,” he sings a hard-won song of renewal and rebirth: “I am victory in its rawest form / I am hope that never conform / I am the will, the drive, and the truth / I am like everyone, like you.” But Michaels does not hoard specialness or victory for himself; he wants it for his reader too, and in “Wake Up!” he urges us on toward a bright future: “There’s something good here for you / Your purpose can never be defined by just one blue / Your destiny awaits you.” Underpinning Michaels’ stirring message is a strong faith in God, whose presence infuses many of the poems here: “But I always thank God for the latter / For the strength and will it takes / Shines so bright / Shines so right.” Michaels often adopts a loose scheme of rhyming couplets, and this decision leads to one of the book’s few weaknesses. Too often, the poet picks awkward or odd pairings; e.g., “And if I could become a perfect saint / I would make believers out of the ones who say they ain’t” and the “you/blue” couplet mentioned above. But such missteps are infrequent, and they don’t dim the warm light that emanates from Michaels’ fine volume.