zeina hashem beck and O collage

A Poem Opens Between Two Languages in “O” by Zeina Hashem Beck

by Lauren Alwan

This LitStack Rec celebrates April’s National Poetry Month and Arab American Heritage Month by recommending the luscious and beautiful book of poetry, O, by Zeina Hashem Beck.

National Poetry Month banner O by Zenia Hasham Beck
national arab american heritage month O by Zeina Hasham Beck

Poetry Existing Across Language, Place, and Identity

April is National Poetry Month and Arab American Heritage Month. The work of Zeina Hashem Beck, a Lebanese poet currently living in the US, embodies both. Her poetry exists across language, place, and identity. In her latest collection, O, she writes of moments and experiences that vary in scale, with equal attention and depth given to the small, the ordinary, and the earth-shaking. Zeina’s sharp, rich, and heartbreaking language alters the way the reader sees the world, exposing the places in ordinary life where meaning lives.

“There is no set language for poetry,” writes Lebanese poet Ounsi el-Hajj in the collection’s introduction. In O, the author’s third collection, the poems move between English and Arabic. The effect, as the publisher says, is “formally electrifying–from lyrics and triptychs to ghazals and Zeina Hashem Beck’s own duets…English and Arabic echo and contradict each other….O explores the limits of language, notions of home and exile, and stirring visions of motherhood, memory, and faith.”

A Continually Unfolding Journey

The opening poem, “Ghazal: With Prayer,” recalls the civil war: “In the museum of memory/the missing accumulate,” Zeina writes, and roots us in personal and political history. For this American-born reader, this grounding sets the emotional stakes of the collection—and when the speaker tells us she’s “through with prayer,” we understand that the past, far from being in the past, remains a continually unfolding journey.

The collection has an elegiac mood, and throughout there are odes, to leaving, to hunger, and to fear—fear of laughter, beauty, the body. There’s also an ode to lipstick:

The lipstick you bought is called Plum.
It smells good. You’re learning to love bolder
colors on your lips: red, mauve, fuchsia. You want
to go out one day & buy green lipstick.

O by Zeina Hashem Beck

“Ode to Lipstick,” like many poems in this collection, circles back from the quotidian to mine deeper aches—here, of motherhood and children growing up, and how easily the quotidian, which holds time and memory, can slip away.

There are also poems of marriage, and partners aging together, as in “UNBREAKABLE” which charts the scare of a beloved’s illness. “I always thought I’d be the one/whose body failed first,” she writes. Here too, memory and the everyday lead to the deeper undercurrents of life and living:

when the doctor named the disease
& told you one can manage it these days—
there are pills, there is time.
I know we are not young young,
know the body is but a shell—

A Third Poem Opens in the Conversation

author zeina hashem beck
Zeina Hashem Beck

Many of the poems in this collection are written in stanzas and lines that alternate between English and Arabic. This approach began in what Zeina Hashem Beck has called “duets,” translations published alongside one another. In O, the exploration of this intersection of language continues. “All languages confuse me,” Zeina has written. Positioning her first language alongside a later one brings another facet of experience to the poem. I’m not a speaker of Arabic, but in the audiobook especially, the effect is especially moving. Read aloud, the lines in different languages sync and elaborate upon each other in beautiful ways—as Zeina has described: “a third poem should open up in the conversation between the two languages.”

~Lauren Alwan

More Resources

Learn more about Zeina Hashem Beck, and O, by visiting her website here.

Read more of Lauren Alwan’s insightful articles by visiting her author page here.

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