Invitation to a Secret Feast
by Joumana Haddad
Tupelo Press 2008
Reviewed by PJ Gallo
With hefty pinches of pleasure and sin, Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad begs her audience to notice the abundant sexuality in her newly translated selection, Invitation to a Secret Feast. The selection is thickly overlaid with the standard ingredients of poeticized sex, and even those poems which purposefully skirt the subject cannot avoid a bodily subtext that arrives more or less at the foyer of an idealized but forbidden sexuality. In his introduction, editor and partial-translator Khaled Mattawa touts that Haddad’s “ferocious and almost tactile femaleness […] is grounded within a contradictory genderless desire to create space for creativity, original thought, and experiences,” and while this is a wonderful and valid criterion for any selection, its premise is inaccurate. Haddad is ferocious (and often outright violent), but the paradoxical “genderless desire” that Mattawa cites does not exist.
Haddad has a tendency to treat the body as a kind of weathervane, receiving interpretable information but necessarily leaving interpretation a bit to the wayside, and her dualistic approach is most often made possible through thinly-veiled encounters and painterly description. Her speakers are women who have a sexual existence but keep its details under layers of breathy concealment. Thus, a resulting separation from their men and each other becomes the primary way her speakers approach their own sexuality limiting Haddad’s poems to the realm of reaction: instead of stemming naturally from a woman’s bold, parthenogenic lust, her poems react to a perceived lustlessness in others and a desire to undermine that lustlessness. She addresses this directly in one stanza of one of the best and longest poems in the selection, “Your Homeland is this Burning Night”:
Lust sates your parched body
like a desert drunk with the thirst of its sands.
Your narrow land is wider than a lover’s chest.
One drop of your nakedness
and the moon falls apart.
Haddad makes her motives evident by the potential for destruction she grants “nakedness,” and her work cannot be read without its quiet but strong feminist implications. She imposes lust on the experiences of her speakers, whose ownership of sex and their bodies is meant as a literal manifestation of the power their sexualized bodies hold. In this fundamental way, her speakers parallel the women of Lysistrata, but where Lysistrata and her counterparts use their power toward a distinct political goal, Haddad’s speakers remain motiveless, merely acknowledging their power before fading back into passivity. Take the first two stanzas of “Slow Down,” a poem that characteristically endows men with both sexual motivation and action:
Slow down, impetuous man.
slowly mend your nets.
coming and going are the same.
The water’s journey starts from below, rising.
And my body—
trust me—when the time comes
will not escape your deluge.
Of course, Haddad is not always so passive. The poems in the first section of the book, a selection from Haddad’s 2004 collection Lilith’s Return, are its most “ferocious,” and its most interesting. In them, Haddad reaches beyond her cursorily political sex poems for something that escapes social reaction and moves closer toward poetic subtlety. Each of the poems imagines the mythological Lilith in all her creative and destructive fury, and while speakers sprinkled throughout the book are awarded similar powers, none are as lushly celebratory and fully imagined as those in this first section. Take the disparity between her two approaches to nakedness. Where nakedness destroys the moon in “Your Homeland is a Burning Night,” in “Lilith’s Return,” the title poem of the first section, Haddad writes, “I am the naked / who gives nudity the flower of its meaning,” conferring appropriate creativity to the female body and throwing in some wonder and mystery to boot.
In some ways her earlier speakers’ acquiescence can be seen as a perfect antithesis to both active sexual pursuit and active sexual aversion in the same way indifference can oppose both love and hate. But it is difficult to escape that the underlying obligation her speakers feel voids the positions of authority they are afforded as the poem’s speakers and as the apparent keepers of sex. Many of Haddad’s women seem to have accepted the idea that they will be romantically and sexually pursued, and they believe their universal and unanimous approval is a way to pretend participation. This implicit and embraced helplessness is presented most perceptibly in “I Am a Woman,” where Haddad attempts to undermine an acknowledged power structure with this strange reversal:
I am a woman.
They think they own my freedom.
So, I let them,
and I happen.
The lines stand together as one of the more provocative and fascinating moments in the book, but it often difficult to ignore that she sounds a bit like a child on a playground who, when tagged, proclaims they wanted to be “it” anyway.