Set to Music a Wildfire
By Ruth Awad
Southern Indiana Review Press
Reviewed by Amie Whittemore
In Ruth Awad's ambitious and heart-wrenching debut collection, Set to Music a Wildfire, we find many inheritances: some dark, some lovely, some ruined; all of them draped in a light at once loving and harsh, ferried on the backs of bees, sheltered under the wings of gulls.
Awad's poems are both biographical and deeply researched as they navigate the intersection of her family members' lives and the Lebanese Civil War. They are polyphonic, the speaker sometimes an approximation of Awad, sometimes one of her parents, and at other times a plural first-person, inhabiting a pack of sisters or the citizens of Lebanon. Sometimes it is unclear exactly who the speaker is. Through this unstable, migratory perspective shifting, the collection inhabits the impossible questions it raises: how can we understand anything about family, about war, about loss? And more—how can we survive the attempt with our hearts intact?
The collection's narrative arcs spring from the troubled source of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s and its aftermath. In the first section, "Born into War," Awad establishes Lebanon as both character and setting. In poems like "Homegrown," she activates the landscape. This poem depicts a busload of refugees, with "faces like houses with the lights shut off," traveling through Ain el-Remmaneh. The "travelers nod with the gestures of the uneven street" and "sunlight grazes the unpaved road." As the street's ruts and bumps jostle the travelers, they are robbed of subjectivity, reduced to objects; history encompasses but does not start with them, the poem contends. Here and in other poems, natural elements, such as light, wind, darkness, and smoke are all given potent verbs (in "Inheritance," "smoke sagged like old news," and in "Elevator," "the dark holding you there," erases Awad's father), highlighting the smallness of human life, the enormity of war—which, in many ways, in its complexity and ruthlessness, is more like a natural phenomenon than a human one.
The poems in this first section struggle with sense making and healing, as demonstrated on the syntactical level with the many hyphenated constructions Awad employs imaginatively and incisively. In "Sabra and Shatila Massacre," for instance, music makes the speaker's feet "brick-heavy," and "as the dead horses stampede," a "woman joins their dust-fused wake." In "Karantina Massacre," there are "mold-laced walls that slouch / and crumble behind the rag-shut windows." Even in these few examples, we see the joining of words as a means toward clarity, toward, if not healing, a hope for healing. By using words we've inherited in new ways, perhaps other reconciliations are possible.
Inheritances of a more personal nature dominate the second section, "House Made of Breath." Here, we find Awad exploring her parents' marriage and its dissolution, the many ways her father's life in Lebanon continues to haunt and complicate his life after immigrating to the United States. These poems are tender as peach skin, ripening to burst. In "Love like Samson's Lion While My Mother Shaves My Father's Head," Awad uses left and right alignment to create a dialogue between her parents: the left-hand stanzas are in the voice of her father, the right-hand stanzas in her mother's voice. This elegant formal construction welcomes her mother into the book's overarching narrative and many poems in this section are told from her perspective. "Flotsam" is one of these, where the mother speaks to an unborn child:
A girl but an ocean,
I called. Little reef.
Little raft. I counted
your fingers and toes
like days at sea.
In this poem, as in others, such as "New Mother" and "August," the small shell of a life is washed in history. In the girl child, the mother sees a chorus of oceans—the girl's oceanic existence as well as the ocean of her father's past, the ocean separating him from it.
In the final section, "What the Living Know," the collection probes the question of how to live in a broken world. Here, the migrations are smaller but no less devastating. In "Town Gossip," the speaker and her sisters, haunted with mother-longing, hunt for her:
Those days we'd ride our bikes down Highway 1
to the hotel where our mother last stayed
and we'd loop the lot for hours, sawing paths between the bumpers
for no reason other than that door was briefly hers.
The daughters' desire for their mother's return is juxtaposed with the mother's grief and limitations, particularly in the poem, "A Mother's Love Has Windows." Here, the mother admits, "I could only fight / to the white flags of my pockets." However, Awad does not make the false analogy that a custody battle is like a civil war. Rather, there is no boundary to war's shadow; it is layered over Awad's parents' divorce, over her and her sisters, over the choices her parents make and have access to, its shade drifting over the highways of Indiana where she grew up.
Though this book craves solace, in the end Awad is not interested in comfort. Life is not comfortable. We live in a world stocked with suffering and love—now what? She attempts one answer in "My Father Is the Sea, the Field, the Stone:" "if it's a choice you want—I've never known / a world that wasn't worth dying for." Another answer seems to lie in one of the book's last poems, "Interview with My Father: Maps," where, after studying a map with her father, Awad writes, "the map between us proof // I don't know this world." Thus, while the book, through its kaleidoscopic use of perspective, suggests empathy is a means to understanding, it also reluctantly accepts the limitations of empathy: we can never fully trace the map of another's life, the map of a war. Futile as our attempts may be, they are not meritless: this liminal space of effort and uncertainty is where we live and love, break and mend, as this collection so marvelously testifies.