Walid Bitar also has a warm and capacious voice. What is more arresting though is his easy mix of colloquial dictation and wild, surreal flights of fancy.
Indeed, it is difficult to pin this poet down. An émigré Lebanese poet, he is as at home in ancient Rome or a picturesque fishing village in the Middle East as he is several thousand feet in the air looking down at the patchwork quilt of the planet he calls him.
Bitar’s surrealism is not of the French stamp, intellectual and a rarefied air; rather it is a surrealism of the earth, and bears a decidedly social and political stamp. Pablo Neruda, Tchicaya U Tam Si, Aimé Césaire, James Tate, and Stephen Dobyns all come to mind, for, like their work, Bitar’s is grounded in the specifics of geography, politics, human intercourse.
Bly’s term “leaping poetry” seems entirely appropriate, for Bitar jumps from metaphor to metaphor like a gazelle on the moon –easily, gracefully, and were it not a contradiction in terms of the classical definition of surrealism to say so, I’d say purposefully.
Organically might be a better word for, whatever happy accidents have arrived on the page, Bitar is clearly in charge. His poems get where they are going quickly, but only because he has carefully pruned and shaped them. Typically, they begin with some real-world contextual image or event and leap from the familiar to the unfamiliar, making startling social and metaphysical connections:
After take-off somebody said the beach
was a clothesline, and the sea
Someone else took a relative’s death
mask out; curious neck
after neck carried it down the aisle
like a bucket.
There was no fire.
And Bitar’s gift for metaphor is astounding:
Our window looked out on a park, so
many bicycle paths; or were they
leashes walking the horizon like a dog?
(“A Survivor Recalls the Pleasures of the Suburbs”)
I gently arranged the pieces of your face
like stones dug into the pathway.
(“An Afternoon at the Park”)
…If the time had ever been ripe, somebody
would have picked and eaten it…
(“On the Vogue for Self-Improvement”)
The last example, too, exhibits another of Bitar’s gifts: his ability to re-animate a cliché, to turn the poem on its ear, as it were.
Rhythmically, sonically, intellectually these poems will delight even the most jaded poetry reader. I highly recommend Maps With Moving Parts to anyone who thinks surrealism is a dead end.
That Bitar can pick up and leave so many places and travel as lightly as he does here is wonderful, for here is a poet whose sense of ennui and dislocation are undercut by humour and with at every turn. Bitar’s interest in the immigrant/émigré problem of alienation has obviously not made him a solipsistic writer. If anything, his ethnicity has been a boon to him, for he has learned the lessons of European and Third World modernism as well as any Canadian, American, or European, and he has brought his new images and a distinct voice to our bored ears and imaginations as well.
Quite simply, Maps With Moving Parts is one of the finest books of poetry I have read this year. That it is Walid Bitar’s first offering is all more remarkable. I shall look forward to more of this poet’s work.