HAYAN CHARARA’S These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit
The Definition of Goodness in Hayan Charara's These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit: A Review by Ayaat Ismail
With These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit, a forthcoming collection of poetry from Milkweed Editions in 2022, Hayan Charara compels readers to question what it means to be moral, what it means to be human in the natural world, and how best to approach conflict. Another primary question that arises in the book is, what does it mean to be good? What is a good man, a good father, a good citizen, a good husband, a good Muslim, a good poet? As the poems accrue, the cold hard reality of the experience of being othered as an Arab-American comes into sharp focus. Perhaps it goes without saying that some readers may find some of the book's contents to be distressing; in my opinion, though, such an approach is desperately needed.
Charara is a poet, children's book author, essayist, and editor. His other poetry books include Something Sinister, The Sadness of Others, and The Alchemist's Diary. His children's book, The Three Lucys, received the New Voices Award Honor, and he edited Inclined to Speak, an anthology of contemporary Arab American poetry. He is also a series editor of the Etel Adan Poetry Prize, together with Fady Joudah. His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, the Lucille Joy Prize in Poetry from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, the John Clare Prize, and the Arab American Book Award. He resides in Houston.
The poet does not shy away from using his words to create a self-portrait in many of his poems. In "Self-Portrait in Retrospect," "Self-Portrait as Trees," and "Self-Portrait After a Funeral," for example, he exploits these self-reflective moments to reveal his inner dilemmas as he faces problematical situations. Readers are given a look inside the speaker's mind as he slips between identities. In this way, Charara creates a space that offers readers an opportunity to ponder their own moments of self-awareness—the kind of moments that make us all human.
In his first piece, "Self-Portrait in Retrospect," he writes, "Young, I thought anger and shame would in their own time go away." Many readers will relate to the idea of being unhappy with themselves as a child, caught inside an inability to express themselves, but Charara's focus on the experience of dual identities is one that grabbed and maintained my attention. In poems like this one, Charara pushes back on stereotypes, racially-based judgements, the politics of war, and so much more. In so doing, he confronts not only the inner demons of someone struggling with a hybridity of consciousness, but also the obscenity and utter chaos of those around him—his family, his friends, his neighbors, and strangers.
But, here's the thing: this collection delves so much deeper and contains so many wonderful layers of meaning and themes that I couldn't just read it once and feel satisfied. I found myself rereading many of these pieces over and over again, hoping to discover something new that I missed the first time. Many of the poems are narrative, an aspect that ensures a smooth read. I couldn't wait to make connections between poems as I flipped the pages to read the next piece. Charara’s explorations of nature, for example, are some of the most endearing and appealing poems in the book. The poet's love, respect, and connection to the natural world are abundantly apparent in These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit.
As the title of the book suggests, Charara addresses philosophers and mythology in his writing by utilizing vibrant imagery of trees such as oak and pine. He employs leaves, flowers, and fruits to shed light on the impending death of humans through the withering of leaves. I was extremely captivated by "Bees, Honeycomb, and Honey" and how the poem appears at first to discuss the concept of life, but then slowly reminds us that the flame is slowly burning and reaching the end of the wick. There's something depressingly beautiful about the bee's journey through this captivating and poetically profound poem: "honey, and honeycombs, / through disaster after / disaster; bees building, / and scouting, and dancing; / bees mating, protecting, / and attacking; the bees / are now disappearing, / and dying."
I suspect that for Charara, These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit is a way of having a conversation about the self in the context of the strangeness in which we all find ourselves. He thrusts himself onto the page, exposing his interiority in a much-needed way—especially for readers who may not know or comprehend what it's like to reside in a liminal space. In this book, grief, loss, suffering, illness, war, and death all lead to consolation, acceptance, and understanding. By the end, we begin to understand what it means (in Charara's thinking) to be a good man, a good father, a good citizen, a good husband, a good Muslim, and a good poet. Maybe we also come away with a definition of goodness as it pertains to our own lives.