The Poetry Project

On Chaos, Crossing by Olivia Elias, trans. Kareem James Abu Zeid

Mirene Arsanios

Words commonly used to mark moments of historical dispossession—catastrophe, disaster, calamity, Nakba—are rarely equal to the violence of the event they intend to represent. The new, obliterating conditions they introduce organize experience into a before and after: at some point there was something, and then, not. That rift, and all that exceeds it, is foundational to the writing of Olivia Elias, who, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, was expelled from her homeland when Israel was declared a state in 1948. Elias was four when her family were forcibly removed from Haifa, fleeing first to Beirut, then Montreal, finally settling in Paris where she still resides.

In his introduction to Chaos, Crossing, a collection of poems appearing for the first time in both the original French and its skillful English translation by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish situates Elias’s diasporic sensibility, the layered texture of a language cultivated over years of exile and only made public at the age of 71, when Elias published her first poetry collection, L’Espoir pour seule protection (Éditions Alfabarre, 2015). According to industry standards, Elias is a “late” bloomer, if “late” implies a normative understanding of time. Yet Elias’ poetics refuse chronology, and by extension, the linear arc of national and settler colonial narratives. In clipped, elegant lines, she explores scenes of delays and reversals, a “journey that never ceases to begin,” a “slow birth,” a loss repeatedly revisited on the page through a kind of ungovernable duration. On her way back to childhood, she sheds stones “weighing down her pocket / one by one / relieved of the fear of losing / even myself / now is the time / ; for lightening.” For Elias, memory isn’t remembrance—a way of designating the past as past—but an act of presence (the same way a psychic symptom doesn’t come after a traumatic event, but becomes the event itself). These repeated returns to physical sites of childhood are reminders of the violated status of Palestinians on their land. “How to solve the equation of maturing in a country / of the absentees and the present absentees,” Elias asks with terms used in Israeli law to designate Palestinians who left and are denied the possibility of return, and Palestinians who remained but are forbidden from returning to their villages.

I never tire of reading of a lost land, jasmine-scented gardens, “pomegranates the figs/ the greengages” because the material loss these images represent trump their metaphorical qualities. As I write this, Israel has launched an obliterating military operation on the Gaza strip, aiming (by the occupying power’s own admission) to wipe Gaza out of existence, to turn the repeatedly bombed enclave and its battered infrastructure resulting from a 17-year blockade, back to rubble. Elias’ digressions (returns, delays, reversals) become temporal sites for bearing witness to the blur between past and present wounds. To revisit a traumatic memory stages a demand for justice, a working not only through but against the conditions that led to the Nakba in the first place.

The act of naming (as her second collection, Ton nom Palestine indicates), or its absence, haunts Elias’ work. In solidarity with and in response to racial capitalism, her poem “I Say Your Name” joins the chorus in speaking George Floyd’s name (in a review of Elias’s book, a writer criticizes her understanding of issues that do not directly pertain to her identity position, as if social justice wasn’t premised on acts of international solidarity). Hiroshima took ten years to be named, she says in her poem “In the Kingdom of Bosch and Orwell”; “How long must those in Gaza wait for the devastation to be named?” she asks. By conjuring the dead, naming reasserts their existence among the living and counters their erasure from memory. But to name can also be an act of institutional violence, inscriptions establishing national and historical records from a colonizing standpoint. In her poem “War,” Elias lists the names of decades of Israeli military operations Cast Lead, Grapes of Wrath, Pillar of Defense—names that will, in further accounts, have to include the latest addition, Sword of Irons, declared on Oct. 7, 2023. In an act of performative enunciation, Elias’s writing shapes itself just before experience is solidified into history.

But Elias also desires a language as clear and immediate as a color, the Klein Blue, and as loud as refusal (“I’m looking for something / that screams / Refusal / as loudly / as James B. / I am not your Negro”). Embodiment (the sun hitting someone’s face, the expanse of the sea) can’t be divorced from politics in her work: with sensory experience comes the aspiration for militancy. The Mediterranean is both a sea and a grave tragically replete with migrant bodies (“and still more seas & pains / and everywhere little bits & pieces / of humans”) within these necropolitical landscapes, there are moments of suspension; Elias gets distracted by a scent or the lushness of a landscape (“alas for me in seeking I’m too inclined / to / lose myself distracted by the color / of the cyclamen”). The self that keeps returning seeks pleasure, even rest, amidst the dread. “In short,” she writes, “there is no method” as long as there is a body.

From exile, Elias draws cartographies that proceed from both details of the land to established designations of space—Palestine, Aleppo, Damascus, Gaza, Minneapolis as well as shores, pine and olive trees that resist being subsumed under the logic of national territory. Her language mirrors the same duality. The sound of the imagery is recognizable in references (Aragon, Rimbaud) she explicitly invokes. And there is the way she cuts through the poetic with a live presence; a direct interrogation of the page where the poet appears to vocalize doubt, or engage dialogically; she tells us things from the now of the language she desires—a direct form of address or interrogation that undermines more formalized linguistic registers. “Have I forgotten any” she asks, at the end of “War,” then later ends “Light” with an ellipsis, “Draw up the list of / everything / that can kill / & doesn’t last…” Elias’s language moves between the desire for naming and the unbearable blur that precedes it, both asserting and interrogating acts of inscriptions.

Albeit under very different circumstances, I share with Elias the writing in an adopted tongue. I recognize her accented French, her restraint, her plight. I am familiar with the cities of her itinerancies—being from one of them and having lived in another—the writing from a hometown in which you no longer live, a grappling for a shared set of references and lived experiences that don’t recede into irrelevance (when you leave, you no longer know what it’s like), I also recognize her belonging to an educated, diasporic class, a cosmopolitanism gathering artists around topics of resistance and art, a critique of oppression and orientalism radiating from Western urban centers. Although Elias has just entered her poetic career, she joins an already established set of Arab voices writing about a homeland in an adopted language (Etel Adnan, Assia Djebar, Abdelkhabir Khatibi, Elias Sanbar, etc.). And although to speak between here and there is its own fixed position, what I like in Elias’s work is that it finds the present, that her militancy isn’t opposed to the indeterminacy of dreamscapes, and that her elsewhere is grounded in political urgency. When she writes “je est une autre…& always this child who believed so strongly in the future” in the closing poem of her collection, “The Grace of Rain,” she distances herself from the solidity of a national self. The future she so strongly desired now converges with a present where Palestinians are currently being punished to an atrocious, unspeakable degree for attempting to break through, albeit very violently, the containment of their own imprisonment. All the excess of words such as “catastrophe,” “disaster,” “calamity,” “Nakba'' is channeled in this historical juncture which must be recorded in poems, declarations, and actions of unwavering solidarity for Palestinian people, their right to liberation and self-determination. Elias’ question “How long must those in Gaza wait for the devastation to be named?“ must be imperatively answered with “mass slaughter” “ethnic cleaning,” “genocide,” leaving no room for rhetorical ambivalence or the vile distortion of Western, settler-colonial narratives. And if this review has now devolved into a statement, it is only because form, as Elias teaches us, must rethink itself to meet the present.

#274 – Fall 2023