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Khaled Mattawa Releases New Book "Amorisco"

posted on: Mar 4, 2009

Ausable Press of New York has just published Arab American poet’s Khaled Mattawa’s new volume of poems, Amorisco. Amorisco is a word coined by the poet that combines the Spanish words “amor” (love) and “Morisco.” Moriscos were Iberian Muslims (Moors) who in the 15th to the 17th centuries were given the choice to convert to Catholicism or leave Iberia. Most were expelled by the decree of 1610 from Spain to North Africa after being persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition.

Inspired by that historical juncture and its metaphorical suggestions, Mattawa’s Amorisco presented the poet with numerous formal challenges. “I wanted to write in that pure mode that seems to transcend time and circumstance, and that in many cases acts as a skeleton upon which much of poetry is placed,” says Mattawa.

Some of the poems are short lyrics of twenty lines or shorter, inspired by the distillation and conceptual density of famous international poets such as Antonio Machado, Saadi Youssef, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Amorisco also includes a group of longer and more narrative poems that address family life, exile,
history, politics, and intimate relations.

“In the longer poems that range freely among pressing questions and unresolved episodes I work in a mode that opposes the short lyric and its density,
welding, and knotting as much material (and prose) to the lyric as it could handle,” says Mattawa.

Reviewing Mattawa’s book, MacArthur-award winning poet, Campbell McGrath writes, “Amorisco is a book of shifting sands and apple-scented smoke, a book of surfaces whose solidity erodes or fractures or flowers
unexpectedly, a book of history and secrets and secret histories, a book of supplication and vision which returns the lyric to its ancient roots in song and prayer. It is most of all a book about love and loss, which makes sense, for Khaled Mattawa is, as he tells us, a poet “strangely in love with the world, ripe to be in love.” There is, of course, erotic love–
“we’re naked now like arrows in flight, lustful/ for the lover and the grape stains on her cheeks”—but the complex ambiguities of familial love are his central concern, in poems about parents, children, partnership and separation. Mattawa is also a poet of cultural witness, tracking the self and society in their coercive conversation, attending to both “the sound of my footsteps/and the world’s roar.” In this volume his native North Africa is the world evoked most richly, from the Roman past of Augustine and Marcus Aureleus, to the politically-fraught present day. So it is no surprise that Amorisco is also a book of mint tea and wild artichokes, legendary dulcimer players and desperate immigrants. No surprise, perhaps, but still a delight for mind and ear. I wish more of our poetry had this depth of humanistic engagement. I wish more poets would risk the commitment to compassion as not just an imaginative but a political act that Khaled Mattawa does, when he asks, “What else can I do but love what casts a shadow?”

Amorisco is Mattawa’s third volume of poems; his earlier books are Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable Press) and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press). Mattawa has translated seven volumes of contemporary Arab poets such as Saadi Youssef, Fadhil al-Azzawi, Iman Mersal, Joumana Haddad, Maram al-Massri, and Hatif Janabi. He is also co-editor of two antholgies of Arab American literature, Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction and Post Gibran: An Anthology of New Arab American Writing.

Mattawa is a professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and teaches in U. of M.’s Creative Writing Program.