To Love the River
Siham Karami,
Aldrich Press/Kelsay Books, 2018
76 pages, $14.00
Review by Nicole Caruso Garcia

To Love the River by Siham Karami

To Love the River (Kelsay Books, 2018)  is Siham Karami’s full-length debut book of poems. In a voice that ranges from meditative to acerbic, Karami guides readers through various channels of life, her varied subject matter spanning nature, love, longing, family, memory, and the everyday. Among Karami’s strengths is her ability to make the speaker’s thoughts and depictions feel as intimate as secrets, while still preserving an air of detached mystery. Each poem is like a pushpin on a map: the Minnesota woods, the Czech Republic, Paris, Egypt, even tiny dots such as a Greyhound station, kitchen table, ordinary backyard, and shopping mall. Karami skillfully connects these places with a common thread, showing that in order to navigate life’s constant transition—growth and decline, love and loss— the self must constantly work to create and maintain its interior terrain. This gives the collection its marvelous gyroscopic quality.

Divided into six sections of approximately equal length, most of the poems in the collection are written in form, including sonnets, villanelles, rondeaus, and a luxurious eight ghazals. A deft practitioner of received forms, Karami also dazzles by including three pieces written in her own variation of a lipogram (in which she uses only the letters in the poems’ titles).

Among the standouts in this collection is the opening poem, “The Word for Dawn”:

Fajr: the j a mere mirage, light on the tongue
just melting into r, no vowel between,
bluing into nothing but a turning of the lips.
I hear it like a distant motorcycle,
its street lost in a cricket’s heartbeat,
and I find it leaking tiny drumbeats from
my son’s earbuds fallen from his ear,
buzzing in his sleep. Newborn wasps,
tinny, revving j’s straight through the r’s
that rise and thread their little lights
where teeth touch lips and feel the furry f’s
a darkness, void, a space of hairy night.
A single hair edge turning from the deep.

Here, and throughout the collection of tight and finely tuned poems, the poet’s lens is more than a keen eye; it’s an ear as sensitive as a stethoscope. With judiciously selected details, this collection reveals that, were Karami not a poet, with her observant sensitivity one could easily imagine her as a perfume chemist, epicure, or safecracker. She skillfully toggles between micro and macro, zooms in on an insect level, then pulls back to let readers see the constellations. In the title poem she states, “You’d love the river, its violence / unimpeachable, its long breath / a single unbroken word…” Such blameless violence is rare, and she forgives the river, accepting that it “may throw us onto a rock / to go on living. We are not heroes. / Our home is a forest of weaker things.” And finally, “If I must drown, let it be like this.”

To Love the River asks readers to hear the pulses of delicate things, to behold and marvel at the smallness (and resilience) of humanity against larger forces in the river of life. To love the river is to inhabit moments joyfully despite the erosion of the self in the tide of time and space, to acknowledge but not surrender to sorrow. In moments of heartache, such as in “Going to Work with a Black Eye,” the speaker notes that for most people “their eyes [are] in screen-save mode, oblivious,” and even she intones, “Give me your files, your make-work, your routine. / Anesthetize me, daily grind machine.” However, other poems such as “Aware” suggest that we take note of what is vulnerable and precious: “A child’s prayers are fragile things / like beetle eyes, mosquito wings.” Most importantly, in these evocative and affective poems, Karami grants readers the space and opportunity to find for themselves what it means to love the river.

Like the core pieces in a museum’s collection, Karami’s ghazals alone make the experience worth the price of admission. Generally speaking, contemporary English-language ghazals are not necessarily rare; however, they are less ubiquitous than say, sonnets — especially ghazals that make use of all the traditional features of the form. For any lover of poetry, and especially readers who appreciate the ghazal tradition, Karami delivers. The most that form devotees could grouse about is that only half of these ghazals include kaafiyaa (rhyme) before each radif (refrain). Negligible in the grand scheme.

The eight ghazals that anchor this collection offer surprising turns of thought and echoes that Karami creates with these radif: sand, bear, sky, dragon, up, roots, rose, leaves. With each successive sher, Karami breathes freshness into the radif, as she does in “The Triumph of Roses.” She meditates upon the qualities of a rose, and at the end of the line the radif of rose blossoms into this sound variation: “They grace the small as if to taunt the great— / such beauty humbles monuments and pharaohs.” In “The Year of the Dragon,” readers come to this arresting stanza that reverberates with the overarching theme of the collection: “The marrow of all living things is soft. / The marrow of the universe is dragon.” (39)

To Love the River depicts life only as water current, but also as shifting sand, as suggested by the opening of Karami’s loveliest ghazal, “In Egypt”:

Our night flight lands in Cairo, Queen of Sand,
whose shutters swallow city lights like quicksand.

Your sister serves us gritty sandwiches
of bread—to meet weight quotas—baked with sand.

We squander hours flagging speeding taxis.
I, the wilting comma. You, the ampersand.

I lose myself in crawlspace at the pyramid—
reduced, like any other grain of sand.

On this journey, the self is grasping as the speaker laments, “Ocean-years have worn me down to driftwood, / light and bald. How much more will they sand?” Throughout the collection, the speaker seeks and relies on an interior place of refuge, and the discomfort of being untethered is illustrated here: “Your relatives no longer want us here. / The weight of family ties, the spreading sand.”

In four of the ghazals Karami uses her first name, Siham, to identify herself as the shakar of the poems. In the other four, she crafts a clever takhallus, and with that alias makes subtle and beautiful use of the root meaning of Siham in Arabic: arrow. In each of the four, she plays on variations of arrows and archers, as seen in the maqta of “In Egypt”: “This arrow in my heart is made of glass. / And when I die, who’ll sort its pearls from sand?” As relentless as the river can be, Karami counsels us that the desert provides little respite, and any relief is fleeting.

There is graciousness even in the pacing of the collection. After the heat and sand of “In Egypt,” the next poem, “Touching Down in Paris,” provides “…Paris rain, / a paradise of grays after the desert / fever-sun burning Cairo’s dust.” And thus, our thirst is quenched.

Karami’s lipograms are another highlight of this collection. Poems thrill with both sound and sense, and here readers will find extra pleasure in the sound. Because Karami uses only the letters of the titles (and only as often as they appear), each line resonates as she playfully strikes the gong of each title: “By the Dawn’s Early Light,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Lawnmowing in America,” in which the speaker declares, “I’m a cowgirl gone geomancer / along Magnolia Lane.” Karami’s dexterity with her lipograms seems to warn, Don’t try this at home, while simultaneously making it seem like such fun that the reader cannot help but want to try.

Despite a few moments of pronoun confusion when readers may question whom the speaker is addressing, these poems are easy to enter and inhabit. Sonorous, rich in detail and in feeling, To Love the River offers up still more upon a second, third, or fourth reading. Karami unifies the collection through her development of motifs of cool water and transience (the river, drowning, mist, glass, ice, silver, windows, tides) juxtaposing those images against dry solidity (iron, marble, Pyramids, desert, sand, arrows). In “Scarfish” the speaker asserts that there is “no balm but salt and numbing cold,” yet Karami challenges that in other poems, revealing delicate beauty, wing by wing. Thrumming throughout this book of poems is also a conservatory of insects, as in “To a Birch Tree,” where “dragonflies jousted / behind medieval pines’ cathedral dark.” Here, as in so many of her poems, Karami lends otherworldliness to the worldly.