In her finely crafted debut collection, Dear Darwish, Morani Kornberg-Weiss offers readers a graceful synthesis of domestic imagery and political life. By challenging the boundaries between public and private spaces, and between public and private types of address, the poems in this deftly rendered first book show us that a morning cup of coffee, a dish, and a darkened room can serve as a point of entry to questions that are global in scope. Presented as a series of letters to the iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Kornberg-Weiss's poems suggest that the traditionally feminine realm of the home remains at the very center of much larger political and ethical conflicts, presenting us with a perfect matching of form and content all the while.
With that in mind, I find it fascinating that Kornberg-Weiss engages with the epistolary tradition, as letters are frequently categorized as part of the private, and hence domestic, realm of discourse. As the book unfolds, Kornberg-Weiss politicizes this seemingly feminine type of writing, revealing the myriad possibilities for activism within the epistolary tradition. Consider "Dear Mahmoud":
Many poems are
to other writers.
The indication: a 'for.'
I wonder about these offerings.
Do they begin with the addressee in mind
or does the gift-receiver appear midway?
Here Kornberg-Weiss invokes the letter as a vehicle for critique—of literary convention, the values it represents, and our inability to engage with voices other than our own. For Kornberg-Weiss, the lack of intention behind so many contemporary authors' choices seems problematic, if not paradoxical. In other words, why write without a clear message to deliver, without a "you" to compliment the lyric "I" that pervades so much of contemporary poetry? I'm intrigued by the larger social implications of such an aesthetic, as Kornberg-Weiss suggests that one must write toward the change one wants to see in the literary landscape, and in the world more generally. Dear Darwish is filled with thought-provoking poems like this one, which prove to be as engaging as they are quick-witted and lyrically astute.
Additionally, Dear Darwish proves innovative in its approach to established genre categories. As the book unfolds, readers will discover public discourses—which range from ethical debates to news stories, legal language, and even cultural monuments—embedded within these seemingly private letters. Kornberg-Weiss skillfully undermines the reader's expectations of the epistolary tradition, at the same time dismantling artificial distinctions between literary genres and the gender politics they represent with subtlety and grace. She writes,
Mahmoud, there are times when I read the news and when I sit and write and tire the coffee until it's too cold to drink.
But never, never Mahmoud
do I prefer makeup over coffee
always is the insistence of obsession
the longing for
in my mouth.
What's interesting about this passage is the way in which Kornberg-Weiss transitions between prose and poetry, at the same time challenging a misogynistic assessment of women's values and priorities ("Men open their day with coffee; / women prefer makeup..."). I'm impressed by the ways that form mirrors content here. In much the same way that the speaker prefers to assume both masculine and feminine qualities, eschewing gender stereotypes, the poem itself exists between literary genres. Through such formal choices, Kornberg-Weiss subtly implies that the distinctions between genres, discourses, and types of language frequently reflect larger structures of power and authority. Indeed, categories of discourse frequently serve as a means to disenfranchise voices that fail to conform to normative ideas of what language should be. Dear Darwish is filled with beautifully executed poems like this one, which convey ambitious political, philosophical, and ethical claims through the most subtle stylistic choices.
What's most compelling about Dear Darwish, though, is the way in which the poet opens up possibilities for dialogue across languages, cultures, and styles of writing. Throughout the book, Kornberg-Weiss suggests that different types of rhetoric, along with different cultures and belief systems, can complement one another if allowed the opportunity to do so. In many ways, this idea is enacted beautifully as the book creates a multilingual space, in addition to existing across genres and registers. In short, Morani Kornberg-Weiss's Dear Darwish is an impressively cosmopolitan and politically aware collection, a quality that is exceedingly rare in first books of poetry. What's more, the book is as carefully crafted as it is ambitious in its subject matter. Morani Kornberg-Weiss is a poet to watch.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of 18 books, including Vow and Petrarchan.
by Morani Kornberg-Weiss
Buffalo: Blazevox Books, 2014
$16.00, paperback; ISBN: 978-1-60964-150-4