Omar Sakr establishes his concern with identity in the preface of his debut collection, These Wild Houses: ‘a queer Muslim Arab Australian from Western Sydney, from a broke and broken family.’ This statement shows the interplay of sexuality, religion, ethnicity, regional geography, socio-economic status and family structure that will underpin the collection as a whole. With so personal a declaration it is hard to avoid identifying Sakr as the narrative protagonist of the poems that follow and to infer a confessional tendency from them. However, the first poem, ‘Door Open,’ cautions that on his ‘polished tongue, / there flies and fiction breed / into something resembling the truth.’ Here, truth is never fully literal and while the confessional tone plays with wistful guilt, the poet does not seek expiation.
‘Houses’ are an uber-metaphor in this work and, as Judith Beveridge points out on her introduction, the house of the self is the ‘primary house’ and its physical walls are the skin. Sakr often uses the skin and tongue and other visceral and bodily imagery to communicate aspects of identity, difference or exclusion. However, Sakr’s poems do not focus exclusively on personal introspection—to the contrary, the ‘houses’ are places where multiple selves gather. Religion, family and locale dominate the first section. There are polar co-ordinates in all three─group identification is set against personal identity, and belonging against alienation and the desire to break free. Although poems like ‘Dear Mama’ show the impact of religious faith and its codified strictures on personal identity (‘I’m out now / and the mosque is empty’), the poet willingly retains the cultural imprint of his faith. In ‘Here Is The Poem You Demand,’ Sakr draws upon the images of Islam that are expected or demanded of him, that then become inescapable: ‘Here is the mosque you despise … Never forget it in the foreground / no matter its size.’ In the same poem he appears to invoke the muezzin in the lines, ‘Here is my name, over & over & over & over. / Repeat until you get it right, until it calls.’ While there is occasional anger and harshness, there are also moments of tenderness and affection, and a sense of growth beyond assumed limits.
As always, family is complicated, resulting in a similar tension between affection and alienation. ‘Landing’ depicts how the poet’s grandparents emigrate but ‘remain / darkened by the old son,’ causing the poet to declare ‘I cannot find a purchase on your landing’—the double meaning here suggesting the poet is distanced both from the previous generation’s experience of coming to land and from the threshold of their domestic space. Does this foreshadow a conflicted identity or a desire to live in his own present, or both? Closer to home, in ‘Dear Mama’ his mother berates him with ‘the religion of [her] fists,’ perhaps because she ‘saw my treacherous father in the closet of my skin,’ yet simultaneously seeks to inculcate ‘piousness.’ In any event she leaves him with a precious legacy in ‘teaching me that holiness is no more / than moments lent with loved ones with a bonded / blood or not.’
The burial of an infant relative on a winter’s day is handled evocatively as the poet remembers his imagined protection of the young girl against the terrors of the afterworld. He ends this poem, ‘After,’ by projecting himself into the role of the infant, perhaps as a motif of alienation and a sometime sense of lostness:
I imagine this so often in the years
that follow, I forget
who are the winged
there to question, who is being held
as gently as a newborn, who owns
the grave I rest in & the name
on its tombstone.
This recollection is echoed later in the collection in ‘Harmony of Dirt,’ when the poet views in the morgue a cousin born premature and thinks ‘how economic the slip between life and death, / the footpath between worship and loss / made manifest’ as the baby is interred in the grave of a grandfather. He remembers how other family members speculate whether ‘the old man’s spirit would protect him / or else the boy’s innocence would cleanse sins of his ancestor, I forget which.’
The poem ‘Not So Wild’ injects a lyricism into the memory of a childhood friendship that ‘marched down a rock-strewn road / that muttered with each step … to the lodestone creek – brown, barely burbling, / but full of tadpoles and tiny frogs to snatch at / [where] we echoed the soft throb of the croaking.’ The poet’s friend is also from the troubled home, a year or two older and on the cusp of moving into the world of adolescence. The friend returns, ‘changed / somehow, older & wiser & immeasurably /distant’ after visiting with the older group, so that ‘whole worlds [are] spun between / our almost-touching fingertips.’ There is a profound intimacy in these recollections and it adds a poignancy to the theme of estrangement that is not always evident elsewhere. I am sure the poem ‘The H Word’ is placed intentionally just before this paean of sorts, as a contradistinction with its indulgence of ‘haemorrhaging … hood … hide … humour … hunger … homo …[and therefore?] help’ and the implication of another, then-unexplained sensory world beneath the friendship.
The later sections of the collection see the poet out and about in modern Australia and, sometimes, the wider world. He juxtaposes a family picnic with the English settlement of Australia in ‘Botany Bay’:
Imagining the invasion, I lie upon blades
of grass, staring up at the hijabbed sky
foot printed with clouds and wonder
what Cook would have made of all this.
His religious heritage, history, family and friends accompany him, even in his most intimate moments. In ‘the asphalt folds of Warwick Farm,’ ‘my grandparents were rebuilding Lebanon,’ a shrine to which his immediate family paid regular court. However, these excursions are punctuated by the realisation of his growing attraction to men. In ‘ghosting the ghetto,’ he speaks of ‘an older cousin, the name hushed by others, a man in love with men and in his absence/space I saw my future,’ though the silence and absence that surround this figure signify the poet’s own uncertainty. The self and the family are both sites of rupture: ‘our weekly Hajj halted. Our family became families and rupture became familiar. / In this, metaphor & Middle East are one.’
The collection ends with ‘What The Landlord Owns’, in rented accommodation in Ashfield, a borrowed and shared house made from a series of duplexes and conflicting domesticities, ‘three separate ways / of silence.’ Despite this, the three ‘families’ feel each other across the distance, so much so that ‘you know the cut of his jawline well / enough to shave him in the dark’. Once again, the body is a signifier of intimacy, though it is telling that here it is linked to images of cutting and rupture.
Sakr’s work is direct yet understanding of ambiguity, inward but aware of the world, both heartfelt and intelligent. His mostly open structures and occasional prose poem forms suit the narrative threading the poems together, and this formal fluidity allows him to interleave incidents and recollections with reflection and sensory appreciation. He embraces his life, makes clear that it will be a life illustrated by poetry, yet is conscious of the distance it forces him to travel. In the end, though, ‘A house should, above all, be still’ and we hope that his is.
The Writing House: Paul Scully reviews These Wild Houses
Omar Sakr Cordite Publishing, 2017
ISBN 9780975249277, RRP. $20.00
Photo credit: Julie Scully