Jasmine Donahaye
Self-Portrait as Ruth

Book Reviews

Published by salt
A Guidebook of Darkness

The title poem of Jasmine Donahaye’s collection Self-Portraitas Ruth gives a clue as to how to read these poems. As with Fernando Pessoa, there is a sense that life’s complexities are more easily faced from behind an adopted persona. Here, issues of displacement, nationality, exile and impossible love are dealt with against the backdrop of the biblical story of Ruth, a Moabite woman forced into exile who refused to leave her mother-in-law after the death of her husband, later being rewarded by marriage to her kinsman Boaz. It is the same Ruth that we see toiling ‘amid the alien corn’ in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Yet here, in a wheat field where ‘a quad bike engine shuts off’ and ‘the tractor has not yet been turned on’, a woman undresses: ‘I pull down the straps of my dress and step out of its little silk collapse at my feet’. The poem seems to be set in Wales for ‘the boy on the quad bike tells his dog tyrd’ma’. Yet, in a highly sensual stanza, the protagonist speaks of oiling her thighs and buttocks, as instructed by her mother-in-law in preparation for seduction, adorning herself with the Yemenite jewels brought by the older woman into exile. Yet, unlike the biblical story where Ruth, though a stranger, is rewarded by marriage, ultimately becoming the great-grandmother of King David, here

…the men looking over their shoulders
expressionless, almost hostile,
are waiting for me,
a trespasser,
to leave.

Born in England, Jasmine Donahaye emigrated with her family to California, where she lived for twelve years before settling in mid-Wales and gaining a PhD in Welsh Writing in English from the University of Wales, Swansea. Her Jewish family has its roots in nineteenth-century Palestine and the book resonates with Israeli and Palestinian history, wrestling with conflicting perspectives of exile and home, tribe and religion, love and belonging. Through a variety of voices, and the shifting use of Welsh, Arabic and Hebrew words, Donahaye refuses to adopt a partisan stance, slipping between the claims and sympathies of both sides. In Thirst, an apparently female Palestinian voice cries: ‘Atash, thirst, tzamah: in any language / an open mouth, a plea’ Looking across at an armed Israeli soldier, with his ‘macho promise’, she asserts that ‘What you say about us is untrue’. Tensions start first with thirst, leading to Palestinian resentment and then Israeli disgust. The denial of water becomes a form of emotional rape as the soldier strikes a rock and ‘a thousand streams ejaculate’. For such ‘petty rage’ the poem argues, ‘your right of return / has been revoked, / so why blame us for the exile?’

The hovering sense of catastrophe is further explored in the erotic love poem Palestina. Slipping past a border guard asleep at his post a female persona claims: ‘Here’s where it began… / a thousand years ago’. As she takes off her dress the soldier realizes that:

Her body was a map of
my body; where she had scars, I had scars.
I traced her terrain: the ruined watchtowers
where the gunmen had lain.

The histories and hurts of these contested lands are entwined like those of ill-fated lovers. There is a passionate anger here that refuses to attribute culpability uniquely to one group. Jewish guilt is faced head-on in Stoning, where the poem asserts that even when Abraham was offered Hebron by his new neighbours he ‘insisted nevertheless on paying 400 / Old Israeli Shekels’ while now ‘my people are throwing stones’ at a farmer, already attacked by ‘febrile women’, who silently ‘drops / like an empty sack’. The body, too, becomes a site of guilt and unease, as in Fetishes where an ambivalent desire for anal sex is conflated with the dilemma over whether or not to touch that holiest of holy sites, the Western Wall. In the oedipal poem My father’s circumcision, the moel (the Jewish circumciser) ‘with his ragged nail / tears the foreskin’ then ‘bends his head / to suck the wound’.

Who then, in this complex history of the Middle East, is innocent who culpable, when too many look away and fail to resolve these historic conflicts? Perhaps, as the poem suggests, we all have blood on our hands. Yet there are moments of respite, as in Water, where sweaty and dusty in a shop on Sderot Yerushalayim, the poet stops to buy refreshment and stands for a quiet moment in the cool of the shopseller’s shade: ‘he an Arab and I a Jew, / and water simply water’. In 2006 Jasmine Donahaye’s first collection Misappropriations was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. With this new collection she establishes herself as an assured, challenging and brave voice, unafraid of confronting difficult issues or upsetting those with more sectarian views.

The cover of Yang Lian’s Lee Valley Poems shows a cluster of dark bulrushes, like calligraphic marks, against an early morning mist. Whilst I would not suggest judging a book by its cover, it does say a good deal about Yang Lian’s poetry. One might be forgiven for thinking that the location is some remote spot in his native China. In fact it is a misty morning on Walthamstow Marshes. This elision of place is touched upon in his introductory essay: A Wild Goose Speaks to Me at the beginning of this new collection. Here he states:

There is no international, only different locals … What is ‘local’? Are its contents geographical, psychological, historical, language- based or even linguistics-based? … ‘local’ doesn’t at all signify a specific site, but must point to all sites, as being the ability of the poet to excavate his own self.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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