KR Reviews

Seeking Pain, Avoiding Pleasure: On Ruth Awad’s Set to Music a Wildfire

Evansville, IN: SIR Press, 2017. 67 pages. $14.95.

Set to Music a Wildfire, Ruth Awad’s stunning debut collection, reads as anything but the typical post-war book. At points tender, at points terror-inducing, the collection spans not only a quarter-century of armed conflict and its ensuing fallout, but multiple countries and regions and, as with many refugee and displacement narratives, sets its thematic orbit around epistemologies of desire—the unshakeable problems of insatiable appetites, unslakeable thirsts. “If someone gives you water, drink. And if they hand you a glass of blood, / tell yourself it’s water,” Awad writes in the collection’s opening poem, “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion.”

The collection’s axis of desire isn’t what sets it apart from similarly-themed collections, but rather the imaginative leaps the author employs, chiefly to sidestep that not-uncommon pitfall of post-war poetry: aestheticized violence. It is through the speakers’ imaginings—blood as water, “power lines like music staffs,” “Smoke . . . an anvil, a locust husk, the black boot / stomping”—that creates the multi-valenced psychologies through which horrific violence can be rendered both ethically and affectingly.

Set against the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War, the collection’s primary speaker (simply denoted as “Father”), navigates the “slug-stung palm trees” and “parched riverbeds” of his homeland to ultimately immigrate to Chicago, marry, divorce, and raise three daughters as a single parent. In “Inheritance,” the cornerstone of the collection’s first section, which is entirely placed in Lebanon, Awad writes:

My father ran from blockade to building, making war games
with his shadow, flattening his back against the brick
and whipping his glance both ways before slinking on.

He slung the water jug on his shoulder like a missile launcher,
knelt to steady his aim. The sun in the palm of mountains,
in his sights, he imagined its thousand glittering pieces.

What’s most arresting about these lines isn’t the crafted sound-work or figurative language, but the interplay of pleasure and pain, in a broken country no less, to which Awad’s speaker attests. At its thematic heart lies the chilling genesis of a child’s self-defense mechanism—the last refuge, the imagination, that locus of competing and inseparable stimuli. Of course, even children’s games become inflected with rattling visions of cataclysm. But the ethical line Awad toes (with distinction) might have been crossed by a lesser writer, one more invested in the navel-gazing of craft than faithful reproduction; because the “water jug . . . like a missile launcher,” is set at the remove of the father’s imaginings, it strikes the reader as haunting and true; without that remove, it would read as self-serving pyrotechnics.

(The book’s few missteps arise as symptomatic of this problem of undelineated speaker-author agency. In “Battle of the Hotels,” Awad writes, “men . . . who are coins dropped / into the endless well, / who drip the pavement / with what wishes their bodies carried.” While the conceit holds, the aestheticization of violence may, here, cross the aforementioned line precisely because the figure arises from the poet’s imagination, not a speaker’s.)

Yet, as with most ingrained self-defense mechanisms, such patterning cannot easily be unlearned, and it comes to color even the tame (by contrast) environments of American domesticity. The book’s second and third sections “House Made of Breath” and “What the Living Know,” respectively, feather into considerably more open forms, presumably to reflect the new-found “freedoms” (to use the term loosely) afforded within American borders. But even in a new homeland, the self-defense mechanisms subsist, as do the hungers of the father’s war-torn past. In the voice of her father, Awad writes in “Lebanese Famine in America”:

I push a mop to pay rent,
steal mustard packets
     to dress bread slices
and tell myself it’s enough
it’s enough it’s enough

Relocation doesn’t equal refuge, and the once-almost-liberating machinations of the imagination are recast as ominous at best, harmful at worst. Even the trio of daughters at play, with their inherited displacement, suffer unknowingly, modeling their father’s homesickness: “In the trailer’s hall, my sister and I sailed in laundry baskets // on matted carpet. I had already choked on and spit up / a penny,” Awad writes in “My Father in Virginia, Surrounded by Water.” The well-restrained figurations here speak volumes; the capitalist dream, manifested by Lincoln’s metallic face, is no more sustenance than the argileh the Grandfather smoked back in Tripoli, and even the girls’ games are games of leave-taking and abandonment.

But it is precisely this ability, Awad’s comfort working within liminal fields and figures, that underscores the collection’s virtue. Rather than reiterate Hannah Arendt’s now-ubiquitous phrase (“the banality of evil”), the collection underscores the banality of living with evil, of living through evil, even after evil itself has become unrecognizable, if ever it was: how to weigh suffering alongside suffering? Is quotidian desire any less potent than its absolutist corollary? Life’s minutia doesn’t disappear when the shells first fall, so where does one place pleasure amongst the war-scape?

Of course, Awad has more sense than to try to answer these questions point blank, and instead intimates merely one possible solution, almost as signaled by “A mouth of light / pointing like a compass needle.” It is through a self-aware approach, through bodily presence, that such cognitive dissonances assuage themselves, despite re-emerging as sensory incongruities; aside from the speakers’ ambivalences—that “whipping . . . glace both ways”—and all their attendant metaphors, Awad’s title keys the reader into one of the most poignant formal gestures the book has to offer: an understated, disorienting breed of synesthesia. In “After,” one of the collection’s final poems, the constant transposition of senses approaches anagogical fever pitch. The poem, reproduced below, in full:


What the living know: desire is a small lead
threading the body between this world and dark,
and want rises like a new moon,
presses its hand against the body’s glass—
only thumbprints.

Imagine looking down on earth, seeing marionette strings
that once kept it afloat in the black current.
Think of every moment breath swept through you,
unremarkable. Your heart squeezing a handful of red petals.

Bite a memory between your teeth before it’s gone.
The boy who pulled a ribbon from your hair
and wrapped it tight until his finger purpled.
Or did he? You want it back, you say.
Your life or someone else’s.

Taken in conversation with Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” the poem makes a fascinating case for accepting living-memory’s unreliability, for capital-D-desire not as an appetite, but as an immutable state. This spindle of Negative Capability ultimately provides a profound payoff for readers, a recreated imaginative refuge, vis-à-vis both the collection’s arc and cogs.

As such, if your reading predilections are governed by pure escapism and absorption, by that Reptilian brainstem, that desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure, read elsewhere. There are points in this collection where you will likely set it down, bewildered by horror and grief. If, on the other hand, you want—you desire—to live for a while within exquisitely wrought uncertainty, to reject didacticism in exchange for experience, then read Set to Music a Wildfire, read it slowly, and read it in earnest.

J. P. Grasser
A current Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry, J.P. Grasser is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief for Quarterly West.