Norbert Hirschhorn, Monastery of the Moon, (Dar al-Jadeed, 2012), p. 76, ISBN: 9953-11-04-9

‘…At the Oasis Café someone asks,
where are you from? I reply, I am from disjointed frag-
ments of time. Someone says, Answer the question.

I answer, I am from you. Someone persists, but when
I’m gone? I say: I am from my words.’

‘Qaseeda – A Love Song’ in Monastery of the Moon

Norbert Hirschhorn, MD, is both a distinguished physician and a distinguished poet. His third, most recent collection, Monastery of the Moon was published this past summer (2012) as the only English-language fare of Dar al-Jadeed, a radical Lebanese publishing house.

Having recently read all three of his collections, I noticed a certain shift in poetic approach in this new, third collection. While still temperamentally bold, Hirschhorn is more gnomic and, simply put, ‘difficult’ in this third collection. The reader is asked to answer for his or herself, to do more of the work of reconfiguration. While in no way a bad thing, it is a strange pattern to behold: intuitively one tends to think that with age, maturity, distinction, poets tend to become more aesthetically conservative; not so here. We might say that his first two collections (A Cracked River, 1999, and Mourning in the Presence of a Corpse, 2008) offer more resolution to the nightmare of history and storied experience, while this third one is more modernist in sensibility, healing in an inverse mode, healing by showing the wounds, borne, bare and bloody. And so, what I concentrate on below is the idea of ends and endings, both in the substantive sense and in the formal sense.

One way of describing this new disenchantment I sense in his latest work – given what I read, at times, heuristically as a Judaic sensibility, a dark humor – is to say that the sacred is achieved by the litany of the profane. A via negativa. In ‘A Physician’s Oath’, tellingly thus, we have interpolated the lines from a seeming Hippocratic oath with fragments of stories from political borderlines, such as Mexicans or Palestinians. At the end of the poem, his art or vocation as physician transfigures into that of art itself, his poetic calling. The healing of poetry is attested to, then, in a very un-romantic world. Or, at the end of the prose-poem piece, ‘Lebanon’, dedicated to Rasha al Ameer, Hirschhorn’s publisher and distinguished novelist, he writes: ‘From the soul of her people she makes wine. From their sweat she makes bread and jasmine. So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?’ Art, physician of the passions, heals; but does it ‘matter?’ As throughout this collection, the antinomy is not (ultimately) resolved. The whole is an ‘absent whole.’ The God is not quite Himself.

For the sake of parsimony, I continue with this theme of ends and endings as either ends and endings, or not as ends and endings. Death, of course, both in terms of empirical life and as a concept, is liminal, aporetic. In one sense, it’s all that exists; in another how can we write of death, being in a position, inveterately, not quite dead?

Take the last stanza of this book. Unlike the five stanzas preceding it, which are quatrains, not quite heroic, the last stanza is (erratically) five lines long, and ends with

‘in a million years or sooner
human ruckus will be done
and earth’s air heard but by moon, or
stars, or newer life-forms yet to come.’

This is the close of the book, and it plays with closure, unmakes it just as much as it makes it.

To dip in three more times. Early in the collection the paradox of healing is adverted to in a poem titled, ‘Nubians Contemplate Lake Nasser Behind The High Dam At Aswan.’ These, famously, tall Nubians are designated in the opening line as standing on ‘concrete pylons’. This is both concrete description, perhaps, and metaphor. Indeed in this, a sonnet, the turn comes in the opening of a new sentence at the end of the eighth line, with ‘Only / the water…’ That ‘only’ is both one made in logical space (a shift in discourse) and one as it were topographically; its ambivalent position suggesting the (later) ‘growl of turbines.’ Form and content are seamless in their (reflexive) wit.

Perhaps the most powerful poem in this collection, which has a Darwish epigraph intimating the play between exile and home, illness and health, is ‘Qaseeda – A Love Song.’ The poet opens sitting opposite the ‘departure gate –’ at the end that is – ‘laughing, crying with the same breath.’ Cognate with this, the poem – at times whimsical, at times grave – interweaves intimate lore with a more contextual ‘history.’ And the two lovers are ‘Solitary within our own skins, whispers from prisoner / to prisoner, mirror facing mirror in an alabaster room, / a lit candle between….’ Love as the ultimate healing; and love as the ultimate wound. Exiled from each other (‘solitary’) and in colloquy none the less, if by way of mirror to mirror, prisoner to prisoner; both ec-stasy, then, and lived catastrophe (perhaps.) And the slightly anachronistic syntax is there, in my view, to suggest the tragedy of that which is the sole recompense from tragedy.

Then again – though a fervent Arabist – for all his hale pathos, Hirschhorn alights on the comic within the finality of the tragic, as though a last resort in some dire Diaspora: ‘Lie down straight, my mortician said, / I haven’t got all day’ (‘Death in Venice.’)

‘The Warwick Review’ Vol. VI, No. 4, December 2012 (UK),