TEXT review

Re-making memories: the poetry of identity

review by Simon-Peter Telford


Omar Sakr
The Lost Arabs
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia QLD 2019
ISBN: 9780702260360
Pb 96pp AUD24.95

Paul Hetherington
Palace of Memory
Recent Work Press, Canberra 2019
ISBN: 9780648404255
Pb 71pp AUD12.95


How are our identities, our sense of self, constructed? Is it the projection of others that paints who we are, or is it a construction of our own? Is it the labels we assign ourselves, or impose on others? Does it all boil down to memories? Poets Omar Sakr and Paul Hetherington attempt to explore their own memories, thoughts, labels, and identities in their latest individual releases.

Sakr reaches deep into his ancestry, into the aches of old bones to tease memories of ancestors, giving himself perspective on today’s Australia. His poetry, from the very beginning, lives up to the title The Lost Arabs as he reflects his own circumstances onto many of those within the Arab community:

Once, my ancestors would have been united – in name if nothing else – united by the conqueror’s blade as Ottoman. Not Lebanese, not Turkish. I cannot imagine the ease of being only one thing. I am sure this too is a fantasy. In Beirut, a memorial is taking over a house where every bullet hole has been given a name, a shrine to the violence that (r)ejected my family... (5)

Sakr’s life experiences relating to his bisexuality breathes strenuous breaths in particular poems, revelling in pure eroticism of the moments of intimacy. The reader feels the conflicting pressures of culture and identity in his words, the clash of these pressures is carried on exquisite imagery:

The wild silence after, mouths heavy with musk, is complete & even the birds are mute with love in their nests. There is no song except our huffed breaths, the shuffle of grass bending beneath us, tickling the skin, the whole world an animal gone quiet. I asked my aunty about the supernatural hush I felt & she said the animals stand still in holy awe, they know the Day of Judgement will fall on a Friday. (11)

The Lost Arabs presents some of the most important and representative Australian poetry right now. It reflects the Australian experience that so many live through each day. The complexity of cultural identity, displacement, sexuality, and masculinity is all played out over the backdrop of a country that is in flux of shifting ideologies and national identity itself. Omar Sakr’s poetry bounces from prose stylings, straight forward confessions and retellings of memories, to extreme imagery, philosophical musings of religion, life and death:

When I am bleeding out sure
As a body cratered by a blast
I often think of God as explosive
& that having faith tears holes
In your chest to make room
For itself. It will kill
Whatever it finds there, even
Kindness. Faith is an old bear
In the chamber of your heart. It is
Best left sleeping, a warm pile of
Itself, a furry back to rest on
In winter. Awake, it is hungry
& needs something to die
That it might live. (80)

Paul Hetherington’s Palace of Memory is a surrealist poetic journey, bring flavours of The Divine Comedy and Gormenghast to the mind as the reader explores Hetherington’s dream-memories as he does. Peppered with extracts, from thematically similar works by other authors and poets, Palace of Memory is an artistic critique of identity development through family and the mysticism of memory. As with memory, Hetherington’s work fuses and melds what may be truth and what is imaginary:

People are burning the past. Documents fly and fall, so that I begin to read the lawn. Accounts and memos declare who’s obliged – but the grass and fire don’t know this. We tread on passages as the fire flares; words fall as ash. We read ourselves in the marks – misconstrued, wanting a slave. Why don’t we destroy what we burn? (8)

Hetherington’s journey takes the reader through differing geographies, all tinged with a sense of the gothic. Life and death become less static states through the pages, though consistently appearing through the pages. Visits from those long dead, time distortion, these devices add to the surrealist elements of Palace of Memory and offer a different platform on which to view the experience of living:

He walked across the yard, clanging the gate. The old moon weighed like a boulder. As much as he tried, he couldn’t catch her; he was unable to decipher her words. He saw himself talking to her, pointing the way, arm in arm, as the brown and roiling river danced with ideas of the future. He saw her climb away on a thin beam of light. (31)

Palace of Memory is held with an infrastructure of cultural buildings, practices and imagery; churches, cricket, banquet halls, iron-wrought gates. These constructs hold the memories of individuals, of cultures and societies, myths and ideas of what is, but often not what actually was. The reader is guided along this gallery of painted mirrors, as Hetherington’s poetry is ambiguous enough to allow them to see their own experience within these snap shots of his recollections:

I was image and wild idea, barely human. I pushed at my stomach, feeling where they’d opened and stitched my skin. The ache was morality. A woman in water was a slivered glimpse, stopping time. Generations back, my mother’s father’s mother. He was failing to revive her again. (61)

The Lost Arabs reads as an explosion of the self, of Sakr’s angst, questions, doubts and fears. It is an intimate and yet expansive collection of poetry that is an exhale of a man’s construction of his identity. Palace of Memory is a deliberate, explorative and philosophical collection of work that queries how our memories build an identity, and how reliable they are in reality; if reality is reliable, that is. Both collections are stepped in cultural vessels, vastly different, and yet similar, as they both tell of Australian identities. Identities that are complex, changing, growing and being explored through works such as these.



Simon-Peter Telford is a writer, poet and playwright. He is an editor of reviews for TEXT and a recent Honours graduate in Creative Writing from the University of South Australia. For more works visit: www.simonpetertelford.wordpress.com


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford