Review: ‘To the Middle of Love’

There is much to hear, feel, and reflect on in the pulsating verse of Omar Sabbagh’s new poetry collection, To the Middle of Love. As the book’s title suggests, these poems deal with love — in its many different forms. The three main forms of love that pervade Sabbagh’s work are Philautia (self-love), Storge (family love), as well as a nascent form of Pragma (convenient life-partner love). Poems with different themes of love unfold, each one being a nesting box for the other, until all aspects of love are unveiled in an exquisitely lapidary use of language. 

To the Middle of Love is a book of feeling as well as form, garnished with different motifs that lie at the bottom of the poet’s different notions of love. Sabbagh’s well-rounded verse is a fruitful conjunction of both his cultural backgrounds, yielding colourful motifs, deep metaphors, and clever puns that combine his heritage and education, the inherited and the acquired. What distinguishes this poetry collection, however, is the appearance of a somewhat ripened sentimentality, along with a dissolution of the solid sense of alienation that pervaded his previous works — hence the delving into feeling, into love — perhaps ‘to the middle of love’ to be precise.

To the Middle of Love_TN

The collection is dominated by a father figure — Seamus Heaney. The book’s title comes from a poem which Sabbagh dedicates to Heaney’s memory, and there is an indirect (and perhaps unintentional) reference to Seamus Heaney as Sabbagh’s paternal figure (an expression of Storge), which percolates through the rest of the book. This appears in the poet’s profuse use of the word ‘digging,’ which is also (coincidentally?) the name of a poem by Heaney. These uses occur particularly in poems about family. The first is ‘On his 75th Birthday’ (the only villanelle in the book), dedicated to the poet’s father: ‘Old man, young man, tilling the soil, digging—your tools/were your hands, the grub of the ground; father of clay: I am sold’. Perhaps the allusions to Heaney’s poem are used here to make a link between the two ‘father’ figures in the poet’s life: the biological father and the authorial father. Another use of the word ‘digging’ shows up in ‘Keeping On Keeping On Going’: ‘…The wedding/ of spirit and matter’s an affair/ Of dogs-bidding, dog’s bedding, digging/ For some final theodicy of care…’. The expression of appreciation of Heaney’s poetry, therefore, is not confined to the title of the book or to the poem bearing the same name. Rather, references to the late poet infiltrate the book in two other poems, a further tribute to the ‘bard’ who passed ‘to the middle of everything. To the middle of love’.

Philautia, or the love of one’s self, is embodied through what seems to be the poet’s alter-ego, Onan. The name ‘Onan’, with the word ‘one’ shyly conspicuous, represents ‘one’ or ‘own’, is used to identify the author from the book’s first page, when he refers to his own birth story in ‘That Chap Onan Again.’ Onan is presented as a narcissistic person, for whom the author claims to have constructed a new lingo in ‘As he loses his mind’: ‘I’ve invented a language for Onan./ One whose words/ ripple like fingers/ a-doll the piano-bones/ of one’s conceit’. Even in the poem ‘I Think Myself of Little Worth’, when the speaker is in a state of self-scorn, he takes the opportunity to display his genius: ‘Though the gusto of my brave designs/ Has me hurling stomping titans line by line—/ I think myself of little worth’, taking pride in his poetic ability. Moreover, philautious self-love is evident in ‘Milton’s Satan and I’, especially in the opening, when the speaker claims that: ‘Like him: I won’t, I won’t ever give in./ Time and Space will find me ever the same’.

In ‘When We Meet’, the poet presents the earliest signs of pragma in the book, when the speaker, in an epiphanic moment, claims the following about his lover: ‘And she may be the final curtain to close my house of rooms’. The annunciation of pragma, or long-term love, germinates in the image of a singing bird:

A bird now chirps on my balcony
A pink and brown wood-pigeon, I assume…
I’ve met a different Oryx here, a focus and a zoom
Into the grim passing territory
Of whom I used to be.

The bird, representing flight, can be seen as a symbol for transformation, or flying into a new beginning, a new ‘territory’. The poet uses a simple, classic image of the pigeon to portray an approaching life of order and comfort heralded by the chirping at the window — Sabbagh transforms the pigeon into a symbol of pragma. In the next poem, entitled ‘More Serious Lines (For More Serious Times)’, the speaker continues to view his lover as a long-term life-partner, to whom he gives caregiving authority: ‘…as the bricks, toppling, descend/ From my torn and breaking mansion, I realize/ The place of you may be a salve, slaking there,/ To mend, sew, and suture the wounds of Care’. Again, there is a hint to ‘salve’-ation, comfort, and a hope for reformation (the image of repair) through pragma.

However, the strongest form of love in the poem appears to be storge, or love for one’s family, as the collection contains six poems with family themes: ‘Golden’, ‘Mother of All Things Quiet’, ‘Another Icarus’, ‘Fathers’, ‘The Source, At the Last, Of His Self-Confidence’, and ‘On His 75th Birthday.’ In ‘Golden’, the poet thanks his parents for their ‘wordy treasures’, all their ‘deeds’, and ‘the bounty of [their] shameless love.’ The start of the poem contains heartfelt puns: ‘And shocked from the mouths of your children/ Hale thanks for the hearthside you forged, make/ Again and again…’. With the words ‘hale’ and ‘hearthside’, the poet touches upon the reflections of the words ‘hail’ and ‘heart(side).’ Sabbagh then adds the following: ‘No wake/ Will ever sway against the trays you made—yourselves/ For us—no lime or lemon will ever mar our love’. The first pun is in the word ‘mar’ — perhaps polysemically referring to the Arabic meaning of the word, which is ‘to make bitter’. The word ‘mar’ appears several times in the poem, but it also appears in its dual English-Arabic usage in his poem ‘Jung and the Lesser Mortals’ when the poet claims that he is ‘no saint. Marred or/ unmarred’, where ‘mar’ also means ‘saint’ in Arabic. 

One poem with a particularly strong sense of storge is ‘Mother of All Things Quiet’, which the poet composed for his mother, where the repetition of the strong-feeling word ‘miss’ expresses strong emotion: ‘I miss the cuddle of your wand./ I miss the reigning-fact of being more than I am./ I miss the wise patterning of your hands’. The power of storge in these poems is elevated to an almost divine perception, with a worship-like reverence to this type of love expressed through coinage, puns, and imagery.

Dense with wordplay, imagery, hidden puns, and allusions from the very first page, To the Middle of Love is the product of a literary innovator. It is a confessional piece, a roving through different experiences of love constructed from the hinterland of the poet’s mind. In fact the book is emphatically confessional, reinforced not only by the poet’s biographical coda, but by the Augustinian trilogy sonnets, ‘Sonnets After Augustine’s Confessions.’ Including these poems on St. Augustine’s confessions (in addition to the pigeon images scattered throughout the book, and the pun on the word ‘mar’) along with the different themes of love dispersed throughout the book’s poems, seems to lend a Christian thematization to the collection, wrapping the book within the theme of Agape, the Greco-Christian notion referring to the highest form of love. Sabbagh’s polysemous, skilful weaving of the sentimental into the semantic creates a rich, highly expressive poetic language reaching out to the different aspects of love and life.

Roula-Maria Dib

Omar Sabbagh is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who is currently a professor of English at the American University of Dubai. To the Middle of Love can be purchased from Cinnamon Press, RRP £8.99.

Roula-Maria Dib, a professor at The American University in Dubai, is currently finishing her PhD in Modernist Literature and Psychoanalysis from the University of Leeds. She has previously published poems, essays, and articles in magazines and journals such as Renaissance HubThe Journal of Wyndham Lewis StudiesAgendaTwo Thirds North, and The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS).

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