Mohamed Hassan, National Anthem, Dead Bird Books, 2020
the songs I breathe to
make my bones ache
smell like mama’s deep
fried cauliflower after
a long day of diaspora
from ‘John Lennon’
Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem, opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil.
It makes me yearn for a world where divisions and privileges – based on where you come from, the colour of your skin and the language you speak – are no longer active.
The poetry I have loved this year keeps returning to the word listen. For all kinds of reasons. The way poetry is music, the way poems active with sound feed your ear. The way you listen to other voices that are distinctive and are vital chimes on human experience. I need to read these poems. I need to read these poems and listen to how tough it is when people insist on sideswiping those who do not match their own reflection and choices.
Mohamed’s poetry, amongst other things, is written in soil, with all its significance – this living breathing life-essential earth that nourishes us, hearts, minds, bodies, connections. Soil, as a living entity is so contested and so unbearably damaged by greed and ignorance. It defines where we stand and where we have stood. Mohamed writes from the soil he has left behind in Egypt and the soil of his second home Aotearoa, the soil of his travels. The ink soil in his pen carries the earth of dreams, experiences, kinship, wounds, connections. Islamophobia. Revelations. Griefs. Hopes.
Such acutely personal poetry is sometimes filtered through other characters, whether speaking of racism, isolation, separation, love:
I am a poet who writes about my feelings but can’t open up without being in character
without the stage lights and the orange diffusers softening my face for the audience
from ‘Grief is an expensive habit’
Family is important. The poems never lose sight or contact with family. The grandfather looms large in particular dreams and memories. He is in a humiliating childhood scene, but he is also loss:
you can’t discard a loss the way you can
a birthday gift or a broken laptop
it lives with you, sleeps in the spare room
by the laundry and occasionally eats your food
I want to never lose my parents
but find a loss like that in someone
a love that sears into your lungs and lingers
if you draw the short straw and not die first
from ‘Bury me’
The grandmother is equally important. She is there in ‘When they ask you / why you speak so well for an immigrant’, a poem that reacts to the title’s misguided and recurring compliment:
about your grandmother’s laugh
how you never quite knew whether she was story or myth
the upper lip in your conviction
or a song ringing in your bones
drifting through the kitchen window
with the fried shrimp and newspaper voodoo dolls
National anthem layers experience, and that layered experience opens up what immigrants deal with. This cannot be underestimated. This daily erosion. The intricate and extraordinary poem, ‘Life at a distance’, recounts the family’s move to Aotearoa, the mother yearning for home, bearing the racial slurs, crying bathroom tears. Twenty years later, the educated, assimilated and beloved son moves to Istanbul with his ‘kiwiness’.
migration is its own form
of social isolation
an ocean that sits between you
and everyone else
This is the kind of poem that burrows in deep with its complications and toughness, its epiphanies and its wisdoms. I want to hear it read aloud. To hear it sung in the air. This is a son’s story and a mother’s story, a braid of realisations: ‘and you realise she is wading through / her own migration, that like her / you are a dandelion flung in the wind’. One verse depicts the mother still watching Egyptian soap operas and skyping the grandmother, but doing things and being in a country she no longer wants to leave. ‘Home’ has doubled back on itself.
she tells me she is praying
I come home
by any other name
is a quarantine
you have chosen
is a field of dandelions
learning to grow
In fact this is the kind of book that burrows in deep with its deft and moving exposures. The poetry is the hand on the heart, the hand never leaving the heart, especially after the individual, societal and cultural wounds of the mosque attacks, and the cumulative stories of grief, disharmony, anxiety, uncertainty, ignorance. The personal stories. The politics. Mohamed names the terrorist because he wants the repeated name to fade to oblivion. Jacinda refuses to name the terrorist because she too wants to demolish any shard of power or presence. Mohamed is using words, shaping poems, intensely personal, searingly political, to dissipate a name and move towards healing a community.
we will say your name
until you you are no more real
until your oblivion fades
and we will have sprouted
daffodils from our pain
a forest from our eyes
a most beautiful way to heal
and who will worship you then?
from ‘The Prime Minister will not say his name but I will’
The poems hold out hope, time and time again, in an image or a phrase, in a word such as daffodils, in the idea that arms opening wide will embrace the whole person not just what they choose, in the dissatisfaction of arm’s length, in ‘the five stages of peace’. I keep wanting to share a poem with you, to sit down with you in café and say read this, feel this, ponder this, be changed, open your arms wide and greet the whole person, the poem. I am a privileged white woman with a warm home and food in the fridge, a loving family, a long history of publication, a tertiary education, a history of travel, a place to call home. But I need to listen harder. When will these global hierarchies and inequities end?
Mohamed brings us back to a person holding a pen fuelled with ink and soil and memory and challenge. He puts himself on show (albeit in character at times) no matter the pain. Here he is at the airport, at customs where some people sail through invisibly, while some people are interrogated because of name or colour. It is the poem’s ending that gets me, that keeps reminding me – in this catastrophic year of pandemic, overstretched frontline staff, hate crimes, wars, conspiracy theories, poverty, insufferable greed, and sexual and domestic abuse – every name and statistic is a real person. A real person with story.
This ending. This poem. Buy the book and read the poem:
let’s take things slow
I want this, I do
but let’s build a relationship
on more than just racial profiling
I want you to know the real me
can’t you that I
I’m just a boy
standing in front of a boy
to let me in
from ‘Customs: a love story’
The title poem, ‘National anthem’ is also a beauty, a poem of pledges that include good coffee, voices in unison, the grandmother’s laugh, zero flags and borders. The final stanza, the final lines in the collection are the kind of lines that will keep you going over corrugated roads and spiky living, that will keep you going whatever your story, whatever your challenges, and pain and love and prospects of death or hope. I am so hoping that Mohamed gets to read at Aotearoa festivals next year, not just five minutes in a poetry line up, but in a whole session where we can hear his words sing and shine and cut and hold out arms and offer such exquisite and necessary hope.
to those who would plot to sow me love
to bake me warmth and never break my art
to rob my eyes for safe keeping
to drown me in unconditional trust
to build with me
a new sun
I pledge myself
from ‘National anthem’
Mohamed Hassan is an award-winning journalist and writer who has lived in Egypt, Aotearoa and Turkey. Hewas the winner of the 2015 NZ National Poetry Slam, a TEDx fellow and recipient of the Gold Trophy at the 2017 New York Radio Awards. His poetry has been watched and shared widely online and taught in schools internationally.
Dead Bird Books page