Poems Bridge American, Lebanese Identities

Dec 19, 2012

Susan Azar Porterfield, author of the poetry collection Kibbe

Kibbe is a new book of poems by Susan Azar Porterfield, but it's also a traditional Arabic dish made of ground meat, bulgar, onions and spices. For Porterfield, of DeKalb, the dish recalls memories of her childhood in Chicago.

"My father was Lebanese," she says, "so he missed the food of his homeland. And he would make kibbe and we loved it, we grew up on it."

Porterfield says she always wanted to go to Lebanon, but periodic civil wars prevented that. The country was relatively peaceful after 1990 and, in 2003, Porterfield traveled to Lebanon's capitol, Beirut, on a Fulbright scholarship. She says it was a very different country from the one her father knew.

"For him, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East," she says. "When I was there, I saw a lot of damage from the war."

Many of Porterfield's poems are snapshots of moments between violence, where the air is filled with tension.  She witnessed this firsthand. "People were very cautious about any conflict," she says, "because Lebanon is almost evenly divided between Christian and Muslim, and they want to keep it that way." Porterfield adds, "As you know, in the Middle East things flare up at any moment."

One poem that captures those nervous moments of peace is "Beirut Redux":

Some verandas, like strings of pearls,

Still drape the chests of gray, shell-pocked homes.

At dusk, blinded windows front the dark strolling up

Like a lover you tried to forget.

Beirut burns to bury her past, to arise

A once-there-was virgin lass,

waist airy as grass and whole

as the schoolgirls in jeans or hijabs

who lean at the university’s gate.

Meanwhile, in fitful streets,

above nightclubs, above rival taxi horns,

the muezzin’s Allahu akhbar hums,

and Starbucks opens careful doors…

Turn a bright corner –

Diamonds spotless in new storefront glass,

And there’s another of those old whores.

its bombed-out doorway a musky hole,

whispering a come-on in the ear.

That uneasy peace was broken in 2006 when the Shi'a paramilitary group, Hezbollah, fired rockets at Israel from southern Lebanon. The Jewish state responded with a ground invasion. The conflict lasted 34 days before the United Nations brokered a ceasefire. The war started after Porterfield returned to the U.S., but it prompted her to write a poem that's included in this collection.

The title work, "Kibbe," was written before she arrived in Beirut. "I actually wrote that before I applied for the Fulbright," Porterfield says, "before I even knew I was going there." In this excerpt from the poem, the author imagines herself cooking Kibbe in her Midwestern kitchen, dreaming of Beirut:

Already I'm wrapped in the alleys,

Of Beirut where murmurs drift from kitchens

of women who look like me.

Porterfield says she wrote that poem, in part, to claim kinship with the people of Lebanon. "Because I've always felt somehow I was alike," she says, "even though I'm half American."

Kibbe is Porterfield's third collection of poems. She is a professor of English at Rockford College. Her latest book is published by Mayapple Press.