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Review: Under Brushstrokes by Hedy Habra


Under Brushstrokes by Hedy Habra,
Press 53, 2015, 91 pages, $14.95


From first glance at the gorgeous Chinese ink brush painting (created by the poet) on Under Brushstrokes’ velvety, matte cover, Hedy Habra captivates readers with her second poetry collection–a Finalist for both the 2016 International Poetry Book Award and the 2015 USA Best Book Award.

In these (mostly) ekphrastic poems, Habra keeps her reader contemplating, supposing, and experiencing right along with her speakers through masterful use of poetic devices and figurative language. Fine imagery and sensory details place the reader into the scene, while sound dictates pace and rhythm, as in these lines from “Obsessive Compulsion,”


she’d forgotten her own name, thinking of her

son’s severed foot bleeding, his thick fragrant

blood an oddity in the night scented with

rosemary and lavender, she thinks of mountain

lions, coyotes, a jugular vein prey to canines

sharper than shears, hears feline raspy tongues (13-18)


It should be noted that some of these poems are not necessarily true to the visual artwork as far as description goes in the sense of traditional ekphrasis. Rather, Habra oftentimes uses the artwork as a diving board into her own stories and imaginings. Both techniques work, but the latter is more dazzling. In “Phoenician Twilight,” Habra places the speaker in a sailboat (although no figure is visible in the sailboat on the painting itself) and weaves a tale from the speaker’s point of view using the first person pronoun, complete with interrogatories that prompt the reader to “see” the artwork and contemplate the poem in different, gratifying ways:


…can I trust what my eyes are seeing? Are the sun and moon

really sinking side by side into the darkening waters, or is it my boat,

heavier with its load of gold and silver coins, each a sun and a moon,

replete with amber, spices and royal purple, riches collected from

countless counters, weighing more every minute like my falling

eyelids. (6-11)


Although each of the book’s six sections holds its own charm, the book verges on visual monotony due to the poet’s use of the same, prose-like block format in the first two sections. Overall, tension is more difficult for the poet to pull off in the prose-like poems; however, in sections III and VI, Habra breaks free from the left margin and utilizes lineation that builds tension, revitalizes breath, and excites the eye. An excellent example of this is found in these lines from “A Triptych,”


I pressed my toes

against the ground

afraid we’d sink

into the abyss,

both trapped within one trunk,

one womb,

as if you were my own

and I, Mother Earth bearing fruit, (18-25)


The short line lengths and white space in this passage control the reader’s breath and build tension, both of which allow more time to experience the rich images presented.

Under Brushstrokes deserves to be read more than once, as Habra paints language here, in layers of vibrant color, and beneath her brushstrokes hide more secrets and ideas. Although these poems stand strongly on their own, if one should care to explore the corresponding artworks listed at the back of the book, the result of a second reading is thrilling.

Keep this book on your nightstand and fall into dreams with it.

Hedy Habra is the author of the poetry collection Tea in Heliopolis, finalist in the 2014 International Book Award, and a story collection, Flying Carpets, winner of the 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention and finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Her multilingual work has appeared in more than forty journals and thirteen anthologies, including Connotation Press, Poetic Diversity, Blue Fifth Review, Nimrod, The New York Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Diode, The Bitter Oleander, Cider Press Review, and Poet Lore. To learn more, visit www.hedyhabra.com.

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