Images of buildings pervade the poetry of Iman Mersal. They appear in poems about returning to a former home, speaking with an engineer who restores ancient architecture, and becoming acquainted with a lover’s house, among many others. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the poems depict these experiences: Mersal rejects the idea that poems should be “about” anything, describing the process of writing poetry as “a journey in the dark towards an unknown destination.”
Born in 1966 in the Egyptian Delta, Mersal is a poet, writer, and translator, as well as a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. From her first collection, Characterizations (Itisaffat) (1990) to her most recent, Until I Give Up on the Idea of Houses (Hatta atakhalla ‘an fikrat al-buyut) (2013), her poems are guided by “the desire to understand [her]self, to deal with dark moments in everyday life, with memory.”
In Mersal’s poems “Solitude Exercises” and “The Idea of Houses,” the narrators’ understandings of themselves are tied to the way they relate to the concept of home. Both poems portray narrators whose feelings of unease are projected onto their relationships with their homes, but the narrators diverge in their approach to these feelings. While the narrator of “Solitude Exercises” fantasizes about escape, the narrator of “The Idea of Houses” redefines home in such a way that a history of feeling out-of-place will not preclude her from finding it.
“Solitude Exercises” opens with the disclosure that the narrator and her partner sleep in different rooms. Revealing this detail in the first line of the poem points to its importance, but the narrator immediately denies this: “He sleeps in the next room, a wall between us./I am not being symbolic here,/only that there is a wall between us (lines 1-3).”
By insisting that the wall is not a metaphor, the narrator introduces the emotional import of architecture: the use of space, she asserts, doesn’t need to be symbolic to be significant. Or perhaps she is introducing the pervasiveness of architecture as a metaphor for relationships and the self—she is being no more symbolic here than she is throughout the rest of her oeuvre, which is to say that she is being symbolic the whole time. By opening with the dubious claim that the wall has no meaning beyond the literal, the narrator also hints at her own tendency to obscure the truth.
The narrator’s avoidance of her home in “Solitude Exercises” reflects her discomfort with the emotional space she occupies in relationships. Throughout the poem, the narrator imagines fleeing her home and her relationship to spend time in public spaces—the street, trains, and cafés—with strangers. She fantasizes about bringing a stranger to a café to confide in him, capitalizing on his desire to be helpful, obtaining an invitation to his house, and “feign[ing] shyness to comfort [his wife] and make her feel satisfied/with her husband (lines 60-62).” The narrator’s home and her relationship are linked in that she fantasizes about leaving both to seek comfort elsewhere.
As the narrator imagines leaving her relationship, she conveys its failings through the image of an uninviting home (lines 33-41):
If I leave now
I will grab the hand of the first person I meet
and force him to go with me to a side street café.
I will tell him that a man sleeps in the next room
that his head is not level with my body,
that he never became
a garbage pail for me, not even once (he let everything
scatter out into the street).
Garbage pails allow for the presence of a moderate quantity of undesirable objects inside the home. The narrator’s partner’s refusal to hold onto unwanted things for her suggests that their relationship has conditions: the narrator must leave parts of herself out of it. The image of a relationship lacking a garbage pail positions the relationship as a figurative home, one that is uncomfortable without the amenity of emotional support.
In the narrator’s fantasy, occupying neutral locations allows her to escape from the discomfort she feels in her relationship. These public spaces also give her the opportunity to meet strangers whose feelings toward her she can manipulate.
The narrator reveals at the end of the poem one of her habitual ways of eliciting sympathy (lines 86-98):
On the East Delta train I often pick a suitable
lady who opens the coffers of her sympathy when I tell her
my mother died when I was six.
The truth is
it happened when I was seven,
but for me “six” seems to have greater effect.
. . . .
These touch-ups in the telling
have a magic
that cannot be understood by those
who never needed to steal
kindness from others.
The narrator lies because she does not trust others to give her kindness; her embellishments are a way to make herself appear worthy of it. In terms of both physical space and identity, she looks for comfort externally rather than confront the deficits on the inside. Her search for shelter outside her home reflects her evasion of a self she considers incapable of eliciting compassion.
In the narrator’s quest for kindness on the East Delta train, sympathy exists in a storage space. The word translated here as “coffers” can also be translated as “closets” or “cabinets”—fixtures in a building. The sympathetic stranger’s feelings are mapped onto a house, and by figuratively gaining access to its interior, the narrator can receive the sympathy that she craves. This image reinforces the metaphor of the home as an extension of the self. Uncomfortable in the emotional space she inhabits, the narrator imagines basking in the warmth of someone else’s.
The self is fused with the concept of home in both “Solitude Exercises” and “The Idea of Houses.” While the narrator of “Solitude Exercises” tries to avoid these sources of distress, the narrator of “The Idea of Houses” is committed to the possibility that she might learn to feel at home in the world.
“The Idea of Houses” expresses the narrator’s desire to cultivate a feeling of being at home that does not come naturally. She lacks the natural aptitude for feeling at home that she observes in others. In the opening lines, the narrator describes how this feeling eludes her (lines 4-11):
Whenever I arrived
In a city, it seemed my home was in a different one.
Olga says, without my having told her any of this, “Your
home is never really your home until you sell it. Then you discover
all the things you could do with the garden and the big rooms—
as if seeing it through the eyes of a broker. You’ve stored your
nightmares in the attic and now you have to pack them in a
suitcase or two at best.”
Home here is not the place you inhabit, but rather a sense of being at ease that evades the narrator: wherever she is, she never feels at home. Home is also the location of psychological distress.
Olga’s husband, having missed his wife’s analysis of the concept of home, still believes that his house will be “a loyal friend when he goes blind”—a physical location in which he won’t feel disoriented (line 15). The narrator is unable to see home in this way: “I’m looking for a key that always gets lost in the bottom of/my handbag, where neither Olga nor her husband can see me/drilling myself in reality so I can give up the idea of houses (lines 16-18).”
The narrator is lacking the key to a house, disabused of the notion that her ideal of home will ever fuse with a real place. Recognizing that home is not, for her, the place where she lives—because she never feels at home in these places—she is driven to re-define the concept of being at home in such a way that she might be able to attain it.
In the narrator’s definition, home is, in part, a repository of experiences: “Every time you go back home with the dirt of the world/under your nails, you stuff everything you were able to carry/with you into its closets (lines 19-21).” Memories become a fixture of one’s inner life. A psyche may be full of negative experiences in the same way that a house can be full of “junk,” but the narrator rejects the fate of having her inner life defined by disappointments.
The final lines of “The Idea of Houses” imagine perceiving a home’s shortcomings as insignificant, dwarfed by the comfort and shelter the home provides. The poem concludes (lines 21-25):
But you refuse to define home as
the future of junk—a place where dead things were once
confused with hope. Let home be that place where you
never notice the bad lighting, let it be a wall whose cracks
keep growing until one day you take them for doors.
In the absence of places that are effortlessly comfortable, the narrator seeks to feel at home in flawed places—ones with “cracks” and “bad lighting (line 24).” Through the metaphor of a house for an inner landscape, the narrator expresses her hope that an emotional life can transcend the grim memories it encompasses.
The narrator of “The Idea of Houses” differs from the narrator of “Solitude Exercises” in her dedication to making peace with her emotional landscape. The narrator of “Solitude Exercises” manipulates others’ perceptions of her because she doubts her capacity to attract compassion in an honest way; her re-invention of herself and fantasies of leaving home are symptoms of profound insecurity. “The Idea of Houses” imagines the opposite: a sense of security that renders austere surroundings comfortable and transforms deficits into openness.