In her new collection, Egypt-born poet Marwa Helal plays with language to challenge the way we approach our problems. The poet wants us to be more open and curious, so that we can better understand how we see the world and what connects us to one another.
The book – her second collection – is called Ante body. It includes an invented writing form called 'The Arabic', first introduced by the writer in her 2016 poem, titled "poem to be read from right to left." Here's how that poem begins –
language first my learned i
for mistaken am i native
go i everywhere
Poet Marwa Helal
Poet Marwa Helal
"It's such a simple form," Helal says. "This is just the direction that Arabic is written in, as [are] many other languages. And even English has roots in these right-to-left languages that are often erased in our etymology."
Helal's attention to language comes from being bilingual – learning to speak and read both English and Arabic from a young age.
"And of course, the gaslighting that happens in this country with that," Helal adds. "Where, as soon as you open your mouth and you're not a native speaker, there's a kind of immediate disregard, regardless of the accuracy of what you're saying or the construction with which you say it."
So, by changing the way one might expect to read the poem in English, Helal wants to reposition the reader's view of the text.
"And what happens when you do that is you're actually rewiring [the reader] to move through the world the way one who's bilingual might move through the world," Helal says. "And the advantage is that we see so many more possibilities."
With this openness, Helal hopes that we'll be more compassionate towards one another. The title of the collection draws from poet and scholar Fred Moten's concept of "the Ante." The term "ante" indicates what comes "before" the "anti" – which is an antithesis, or opposition.
"Ante body. That body becomes a representation of all bodies," Helal says. "And you take on the struggles of, maybe, workers who do work that you have never had to do."
The poet's examination of language comes right back to this possibility of unbridled connection to one another. In Ante body, Helal uses her invented form in the long poem "Who Real؟". An excerpt reads –
words english of number the counting of tired grew i wrote i
capture to takes it
another in one
writing of tired grown have i now but
limitations inherent your towards
With more openness towards our challenges – whether they are institutional, within a community, or even within a family or relationship – the poet hopes the reader will see this compassion too.