Bayt Al-Qasid, The House of Poetry

Brandon Shimoda

A bride and groom float down a road along a ridge of the Chouf Mountains southeast of Beirut. They sit on small wooden chairs being carried by the bride and groom’s family and friends. Musicians, encircling the procession, call, with the byzantine birdsong of their horns, the people out of their houses, through the hedges, to join them. Every ten feet, the procession stops. Everyone dances in a circle, the bride and groom lifted up and down like trophies. The groom, in black, with sharply manicured beard, nostrils dilated with pride, looks a little afraid. The bride, in white, her eyebrows thick and dark, her smile a crown above the heads of the people, also looks a little afraid, and like she might fall out of her chair. There is water running somewhere. Falling. A waterfall. Not huge. A creek. It is sunny, hot, the people are kicking up dust, which the sun absorbs, redoubles. The bride and the groom do not look at each other, but at the heads of their family and friends. Later, the chairs will be returned to the courtyard where old women and young children listen to a television through an open window, sometimes the radio, loudspeakers of cars playing light propaganda.


Malika arranged for a taxi to pick us up at six the next morning. Abir, her daughter, was a graduate student at the American University of Beirut. They lived in a four hundred-year-old castle in Baakleen, in the Chouf. A sprawling stone compound overlooking fig trees, but Malika and Abir—with Abir’s young daughter Riana, Malika’s husband Saeed, Abir’s sister Tagi, her brother Khaldoun, his wife Souriana—occupied only a few small rooms. Saeed spent most of his hours in his car, parked in the shade of an arbor, listening to the radio. The rest of the castle was empty. Some rooms had no walls, were ruins.

The driver agreed to drive us through the Masnaa/Jdaidet Yabous border then down into Damascus. By seven, we were at a pizzeria on the ridge. Two men in black shirts, black pants, and white aprons, were pulling pizzas out of an elephantine oven. They stared, between pizzas, with their hands on their hips, at the dark green mountains out the back door. Insects were loud in the folds. We helped load a dozen pizzas, shaped like papooses, into the trunk of the taxi.


The cedars of Lebanon are ziggurats. Many had been opened, years before, by lightning, and resembled hands, in fists, out of which flourished sagacious bouquets of the cedars of Lebanon. 


The line of cars at the border was long. Our driver pulled over. The pizzas, he said. I have to go. We pleaded with him to wait, to drive us the rest of the way, as he promised, but our voices, amid the idling engines, were pitiful. There were no promises, only pizza.

The border station was crowded but calm. We slid our passports under the glass. We sat against a wall and watched the lines swell and die down, swell and die down, for six hours. The sun, carrying dust from the mountains, slid across the floor, up the walls. An Egyptian man, Abbas, approached us, asked us what we thought about Michael Jackson’s death. Adding, I knew him. He showed us photos on his phone of Michael Jackson in a black hat and red military jacket, sitting at a banquet table beside many oddly-proportioned people. A book signing? It looked like a photograph taken in a dream.

Dunkin Donuts was open, but there were no donuts. The employees were wearing Dunkin Donuts t-shirts and visors, the trays behind the counter were illuminated but empty, the only things on the menu were cans of Sprite and narghiles.


The eight kilometers of territory between the guard stations on the Masnaa and Jdaidet Yabous sides of the border is an enormous stage. 100 yards long, 100 yards wide, surrounded by spotlights, and an audience of armed guards and camouflaged vehicles. Cars and buses moved slowly, as if through plasma. Without the pizza delivery man, we had to walk. We were the only ones walking. The guards watched, but did not move. There was no pedestrian entrance or walkway; we stepped directly onto the stage. There was silence at first. Insects treading the teeth of a comb. Then young faces in the windows of buses were smiling, people rolled down their windows to offer their laughter, cars were honking, not one of them stopped. A young man in a maroon sedan drove alongside us, at the pace of our walking, smiled, then drove on. We watched him pull over on the other side of the guard station. After we passed the guard station, the young man stepped out of his car, and offered us a ride.


It was late-afternoon. The sun, bright white, was at rest. There were no shadows on the mountains. The moment we passed over the border into Syria, I leaned my head back, stared up through the rear window at the sky, and fell asleep. I had a dream that I was standing in a field in New England. The field was covered in wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, butter-and-eggs. The sun was setting in the east. I looked up at the sky and saw what I called, out loud to myself, in the dream, a pink citadel. I repeated those words, pink citadel. It was a massive, labyrinthine, yellow orange red structure, floating, buoyant, as if on a river, which seemed to be the dividing of a wavelength between disintegrating shadows.

When I woke up, we were pulled over on the highway across from the Al-Samariyeh bus station. The young man was continuing south, away from Damascus. He asked if we wanted to come home with him, meet his wife, take a shower, have a meal. We thanked him, said we were meeting a friend, we had to get to Damascus. In that moment, a self broke away.


How many selves have been procreated in the moments when generosity has been declined? How many more indelible, enduring selves than those that reached where they were going? Are all genuine experiences the fortuitous consequence of the self having broken away? The day will come when the final self breaks away. On that day, the self will be dispersed, across the imagination of everywhere the self might have gone.


The taxi driver who drove us into Damascus was an old man with an enormous smile. He offered us coffee from a white mug which he rested on the carpeted dashboard. He drove us to the wall enclosing the oldest part of the city. There are seven gates in the wall, seven entrances: the gate of the orchards, the gate of peace, the gate of Saint Thomas, Kisan gate, the small gate, the gate of Jupiter. We entered Old Damascus through the eastern gate, Bab Sharqi, the gate of the sun.


There are nights through which people float, at the pace of paper lanterns on a black estuary, without advantage or recourse to the encompassing darkness, towards a destination that has already, without knowing, been erased.

We stayed with the American poet Jennifer Mackenzie, who was living in Old Damascus, on Haret Jarar, house #2. Right next to a virgin embedded in the wall, she emailed. She took us to a poetry reading that night, on the other side of the wall, in the basement of the Fardoss Tower Hotel, and introduced us to Lukman Derky, a Kurdish writer and the host of Bayt al-Qasid, the House of Poetry. The basement was crimson and dark. A shoal of cigarette smoke held up the ceiling. The voices of one hundred people, sitting at small tables, on benches along every wall, held up the smoke. A vein snaked from Gandhi’s forehead to his ear. Malcolm X pointed up through the ceiling. Lukman asked to see the poems we were going to read. We gave him the English and the Arabic translations made, a week earlier, by the poet Sabah Zwein in Beirut. He handed our poems to two young men, who whisked them away to a small table.

A poet was reciting a love poem in Arabic. Half the room, caught onto the rhythm of the poet’s expression, recited their love along with him. The room swayed. There were waves. The people became the poet’s guiding light, the luminous circle through which he, and the poem, moved. The sun went under the House. It grazed the underside of the floor, pulling itself through gills of cool silk.

We read our poems in English. Dot’s first poem began:


I’m out of my



            but string infinite

            progress along  




            in theatrical homage

            to patricide


and ended:


Swept glass onto a stiff page.

where one imagines

                                    the end is successful,

                        ends at all upending


                                    the world different I see

                        nature  and think

heat, light

                        and smoke


I read one poem, from my first book, The Alps, which included the lines:


I love yogurt, I love cheese—

I love sticking my finger into holes in the trunks of old pines

            And pulling it out not with sap, but with yogurt.

I love grapes, I love bread

I love the way that bread explodes when pulled apart by two people

In fatal desperation


I wrote The Alps as a way to return to the meadow in Switzerland where my parents married, August 25, 1972. The setting was dreamlike—sun on green grass, sun pooling in small yellow and white flowers, bells ringing steadily from the shadows moving along the edges of the meadow. But the wedding was perfunctory, brief. The village registrar impressed himself just enough so that his name, Mr. Liebundgut, would be remembered. There was little beyond formal, last minute exchanges between strangers. A white American woman and a Japanese American man, alone, in a meadow in a neutral country. They were escaping their families, the conditions and prejudices by which they felt constrained. In that, they were traditional. But they imagined escaping into what they were each misperceiving of the other. My mother wanted difference. My father wanted assimilation. They both wanted disappearance. The sun slid down the mountains, drawing the village, Grindelwald, into darkness. My parents, having celebrated, silently, several hours earlier, with anchovies and orange soda, were hungry, went to bed before midnight.

Though the poem, “Trinity, Neutrality, the Draft,” was, on its surface, a litany of food I loved, it was not the satisfaction of my parents’ hunger. It was also a poem about the testing of the first atomic bomb, and my grandfather’s incarceration in the United States during the Second World War. In the poem, my grandfather bites off his tongue and spits it out the window of the train taking him to Missoula, Montana, where he was incarcerated in a Department of Justice prison under suspicion of being a spy for Japan. It was based half on his story and half on that of another Shimoda, who was incarcerated at the same time in the same prison: Ichiro Shimoda, written up by the prison authorities as being mentally unstable. In the poem, the tongue falls from the window and lands in a small circle of dried leaves by a river.


There was one living leaf

I don’t mind that there was one living leaf

By the one living leaf, I spread …


I knew the end was coming. Which is usually, for the false comfort in thinking it will soon be over, and yet when it is only beginning to come into consciousness, when reading, in public, for me, falls apart. The poem ended with fruit:


I love … peaches, the way that fruit explodes when a body is dropped from above …


The two young men who had gone over Sabah’s translations recited the poems in Arabic. Having heard our poems in English, the people were prepared—for the words, the litany. The rhythms, their contribution to it. My confusion over the relationship between food and the atomic bomb and my grandfather’s but actually Ichiro’s tongue turning to lead and my parents getting married in a meadow in the Swiss Alps, was eased, momentarily, by the poem’s transformation into Arabic, through which it was returned, by the communal anticipation of the people, to a love poem. They had memorized what, more specifically that, I loved, so when the poem was recited in Arabic, they had already translated I love in their heads, and recited it with the young men. People shouted out the food they loved. Food materialized, from every corner, in the air in between. I watched my poem rearrange. Become cells, sequins, plates, plates of food. The reading became the intonation of a meal. The meal was being passed around. The people were young. Their voices were vines spiraling out of their heads, up the walls. All hands touched the table.

The wedding procession in the mountains resembled a funeral. The small wooden chairs kept the bride and groom upright, but someday, one of them would be walking in the shadow of the other being carried, in a box strewn with flowers, down the very same road, on the very same shoulders, some younger, the bride and groom’s children, grandchildren.


The translation was good, a man said. But it seems to me that one word was wrong. Peaches. They translated peaches into another fruit, a fruit that is not a peach, but more like a … then he trailed off. Someone passed him a small glass of arak. More like a, more like a … but the fruits were not vying for preeminence. They were producing each other, turning, like small, weathered planets, in the lights between the floor and the smoke. I thought of my first taste of arak, a week earlier, in the Chouf. We had gone with Malika and Abir and the family to a waterfall. The waterfall was not tall, but slid gently, in wide, braided sheets, down a long terrace of white rocks, into a ravine. We sat at a long table with dozens of small plates stacked on top of each other, smoked shisha, drank arak. In my memory, we were on an island in the middle of a river. Beneath a tree whose leaves waved like hands on flat stems. The sun fragmented. The water moved around us. The arak in the man’s small glass looked like all of that. And I thought, am I the self that is breaking away? I do not remember leaving the not a peach, but more like a … I do not remember leaving the dark crimson room, the House of Poetry, walking up the stairs, and out into Damascus.