Chariots and Street Corners

By Lynne Rogers

Art and Politics/Politics and Art
By D. H. Melhem
Syracuse University Press, 2010

D. H. Melhem, who has written extensively on the black American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, exhibits the influence of Brooks’s later work in her own collection of poetry, “Art and Politics, Politics and Art.”  Melhem’s poetry reaches back to the ancient classics of Western tradition, yet still observes the day-to-day in the American city.  This accessible and refreshing collection includes ekphrastic poems and short tributes inspired by the works of others.  Divided into three sections, the book begins with three “kwansabas” (a recent poetic form consisting of seven-lines, in which each line contains no more than seven words) for the black artists and writers Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, and Jayne Cortez, followed by an elegy for Angela Davis.  In her opening tributes, Melhem identifies herself with the black political left and situates her work within a diverse urban literary tradition.

 In reference to T. S. Eliot, Melhem opens her second section, “Mostly Political”, with “April is the cruellest month” and laments the endless cycle of war and greed.  Like Brooks, these poems sometimes voice a seeming naïveté that, nevertheless, ends with a twist, renewing and enlarging the poet’s observation.  In the final section, “Wars”, her poems grieve for the international loss of life and hold fast to the belief that “Another world is possible.”  In the post 9/11 climate, Melhem’s poetry lends an emotional and intellectual depth to the concerns of Arab Americans, as they witness their own country wage war on other Arabs in distant lands.  Her poems would appeal to any humanistic sensibility.