War, Love, and the Life Before Birth: A Review of Ruth Awad’s “Set to Music a Wildfire”

Ruth Awad’s debut collection Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017) communicates the burden of cellular memory; the granules of past traumas that scrape beneath the skin, reminding one of painful events that haunt and torment though they were not personally experienced. Divided into three sections, “Born into War,” “House Made of Breath,” and “What the Living Know,” Set to Music a Wildfire details Awad’s father’s journey to America in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War, his tempestuous marriage to and divorce from Awad’s mother, and the heartbreak this separation inflicts on the family. However, though this collection is a testament to a father, and at times a dedicated investigational report of a war-torn country, Set to Music a Wildfire is also a powerful work of self recovery. Awad’s speaker traces her lineage, the circumstances that made her existence possible, as gently as a finger gliding along the spine of a slumbering body. Her poems convey a profound insight: during certain moments, we do not have to be present in order for things to happen to us.

Speaking from the other side of birth in many of these poems, Awad’s voice, and that of the speaker in her poems, often feel prophetic. In “The Green Line,” Awad crafts a narrative that is set at the division of Beirut. On one hand, the poem can be read as a visualization of Awad’s father’s identity and the transformation it undergoes after the institution of the Green Line; on another, it can be interpreted as Awad determining her spiritual conception within the minutiae of her father’s experience:

…I am born from the mouth of a bullet hole,

and Lebanon’s burnt shell offerings
roll away.

Nothing grows from me except the dead
who knuckle through the street,

scraping through shrapnel…

I carry their wounds for miles…

Here, we see how the guilt of survival, an oftentimes unbelievable privilege during periods of war, plagues generations. Whereas the survival of an ancestor closely connected to a tragedy may seem arbitrary and inexplicable, the lives of the ancestor’s descendants sometimes feel ordained. When Awad lists the memories she carries—“…the rigid trunk of a soldier, / branches sprouting where rifles once // rose…”—she also references, “This stand of trees like a cesarean scar. / This dust-blown shade of division,” further emphasizing the birth symbolism of the poem. However, now the stakes have risen. We understand that the emergence of these generations was difficult; that despite their fated quality, their births were forced  and sprung from a wound that not only marks a nation, but this tragic lineage and its members as well.

Awad’s last poem “Lessons in Grief,” perfectly encapsulates the way personal and inherited loss, trauma, and heartache can make one feel as if they have endured hundreds of lifetimes. She writes:

If you’re gone I mean
really gone, then whose
voice is that veining through
the shower drain—no, it’s
only water, but here I am,
half wet and stung
with the mercy of living

This “mercy” is a sardonic, bittersweet gift. It reclaims the speaker each day, reminding her of her existence. But is it a comfort? Is mercy a soothing mantra or a too-wide smile baring a set of sharp teeth? “Lessons in Grief” is the culmination of the acute self-awareness Awad displays throughout her collection. She demonstrates that though the individual life is bound within the solitary body, it is not a divorced entity. From this, a set of oddly harmonious contradictions manifest: we are left eternally bereft by our past, but are also never alone; we are constantly being haunted, but there is someone always watching us; we are alive and worthy, a fact indelibly connected with the sacrifices of the dead. Awad concludes her poem and writes, “I’m a clockwork animal tied / to fading light, but the days / never stop coming.” The speaker understands that the body is ephemeral, that it will inevitably wind down and that the light will go out; however, the world seems oblivious to this process. It always gives more—minutes, days, months, years. It offers memories, combines one life with another and amasses a vast lineage. It does not truly allow anything to end, and this is both a reassuring and unnerving aspect of this collection—its profound glimpses into the vortex of infinity.

As Ruth Awad’s finger leaves the final notch on the spine of her heritage, the audience shivers. Ruth Awad’s articulate introspection reads clearer than a photograph of an open field in winter. Whether she is discussing “…checkpoints like weeds / sprouting from a road you’d just driven” or the way we are inevitably doomed to “drink” our inheritance, Awad embraces herself and those who have come before her. There is wisdom in this decision, for she knows she cannot change the past. Moreover, with every second she exists, the past becomes her and vice versa. Set to Music a Wildfire is a profound experience—you will hear, feel, smell, taste, and envision these poems. They are as brilliant as a newly struck match; engrossing as a roaring blaze.

Enikő “Eni” Vághy is currently a senior at Binghamton University, studying English Literature with concentrations in Creative Writing and Global Culture. She has had poetry and reviews published in journals such as Street Light Press and Paterson Literary Review, among others. A proud descendant of immigrants and factory workers, Eniko uses poetry to share her personal history and bond with people from various walks of life. She currently resides in Binghamton, New York, with her parents and dog Cuki. In her free time, Eni delights in walking around town taking pictures of the various people and sights she encounters. She conducts research on the female gaze and debates the notion that the female body in its various forms is inherently “confrontational.” She firmly believes that when women unite, anything epic is possible—to her, Agape Editions represents this power perfectly.

Email Enikő at Agape Editions

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