A review of These Wild Houses by Omar Sakr

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

These Wild Houses
By Omar Sakr
Cordite Books
ISBN: 9780975249277, 2017, Paperback, $20

Omar Sakr’s first poetry collection could possibly be classed as a verse memoir. From the start, Sakr invites the reader to go to the places and spaces that move between childhood and coming-of-age; home and exile. The first section is titled “Ahlan” which roughly means ‘welcome’. This is not just recollection; it’s recreation and collaboration. The reader is more than guest, they are co-participant in the process of unpicking, uncovering, re-igniting pain and then healing. This creates a shared experience that is as heart wrenching as it is cathartic.

The work is both lush and taut: a clash of personal and universal that manages to blur so many lines that the effect is expansive. The book is divided into five sections, each with a slightly different conceptual film, but all linked by the notion, made evident by the title, of the ‘house’. This can be a home with all of its Homerian implications, such as the place you once inhabited but can’t get back to like Ithaca, and it can also be many other things, from the political notion of an affiliation to memory to the human body.

“Ahlan” invites the reader into this space through “Door Open”, the first poem which sets the tone for the book, extending the metaphor to the human body and memory and sensation as house:

Wild houses we
live in licked brick & sun
warmed stones, in grass blood mortar
& flesh.

There’s a warm intimacy in this invitation. Though there is pain, abuse, scars, crumbing mortar and fear, there is also community, food, family and above all, the compassion of the poems. There is an openness to sensation in this work that engages all the senses and invites the reader to look closely even when the pain is raw and the experience is ugly, because looking leads to transformation. Homes become houses become flats become surrogates, and the body becomes the battleground for identity, separation and longing:

A tinnitus, only I could hear it, but I swear your body screeched those mornings loose with warning, and so we learned to read your augers in Dunhill spoke, those exhales prophesying pain if we didn’t become paragons of silence. (“Dear Mama”).

The house is also many other things – the site of rupture, of love, of shared intimacy, the body in pain and desire, or the place where you gather with those to whom you belong and those who reject you at the deepest, most scarring level. Though the poetry is often immediately personal, with an almost brutal ‘under-the-skin’ honesty, there’s also a post-modern self-consciousness of the words themselves – the rhythms, structures, semantical constructions and parataxis of conjunctions. This is particularly evident in the poem “The H Word” where “H” refers to the houses of the title, but also many other things that are referenced in the poem – perhaps most intensely “heroin”, which is never stated in the poem, though it is implied in the very suburban destruction of youth and childhood that takes place as an almost autoimmune response:

If your home is haemorrhaging kids
into open graves and closed cellblocks in flood,

pull your hood up. Hide your face.

H in this case creates a rhythmic backdrop as it moves from hoods to Hume, horror, homicide, haemorrhage, hate, hope, humour, hunger, Hell, hips, help, heart and above all, Home – the scariest word – a space where home isn’t just a place, it’s the body under duress, scarred: “pockmarked streets and swollen knuckles”.

One of the many things that happens in this collection is the equation of personal tragedy with collective tragedy, and though it isn’t always transformative – the past cannot be recovered, apathy, prejudice and hatred remain all-too-present, and those we’ve lost don’t return, and our endless hunger (that H word) is trashing the planet:

                  the girl was poetry, often forgotten
her formation and features trodden, voice subsumed
in the hubbub, the burble of creeks, language
segregated black and blue country” (“this girl, this country”)

All that damage notwithstanding, there is a transformation or reclamation that occurs in the creative process – it’s no longer poisonous:

                           I dream-sing
you adrift into riotous clouds, and feel
again the joy of those formless days. (“Not So Wild”)

The poems are heavily anchored in place, and Sydney too becomes a kind of container here. Botany Bay, Kings Cross, Ashfield, Lakemba, the sights, sounds and smells of the Western Suburbs are present as the site of various homes or familiar places but made unfamiliar through careful exploration as if seen through the eyes of a migrant, perhaps looking back in time rather than in space:

Over there, my aunty
says is Captain Cook’s museum
Through the haze, it looks both close
and awful in its distance, a thin bridge
connecting it to us. (“Botany Bay”)

There are other places recollected through the similar lens of the unfamiliar – a besotted and insouciant tourist: “Tell me, can I outline your everything?” (“America, You Sexy Fuck”).  Political commentary is present throughout the collection, but it’s subtle, embedded into the personal story of hardship, of sexual identity, and of displacement. Sakr’s word choice is often so apt and powerful that it’s breathtaking:

Two minutes on
is all it takes to heat up a meal before I return
to my window, desk and the strait of stars
guiding surf in the dark above these families
living near, unaware that the house and light on the hill
are ruptured within, choking with three separate ways
of silence. (“What the Landlord Owns”)

It’s hard to think of Sakr as an emerging voice – his work seems to have been everywhere over the past few years. The work in These Wild Houses has such a strong sense of assurance. This is an impressive and very moving collection that not only explores the important terrains of both everyday and institutional racism, the migrant experience, identity politics, trauma and grief, but that also presents a deeply personal and moving story that very deliberately draws the reader in and invites collusion and connection.