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Cantata for a desert poet by Sharon Lopez Mooney

 “Cantata for a Desert Poet”
A review by Bill Pendergraft

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. -Simone Weil

As I write, another war is burning in the Middle East with thousands of victims including journalists targeted because of their truthful reporting. Salam (Mohamed Abdulsalam) Khalili was a Palestinian journalist imprisoned and tortured by Israel for his reporting on the so called Six-Days War. Part political history, part exploration of love and loss in war, Khalili’s experiences have been chronicled by poet Sharon Lopez Mooney in the new work of poetry “Cantata for a Desert Poet” published by Arteidolia Press.

Sharon Lopez Mooney has been a working poet for over forty years. I “met” her as the leader of an online poetry community, “Poetry Feedback,” organized by Burlington Writers Workshop in Vermont. Poets of all interests and styles gather twice a month to read and comment. Mooney excels at her work because of the breadth and depth of her life experience, her ready inclusion of diverse poets and their work, and her ability to balance disciplined feedback with genuine kindness. She brings these skills to “Cantata.”

“Cantata” contains poems written and refined over many years to give voice to Palestinian journalist, painter, poet, and peace activist Khalili. Khalili who was chief editor of Jerusalem’s weekly newspaper, El Fajr, was arrested after he published an article showing that the war had been preplanned, prearranged, and agreed to by Israel and Jordan. As a result, he was sentenced to twenty-five years, and imprisoned for seven years, and upon his release placed under house arrest. During his imprisonment he was tortured, and his collection of diaries, poems and paintings destroyed. With pressure from Amnesty International and the support of a generous patron, Khalili and his family were exiled from their country, and landed California.

Khalili and Mooney met in California and became intimates. Though he had found a new life in the United States, he had lost his life in Jerusalem and was never able to develop his poetic skills in English. He asked Mooney to give voice to his history, and to use her skills as storyteller and poet to relay his words to others affected by war. During the ten years of their relationship, Mooney wrote extensively about Khalili’s journey, publishing many of her poems individually. In “Cantata,” Mooney’s narrative poems are collected in a sixty-page volume exploring Khalili’s life and his relationship with Mooney, his children and others.

In the poem “Our First Evening,” Khalili builds things with brass washers in his workshop as Mooney observes.

…he’s always inventing a new machine to exercise his creativity
words pass in spirals slipping and sliding through hidden feelings that circle
I am sure he can sense my hunger, although I have learned to be quiet
we are nimble in our dance yet we trip and I fall entangled
I sweep out left over disarranged words into my pockets so I can go over them again and again later alone
Someone reaches out turns off the light.

In her poems his history is revealed as he speaks of his love for Jerusalem. She becomes “the keeper of his soul, his homeland, his treasured secrets”, as their conversation moves between…” harsh brilliant days of the Sinai Desert and the cool silence of Northern California drizzle”. She “is given his voice, his awful truths.”

In “Oh, Children of War,” Khalili translates newspaper clippings and shares lists of young boys killed by soldiers in the West Bank of Palestine: Ayman 11 years, Hani 12 years, Ahmad 6, and others.

…a curious child, their passionate dreamer
small boy poet, their son, hours alone, stubby pencil to scrap of paper, hiding his hunger in words.

In “A Life of Walls,” Mooney describes Khalili as a boy. And his difficult adjustments moving to a strange and complex city.

…in this new city offering freedom
against his intuition of what really lay ahead
for all of them who would never see home
they found new unspoken barriers, hidden deceits
to restrain their souls.

His physical suffering had begun before his imprisonment when he was randomly shot in the abdomen while walking home from his office. He survived, stuffing his shirt in the wound to stem the flow of blood.

As Mooney’s history with Khalili progresses and she anticipates its outcome, she becomes fearful of its future. Speaking of his sponsor, she writes about his dependence.

…She helped bring us here, makes sure
there is money, the other women don’t count
there is no other way for us in this crazy country
I try to leave, he will not let me go.

Khalili also struggles with his fears for the alienation of his children as he tries to make a home for them among the nightmares of his children in a “country of mistrust and illusions.” Mooney reflects on his work to build a home.

You battered man making a new life, drawing possibilities
for your son and your daughter, daring to dream
a different promise for them, built with your pain
sculpted by your courage, you are a man building
their futures with your own practice of peace.

His passion for life and living is mirrored in another story during his imprisonment, after his arrest when he was beaten and isolated. In the poem “Little Bird from the Desert,” Mooney records his story about befriending a Trumpeter finch that fell from a nest and which he nursed back to health. Reminiscent of the story of freedom and imprisonment explored in “Birdman of Alcatraz” a book by Thomas Gaddis and 1962 film starring Kirk Douglas, his care for the bird seemed to soften his guards’ treatment of him. After his arrest, the military police burned Khalili’s paintings, yet one guard later smuggled out a collection of his prison paintings which were given to his family and appear on the Arteidolia Press website:

As Khalili grows older, grows weary, Mooney authors the poem “Dying from a Different Kind of Arid.”

He leans against winter shadows with such great sorrow
longing to conjure peace, as a magician might drink
sacred water before a birth. Cupping a cigarette like men
in war do, he inhales a California city’s back streets
exhales his fear, he can feel his Jerusalem dying, she needs him
But he cannot go back as he begins to embrace his own dying.

Mooney and Khalili part for several years, and she returns to his workshop describing their final separation in the poem “None of Us Quite Let Him Go.”

… I can see his hands want to touch me, but he lays quiet
facing me with a moan of longing and sadness

…Oh yes, I know you know dying is safe.
Sometime soon this broken body will no longer belong here

…My flight left long ago. I am ready
There’s nothing more to be done

…I inhale, get up, walk away
feeling the caress of his eyes loving me this last time,

She characterizes their relationship as a triangle including herself, Khalili and his beloved Jerusalem.

I caress the sharp line
of your jaw as you turn your face
to her, your desert, your Jerusalem, so close
nothing can lie between you
you begin painting again
with words on my body.

“Cantata” is a story of loss of home and family and may reinforce in reflective readers that war’s casualties extend far beyond the battlefield in space and time. Though we often have little control over wars and those who encourage them, we can assuage our grief and disillusion by caring for ourselves and others. In the words of Spirit Rock Meditation Center’s founder Jack Kornfield who was part of Khalili’s circle of supporters:

Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control. We can love and care for
others but we cannot possess our children, lovers, family, or friends. We can
assist them, pray for them, and wish them well, yet in the end their happiness
and suffering depend on their thoughts and actions, not on our wishes.

Salam Khalili’s wish of returning with his children to his beloved Jerusalem was never realized, and he died in California at the age of sixty-four.

Bill Pendergraft

You can purchase a copy of Sharon’s book here.