A selection of luminous, fiercely intelligent verse from Egypt’s premier poet.
Iman Mersal is Egypt’s—indeed, the Arab world’s—great outsider poet. Over the past three decades, she has crafted a voice that is ferocious and tender, street-smart and vulnerable. Her early work captures the energies of Cairo’s legendary literary bohème, a home for “Lovers of cheap weed and awkward confessions / Anti-State agitators” and “People like me.” These are poems of wit and rage, freaked by moments of sudden beauty, like “the smell of guava” mysteriously wafting through the City of the Dead. Other poems bear witness to agonizing loss and erotic temptation, “the breath of two bodies that never had enough time / and so took pleasure in their mounting terror.” Mersal’s most recent work illuminates the trials of displacement and migration, as well as the risks of crossing boundaries, personal and political, in literature and in life.
The Threshold gathers poems from Mersal’s first four collections of poetry: A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons (1995), Walking as Long as Possible (1997), Alternative Geography (2006), and Until I Give Up the Idea of Home (2013). Taken together, these works chart a poetic itinerary from defiance and antagonism to the establishment of a new, self-created sensibility. At their center is the poet: indefatigably intelligent, funny, flawed, and impossible to pin down. As she writes, “I’m pretty sure / my self-exposures / are for me to hide behind.”
"The first new poems I've liked for years . . .Unpredictable, savage, chaotic. There is something of Zbigniew Herbert in them, clever, abstract, musing stuff, but they are this year's model, an 'upgrade,' as we would say, with terrifying bleakness in place of his periodic geniality." —Michael Hofmann, The Times Literary Supplement
"Mersal doesn’t offer herself as a representative of her country, culture, or religion, and her feminism manifests not as a creed but as a tone, a disposition toward life and love. Her voice is so inviting, so familiar, so confiding that it’s even easy to forget that these are translations: Creswell renders her as a perfect contemporary . . . To read The Threshold is to be heartened by poem after poem that exhibits the whole woman—heart and mind, candor and cunning." —Ange Mlinko, The New York Review of Books
"This selection, drawn from [Mersal's] first four books and nimbly translated from the Arabic, showcases the sweet, tough verve of her voice." —The New York Times Book Review
"Mersal's poems are many things—sensuous, cerebral, intimate, angry and disorientating. They provide food for thought and elicit laughter in the dark . . . [The Threshold is] a perfect entry point for readers new to her work." —Malcolm Forbes, The National
"Ravishing . . . Mersal’s poems read like short stories; they are spare but resonant, full of charming misfits, and governed by chance." —Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, 4Columns
"Mersal’s work is unafraid of its own promontories and edges . . . the poems read like missives of faith addressed to a shadowy, mirrored world of choices unmade and lives unlived, now assuming the force of a haunting." —Alex Tan, Asymptote
"In a voice both fluid and laser-focused, fierce and tenuous, unflinching and vulnerable, [Mersal] hews a path that is post-Arab-modernist, unsettling certainties about the ground from which an individual sees and speaks . . . The individual poems, and the collection itself, reflect Mersal’s compassionate and ruthless exploration of a complicated journey through contemporary history and troubled geographies." —Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., Book Page
“The publication of Iman Mersal’s The Threshold is a major literary event. Long recognized throughout the Arab world and in Europe, Mersal is one of the strongest confessional (or postconfessional) poets we now have, in any language: her poems are fueled by a mordant wit, sensual vibrancy, and feminist brio. Impatient with pieties—whether political, erotic, or poetic—she writes, like Louise Glück, with emotional intensity and analytic coolness. This is poetry of earned and perfect pitch: the notations of an impassioned mind. I read The Threshold straight through; it will become a permanent companion.” —Maureen N. McLane, author of More Anon
“Undeceived, ironic, daring, Iman Mersal’s poems are animated by a singular sensibility. They deal candidly with real life—migration, dying parents, emotional entanglements—and discover general truths among the fine particulars. Robyn Creswell’s translation is deft and subtle, and the Anglophone world is lucky to have it.” —Nick Laird, author of Feel Free