tano rubio

Finishing Incomplete:

A Review of Yasmin Mariam Kloth’s Ancestry Unfinished: Poems of a Lost Generation

 

Publisher: ‎ Kelsay Books (August 3, 2022)
Language: ‎ English
Paperback: ‎ 74 pages
ISBN-10: ‎ 163980174X
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1639801749
Item Weight: ‎ 4.3 ounces
Dimensions: ‎ 6 x 0.19 x 9 inches

 

 

Loss is a fundamental trait of finding. In order to find, you must lose; this is an easy maxim. What’s harder is the space between– the waiting.

So often, the sweetness of finding is left un-savored, overwhelmed by the bitterness of what we hold on to: what we expected to be, but never actually became. But sometimes relief can be found in boxes stacked in our basements, dust-laden and eager to guide us into who we are becoming. Such is the experience one finds reading Yasmin Mariam Kloth’s inaugural collection, Ancestry Unfinished: Poems of a Lost Generation, from Kelsay Books (August 2, 2022). In Ancestry Unfinished, Kloth invites her readers to travel through loss, only to come out the other side, hands “covered in dust and the thin translucent skins of bug shells and / body”.

While many of the collection’s poems dash from Cairo to the American Northeast, the setting of its inception was in the middle of corn fields, tucked away in northeast Ohio, at a quiet summer workshop in 2019. The Kenyon Review advertises their week-long summer workshops as generative, and for Kloth this rings true. I was there that summer workshopping alongside Kloth, who by the end of the week offered many thanks to her colleagues, having helped her refine several initial drafts to poems now printed across Ancestry’s pages.

Some of the first poems to emerge from the Kenyon workshop were “Telephone,” “Grotto of our Lady Lourdes,” and “Forty Days”; but what I remember most from the workshop were the vivid images of her grandmother rolling grape leaves in “Hand Rolled Wisdom,” Days of our Lives flickering in the kitchen background as the soundtrack to Kloth’s fumbling, stuffing, and rolling. This scene is one that resonates with those of us who carry a cultural heritage shaded more Brown than White. It’s hard to capture the complex feelings that accompany the feeling of estrangement that accompany the cultural blend that is American assimilation, where the melting pot sears our edges, smoothing away cultural eccentricity throughout the passing generations. There are several moments in this collection where Kloth relives memories like these to revive her Middle Eastern heritage, and the reader watches it as it percolates and steeps amidst the black and white of Ancestry’s twenty six poems.

“Telephone,” which captures the regret that festers in the distance between the fragments of Kloth’s identity, traces a generational through-line that would eventually become the collection’s structure. Split into three parts—Grandmothers, Mothers, and Daughters—the collection emphasizes both the chasms and bridges between generational inheritance. The book’s three sections frame the passage of time that takes place throughout the collection, paying homage to each phase of her lineage. As if each poem is a precious heirloom, the reader finds her lines precious to touch, heavy with significance, and fruitful in their nostalgia. The generational through-line, like genetics, carries this theme throughout the collection, engendering a heritage fabricated in memory, but tangible as the “skin that covers [her] skeleton / know[ing] much more about the sun” (“Bones”).

Born and raised in the United States, Kloth embodies the friction that so often accompanies children born to immigrant parents as they straddle the line that is hyphenated American-hood. To have a name outside the Anglo-American alphabet is to endure the rifts of two or more competing worlds. As we grow in this country, so much of American social programming encourages us to limit our identities to one shade in the hustle and bustle of expediency. Instead of allowing Anglo tongues to stumble over our names, we soften accents and intonations for ‘quicker’ and ‘easier’ pronunciations, flattening the parts of our identities to make us ‘whole’ in the name of unity. The title poem, “Ancestry Unfinished,” features the doubts that accompany this fragmentation process, asking

What has been lost across the ocean?
I am not prepared for the questions
my daughter will ask me, why
her middle name is unlike other names
of the kids in her class, why
the strange guitar in her home
is fat in the middle, why
the inlay in its center
looks like stained glass; why
the notes sound unfinished
and out of place, and will they

one day

be repaired?

Kloth’s most lucid moments come when she situates herself as the matriarch, surveying the weight of split American identity in the context of motherhood. The abrupt loss of her mother to cancer positions her in the space between living and dying. Surpassing eulogy, these poems pick up the pieces her mother left, coloring in the blind spots and embodying legacy. For her, this role bears more responsibility than the weight of child rearing; she seeks answers that lie deep within the fabric of her being: A fuller identity to pass to her daughter, something whole and honest, as tangible as “the space that fills the distance / to there” (“Ritual”).

Moving from daughter to granddaughter to mother, her poems capture the insecurity of transition, the nagging lack of guidance, and the dormant intuition of hands that know the secrets of heating coffee with an ibrik. Kloth admits that she “never bothered to learn”, but now, in the face of motherhood and her daughter’s young, inquiring mind, her misgivings pour darker than the warm Turkish coffee of her childhood, a mystery once known, but buried deep underneath dunes of repression and angst. The repeated enjambment of why in “Ancestry Unfinished”, like young hands pulling at the base of a parent’s leg, presses beyond curiosity and into existential uncertainty.

As is expected in the face of loss, grief haunts the collection. But a warmth flickers in poems such as “Jasmine Flower,” where the soft memory of her mother unfolds like the petals of the flower memorialized in her name. They say that because the ear is closest to the part of our brain that processes memory, that sound is the most evocative of the senses to arouse nostalgia. For Kloth, her mother’s language is one of her strongest ties to the homeland, where her mother’s “tilted / accent” evokes a comforting familiarity, distant but distinct enough to hear, as a mother’s voice becomes a child’s guide through a busy store or street. The poem craves the Arabic cadences of her family’s pronunciation in the face of the pressures of American assimilation: A tension many immigrant kids and children from immigrant families carry as they navigate the demands of standardization in “American schools.”

Her mother’s tongue isn’t the only one to which she pays homage. In “Banyan Song,” she recounts her grandmother’s fortitude emigrating from Cairo to Montreal. Encapsulating their first meeting, the poem juxtaposes Kloth’s daughter and her grandmother, surveying the distance between the two in majestic metaphors:

The distance between
their generations is not age.
The distance is language and loss.
The distance is the root
of the Banyan tree, measured in meters
from its leaves to the earth.

While ‘language and loss’ frame this meeting, Kloth’s undertones enshrine a sacredness that is, again, resistant to assimilation. Her poetic voice stands as a bridge between the chasm of loss, which at times can be overwhelming. Instead of crumbling and crashing beneath its weight, like the Banyan root, her word permeates the deep, soft earth, nourished in remembrance.

Though her sadness is heavy, her work is strengthened in its resolve. She craves the slowness of time past, enclosed in memory and heirlooms, and the collection promises a bridge between worlds. The second to last poem, “Feather,” reminds us that no matter how we find ourselves, we always have the opportunity to become who we want to be. For Kloth, this means that she move beyond language and loss to something indefinable and light:

I am not really a feather
but something else–
I am hopeful
it all means the same,
and when trouble comes,
I float.

 

About the writer:
tano rubio is a writer & teacher from East Tennessee. He has published or forthcoming work in Recenter Press, Bodega, Rattle, Southern Humanities Review, Appalachian Review & Reckoning: Tennessee Writers on 2020.

About Yasmin Mariam Kloth: Yasmin Mariam Kloth is a poet based in Cincinnatti, Ohio. Kloth writes about love, loss, space, and place in an ongoing exploration of her Middle Eastern heritage.

Featured Image: The Mountain, Autumn by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). Oil on panel. 11.6 x 11.5 inches. Between 1910 & 1911. Public domain.