Arab on Radar, by Angele Ellis
Even in America's nominal melting pot -- indeed, even for an admittedly suburban-bred poet of Italian and Lebanese ancestry -- the pull of ethnic identity can be powerful. Pittsburgh poet Angele Ellis shows just how strong in Arab on Radar (Six Gallery Press), a slender, 59-page collection in which a curious mind reveals itself through invitingly angular verse.
The book opens with the title work, a prose poem that's a second-generation American's lament about the conflict between ethnic pride and fitting in: "Trying to ignore the cartoon sheiks with their huge noses / while we measured ours, praying they wouldn't get bigger."
Ellis' frame widens, however, to encompass an engaging time-lapse portrait of her grandfather's cigar store; trips abroad; musings about her ancestors' lives; and the literature of her ancestral homeland. "June 1967" tells how a war halfway around the world can suddenly split suburbia with ethnic fissures, even though "There were no soldiers / on Sparton Lane." In "The Beirut Ghazals, 2000," its five sections each consisting of five unrhymed, self-contained couplets, Ellis lyrically summarizes an overseas trip in lines as concise (and precise) as "Turks, once oppressors, bring hot towels" and "The villagers fled to the UN compound for shelter."
Ellis' long service as a political activist and anti-war protester also finds expression. One poem summons Thomas Merton when the poet hears the news that the FBI has spied on his namesake Pittsburgh social-justice group. At once passionate and slyly funny, she tasks the feds' narrow-mindedness: "Beauty the secret missed by surveillance, / blacked out like lines in a classified file."
But just as her political poems question rather than lecture, even in her least provocative work, the appeal of Ellis' verse typically lies less with any particular sense of identity than in the music of its lines. "So many soundings / before we touch bottom -- / prizing the wrecks, / impounding what we seize," she writes in one poem. "Photographs are kept for the lie / of a moment, captive light that warms," she says in another. And "[t]elling about despair is a monologue / babbled before many mirages."