In HOMES, interdisciplinary poet Moheb Soliman traces the intricate borders of the Great Lakes—Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior (HOMES)—and explores the meanings of home, place, and identity in the spaces where water meets land and nature meets industry.
This stunning collection of postmodern ecopoetry prods the ironies that live in these in-between spaces. Soliman excavates layers of time until they lie, unearthed, together—colonialism, Nick’s Liquor, Indigenous cultures, Black runaways, the World’s Best Donuts, prohibition, and Mackinac fudge all share the same land. Absence is a presence, too, holding the history of what came before it. As one poem reads: “Disappearance leaves a mark.”
Memory is another type of presence/absence that weaves through the poems. Motorboats coming in from the fog are described as being “like names returning to relatives” and the lakes themselves are memories of their histories. In “Lost city of Lake Erie,” Soliman writes: “I met a regiment of memory there.” The border between past and present is as blurred as the border between land and water—both sides seep into one another, shaping each other’s identities and existing in a shared space and time.
Borders between humans and nature are similarly dissected with questions like “how many hearts can a place have” and “is there love / a love / that is / unhuman.” Soliman personifies the environment, using language that depicts nature—which is so often described as a passive “it” that humans do things to—as active and alive. In one poem, Lake Erie is “always up in arms and temperamental.” Others point out that “rivers have mouths lakes have bodies” and humans are responsible for “naming maiming / limbs of peninsulas.”
This personification makes reflections on environmental destruction all the more harrowing. Natural landscapes in HOMES are claimed, combed, annexed, bought, invaded, contaminated, abandoned, and captured. Land is in a constant state of movement; climate change is obvious and quick.
Soliman, who is from Egypt and the Midwest, interweaves themes of immigration and identity throughout his travelogue. A sense of wandering rootlessness permeates the collection, which is punctuated with poignant lines such as “there is no place like home / everywhere we are foreign.” His wordplay prowess elucidates the complex experience of belonging in a xenophobic society with simple phrases like “vacate the promises,” “my yearning power,” and “you don’t have to go home but you can’t live here.”
The phrase “commit tourism” is perhaps most cutting, and tourism appears particularly criminal in a poem about the view of Niagara Falls (described as “a thick coat of enterprise on the back of sublimity”), where selfie sticks abound. The theme of humans capturing nature dominates many of the poems, but nature is no voiceless victim. In “Lost city of Lake Superior,” nature does the capturing “in stunning color, with shocking resolution.” In another poem—“Balding campground on the ‘Sunrise Coast’ and who wants sunrise on hard-earned vacation”—nature shouts from the page: “DON’T LOOK AT ME I DIDN’T DO THIS TO US I CAN’T HELP YOU.”
Soliman reflects on heavy topics with easy-going wit and candor. Understated humor surfaces throughout the collection, one memorable example being fish “pulling themselves up by their gill-straps.” The tone is often casual and direct, which makes the reading experience an intimate one. Readers will find a flowing musicality in the words, which are near-lacking in punctuation and are spaced and phrased as notes are. Some poems use repetition, sound effects, or slashes that create the feeling of reading song lyrics. Others are more obviously musical, including one in which the narrator sings a “behorned serenade” and ends the poem with a series of rhythmic la la’s. The text from first page to last ebbs and flows like water itself.
An engaging meditation on our world and our place in it, HOMES takes the idea of borders as neat dividing lines and cracks it open, redefining place as a space that is shared and changeable. From expansive swaths of gradual transition to the sharp chaos of infinite forms intersecting, borders are the complicated places where identity lies. Expressing both the natural world and human identity as the full breadth of diversity that they are, Soliman writes with the hard-won freedom of being confined by no borders at all.
Lillie Gardner is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Quail Bell Magazine, Delmarva Review, Long River Review and more. She’s also an essays reader for Hippocampus Magazine and a contributor at Feminist Book Club.