Fugitive Atlas

Fugitive Atlas
Khaled Mattawa
Graywolf Press, 2020. $18.00, 144 pages.


Consider borders. In an atlas, a border is a line separating two countries. Consider the borders within the United States. Beyond geography, we have racial borders, socioeconomic borders, and environmental borders. Consider borders in the time of COVID-19. We live in a time where we have a heightened awareness of who is allowed to go where. The experience of six-foot boundaries. No hugs. No handshakes. No kisses. The experience of space within the walls of our homes. Globally, we share this experience.

Fugitive Atlas by Khaled Mattawa, the Libyan poet and literary translator, is a lyrical cartography of human migration. Mattawa’s fifth collection arrives at a time when migration—at least by people and across borders—has virtually come to a standstill. Khaled Mattawa’s collection is an invitation to remember our personal migrations, to see our responsibility as individuals and as a collective, and to examine borders that exist on and off maps.

Fugitive Atlas’s scope is global in theme. Popularized in 2000 by Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen—the Anthropocene—from the Greek words anthropos meaning “human being” and kainos meaning “recent” or “new,” is the proposed name for a new geological epoch signifying the period (beginning around 1750) when human activities began to significantly effect Earth’s geology and ecosystems. As noted in “Anthropocene Hymns,” Mattawa writes, “A copulation between these two verbs, // learn and adapt, // between two concrete towers collapsing.” Mattawa’s choice of diction, “learn and adapt” not only references Darwin but also the Western framework that separates human history and natural history. The Anthropocene “collapsing” provokes a reexamination on the Western distinctions between humans and nature. The image of “two concrete towers collapsing” functions as a twofold argument.

First, Mattawa, the cartographer, argues that the predicaments of the Anthropocene are intimately entangled with issues central to geocultural dynamics of language, race, gender, ethnicity, spirituality, religion, economy, geography, militarization, politics, power, and transborder lines. Second, Mattawa reminds us that all human beings are a geological force to shaping Earth’s future. And so, Mattawa presents stories of suffering beyond his own and across poetic landscapes to bring readers to a place—a global human place.


In Mattawa’s collection, ecological sustainability in relation to the human body appears in the form of an ethical question: “How to stop thinking of bodies / as worth extinction, worth eating or enslaving”? A poet-reader may see this question as a challenge—a challenge to recognize the complexity of suffering, culture, the world, and to not exploit it. Through poetic Western and Eastern forms, Mattawa calls for a new language to re(vision) those who have been displaced and othered in both human and natural history.

Fugitive Atlas’s scope is global in form. Throughout the collection, Mattawa orchestrates a sonic mural of tercets. Unlike a border, tercets have at least three lines that may or may not rhyme. The lines of tercets, visually, represent a group, a community; vocally, they represent a chorus of speakers. Mattawa’s choice of form not only guides readers along poetic landscapes, but also reminds us that we do not exist in isolation from others. Mattawa maps form to inform theme. Like a border, tercets enforce brevity to paint a focused image. In the opening poem, “Taproot and Cradle,” Mattawa presents a tone of remembrance. He writes, “I remember the killed enemy. / I remember my good friends.” The dichotomy between an enemy and a friend propels conflict. The diction, “enemy” and “friend,” creates distance. This distance outlines a language border between the general and the personal. Language migrates. A language border is formed when we choose to consider suffering as “theirs” instead of “ours.”

Responsibility entails actively listening to the narratives we have chosen to forget, to ignore, and to silence. Mattawa confronts us with these stories. In “Face,” a multi-narrative is spoken about the one million-plus deaths in Iraq. One speaker exposes a truth: “It’s true, we’ve gotten used to your absent faces,” a truth revealing a desensitization to suffering from the “other.” A speaker, asks: “And now you, O million plus, / how many of you are still burning?”—an ordained border. Another speaker recalls: “We must work together you explain. // Remember, when you blew up these houses, / these bridges, hospitals, schools? / Wasn’t I alive then, and weren’t you?” The questions echo back to “Anthropocene Hymns,” in which the speaker ponders on the human body’s value. In a society still focused on neat categories—to be a native or foreigner, to be an assimilationist or revolutionary, to be a friend or “other”—Fugitive Atlas is an intuitive echo on what it means to be human in the time of war and forced emigration. And so, Mattawa’s poetry calls for the kind of attentiveness that results in a wide expanse of language—beyond borders.



Andrea Rehani is a poet, writer, and researcher in Chicago.