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Winner of the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize
In Lebanon during the civil war, a teenage boy and his family witness leveled cities, displaced civilians, the aftermath of massacres. Resources are scarce and uncertainty is everywhere. What does it mean to survive? To leave behind a home torn apart by war? To carry the burden of what you’ve seen across an ocean? These poems follow a man in search of security as he leaves his country for America, falls in love, and becomes a single father to three daughters. Through the perspective of one man, his family, and even his country, Set to Music a Wildfire explores the violence of living, the guilt of surviving, the loneliness of faith, and the impossible task of belonging.
"In her lovely debut, Set to Music a Wildfire, Ruth Awad rebuilds the image of a broken country and sutures the memory of a shattered family with words that can’t stop singing. A powerful homage to her father, who survived the Lebanese Civil War and emigrated to the United States and married her mother, these poems tell the story of the exile and all he left behind. ‘I carry these suitcases full of rain,’ she writes, in her father’s voice, ‘because I can’t take my country.’ These poems are alive as the keen-song of the griever and the clear-eyed and patient gaze of the children of the children of war."
"The story Ruth Awad tells in this gorgeous debut collection is one of history and memory, displacement and estrangement, and perhaps above all, imagination and empathy. It’s the story not only of the Lebanese Civil War—the sky ‘unzipping,’ the ‘whistling bombs you couldn’t see coming...the beehive rounds, whirring metal wings,’ the ‘woman with half-singed hair...her breath like a sizzled wick’—but also of a family in America and the struggles that continued here. Awad approaches the story—of a country, a man, a family—as if excavating priceless artifacts and holding them up to the light. You will want to lean in close to see them, in all their rich, chilling, and tender detail."
"These poems and the people who inhabit them, ‘born from the mouth of a bullet hole,’ carry a darkness impossible to outrun, the darkness of war, specifically the Lebanese Civil War of the 70s and 80s. For Ruth Awad, the inheritance of such grief remains immeasurable as it fuels ‘our bodies, // their infinite capacity for ruin.’ Both immigration narrative and meditative lyric on identity politics—‘When will you learn my name?’—Set to Music a Wildfire is disturbingly memorable in its intimate and articulate confrontations."
The Set to Music a Wildfire cover artist is Daniel Obzejta.