Under Brushstrokes



THE BOOK: Under Brushstrokes


THE AUTHOR: Hedy Habra

THE EDITOR: William Pitt Root and Pamela Uschuk, Silver Concho Poetry Series Editors.

THE PUBLISHER: Kevin Morgan Watson, Press 53: https://www.press53.com

SUMMARY: Under Brushstrokes is, for the most part, inspired by artworks from different periods and styles, ranging from Bosch, Hokusai, Goya, Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Degas, Chagall, to Guccione, Varo, Tanning, Gmeiner, Ferez, Potocki and other lesser known contemporary artists whose work I greatly admire.

An image posted by the author.I have tried to use paintings as a point of departure for a flight of the imagination; an attempt at transforming a two-dimensional representation into a three-dimensional, almost cinematic rendition that involves all five senses. The collection alternates prose poems and poems with line breaks.

Most poems in Under Brushstrokes are persona poems that delve into the speaker’s interiority, unraveling at times a stream of consciousness, in which case a fluidity of movement is required. Some poems consist of a single sentence, offering a certain liquidity that allows for a faster pace. Others engage in a dialogue with the artist or represent an interaction between the artist and his subject. The visual impact of a painting is immediate, whereas a poem can offer a juxtaposition of scenes that allows a play with time and space, all of which can be projected on the page, within the framed form of the prose poem, like on a canvas.

THE BACK STORY: I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist, therefore, I always spend a lot of time in museums or consulting books about art. I also have gathered a great number of paintings from my Internet browsing and archived them in folders. I started writing these poems several years ago, but it took over a decade to complete the collection.

In Under Brushstrokes, I do not aim at offering a mere description of the work of art, but rather to express my response to it. I try to delve under the artists’ brushstrokes to unravel hidden meanings or create a new version of the artwork, using the music and colors of language as tools.

WHY THIS TITLE?: I have painted the cover art for Under Brushstrokes as well as for my first poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis (Press 53 2013). I have been practicing Chinese ink brush painting for several years, and it has challenged my perception about visual art. For the Chinese, poetry and painting are one, and I can understand why since I have been practicing both disciplines.

I used to work with oils, in which case, superimposed brushstrokes convert the canvas into a palimpsest imbued with mysteries to unravel. But the absorbency of rice paper is unforgiving: it is a hit or miss that gives the painting a poetic quality since it is the expression of the moment’s emotion. I guess that must be the reason why I chose Under Brushstrokes as a title, along with the cover art, which illustrates a woman bathing in the midst of lotus leaves and flowers, with empty spaces that correspond to silences in poetry. The title also suggests that under every brushstroke lies a hidden meaning, yet to be unveiled by every attentive spectator. The combination of brushstrokes, as well as the selection of words in a poem, offer vertical meanings subject to many interpretations.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Under Brushstrokes’ book reviews would answer best this question: http://www.hedyhabra.com/reviews/.

I think that Under Brushstrokes would appeal to readers who appreciate dream imagery and are ready to actively participate in recreating meanings. Readers curious about the intersection of art and poetry would also be interested in the book, especially because of the great variety of artists whose work inspired these poems.

I wanted poems to speak for themselves, so I gradually didn’t accompany poems with an epigraph indicating the source of inspiration. They were all published in journals without mentioning the fact that were ekphrastic poems. But all the artworks are listed in an index with the corresponding poems’ titles, so that readers interested in art and in the creative process could look them up and, as they reread the poem, enjoy a different perspective along with different layers of interpretation.

Every book is unique since it is the expression of an individual voice and the speaker’s experience, which transcends through persona poems. Because I have lived in different countries and learned several languages, I have been exposed to different cultures and literary and artistic approaches that have influenced my writing.

REVIEW COMMENTS: Praise for Under Brushstrokes

In the poem “Brushstrokes,” Hedy Habra writes “the painter raises inexorably the level of the waters, and the woman knows… she will only be fulfilled by drowning in the torrent.” The poems, in verse and prose, in Habra’s new collection, Under Brushstrokes, pay homage to the transformative power of art in the most authentic way possible—by demonstrating it. — Stuart Dybek, author of Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern

The poems in Hedy Habra’s Under Brushstrokes amount to something more sweeping than simple ekphrasis. She makes no attempt to describe works of art, but instead uses them as points of departure for explorations of the dreaming psyche. The resulting meditations, often adopting the genre of prose poetry, retain the colorful imagery we expect in visual art, expressed in a language as precise as it is vivid. One senses throughout a constructive awareness of literary and artistic culture in several traditions. — Alfred Corn, author of Tables

Hedy Habra’s Under Brushstrokes is a rich tapestry of images, sounds and meanings. Like any tapestry the complexity of weaving, the craft and artistry are often under or subliminal to the larger images, and in this way the book lives up to its title in that there is so much foundation that goes into the building of an image and giving the image not only meanings but breath and life itself. Enjoy Under Brushstrokes, it is meant to be read and read again. –.P. Dancing Bear, editor of The American Poetry Review.

Under Brushstrokes is an astonishing collection of poems responding to art. Through Habra’s accomplished pen, these ekphrastic poems create an immediate world of rich textures and image, giving the reader intimate access to such diverse talents as Klimt, Guccione, Bosch, Tanning, and Hokusai. She explores the stages of art—from thought to modeling to canvas—revealing the layered connections between the individual and art itself. These are poems of depth and skill, of beauty and paradox, of “words suffused / in linseed oil,” as Habra writes—a marvel of a work. — Sam Rasnake, editor of Blue Fifth Review

AUTHOR PROFILE:  Hedy Habra is a poet, an artist and a literary critic. Born in Egypt, she is of Lebanese origin and has lived in both countries. After several years in Europe she made her home in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1980. She has authored two poetry collections, Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015), finalist for the USA Best Book Award and the International Poetry Book Award, and Tea in Heliopolis (Press 53 2013), winner of the USA Best Book Award and finalist for the International Poetry Book Award. Her story collection, Flying Carpets (Interlink 2013), won the Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention and was finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award.

Habra has an M.A. and an M.F.A. in English and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University where she currently teaches. Her book of criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa (Iberoamericana 2012) focuses on the visual aspects of the 2010 Peruvian Nobel recipient’s narrative.

A recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Awards, she was an eight-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her work appears in Cimarron Review, The Bitter Oleander, Blue Fifth Review, Cider Press Review, Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Poet Lore, World Literature Today and Verse Daily. Her website is hedyhabra.com

Links to Hedy Habra’s Books:

Flying Carpets: http://www.interlinkbooks.com/product_info.php?products_id=3127

Tea in Heliopolis: https://www.press53.com/poetry-collections/tea-in-heliopolis-by-hedy-habra

Under Brushstrokes: https://www.press53.com/poetry-collections/under-brushstrokes-by-hedy-habra

Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa: https://www.amazon.com/Mundos-alternos-art%C3%ADsticos-Vargas-Spanish/dp/8484896897

AUTHOR COMMENTS: Like most writers, I always work on different projects at the same time. I have just finished a manuscript titled “The Taste of the Earth,” that is currently under consideration; it consists in a ‘memoir in verse,” and a meditation on the current situation in my countries of origin, Lebanon and Egypt. This upcoming book is a sort of extension of my first collection, “Tea in Heliopolis,” which covered earlier years. I also write poetry in French and Spanish and have a bilingual Spanish /English collection in progress. On account of my passion for art, I have also been working on poetry inspired by visual art and I am in the process of finalizing a new manuscript of ekphrastic poetry that has been ongoing for several years. Although in Under Brushstrokes, I dedicated a significant space to women artists that fascinated me, the new collection will consist in its majority of poems inspired by surrealist women.


Broken Ladder:

I am no longer this little boy who ran away at night to milk the moon and stars. What am I to do if the ladder is broken, leaving golden threads dangling in broad daylight, braided rays of hardened light yet fine as silk spun by a silkworm, once linking me to that lost site of fearless joys? But I will send back the stardust I fed on for so long. Now you know why I study the Almanac, awaiting for the right day and time when wheat is ripe, reaching high into those rays of light. You know why I’m here, in the midst of this field, dressed in my Sunday clothes: I will pull these gilded chords as those of a tower bell ringing above beckoning a gift filled with the substance of dreams, wrapped with Queen Mab’s veils. Don’t fear it is too heavy: it weighs less than a breath or a sigh. Let the wind blow softly, watch it rise to the top with your eyes closed.

First published by Pirene’s Fountain in First Water, The Best of Pirene’s Fountain Anthology

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)


Sounds in the Attic

Fluttering wings wrapped in shimmering muslin veils dance

around the broken planks, a gaping wound in the hardwood

floor littered with scattered down, love letters flying away

from torn photographs. A whisper breaks the rhythm of the

footbeats: a tree is unearthed, its roots bleed, veins sapping

roots of my heart, throbbing as a frightened sparrow held

tightly in a palm. Hungry moon, do not lure me into your

maddened circle. Don’t you see that hole in my chest no

longer keeps a beat?

First published by Cider Press Review

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)


While all passengers are asleep, I stay up late, bent over my desk until, rising from the next-door cabin, the woman’s voice begins to lull her child to sleep, attentive to the rise and fall of her voice my pencil runs over the page, in a sinuous way echoing the sound of her humming carrying the stories she will surely tell her child when he grows older but that for now are rocking him in the manner of an empty score filled with inaudible words like notes traced with invisible ink only perceived by me who records them faithfully night after night, stringing words and sound waves together as though weaving a necklace in an unknown language drowning her child’s cries and nightly fears within reefs filled with corals and thick-lipped butterfly fish kissing away the sadness and longing for the home they left behind and the pains yet to come.

First published by Blue Fifth Review

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)

The Apple of Granada

Some say Eve handed a pomegranate to Adam, and it makes sense

to me. How can the flesh of an apple compare to the bejeweled

juicy garnets, the color of passion, hidden under its elastic pink skin

tight as an undersized glove, a fruit withholding the power to doom

and exile since the dawn of time. For a few irresistible seeds, didn’t

Persephone lose sight of the sun for months? I mean, think of the

mystery hidden in its slippery gems, of the sweetness of the tongue

sealing the union with the beloved in the Song of Songs. And I

succumb, despite how messy it is to crack the fruits open, invade that

hive, oblivious to the indelible droplets splattering the sink, reaching

beyond the marble counter all over my arms and face, as my

fingertips delicately remove its inner membranes, until the bowl is

filled with shiny ruby red arils. I add a few drops of rose and orange

blossom water, the way my mother did, and my grandmother used

to do, and her mother before her.

First published by Cumberland River Review

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)


Without any sound, waves permeate the floor, algae cover the curtains with an insidious verdigris patina, and she watches herself, complacent, looking awry in the mirror while she unbuttons her black evening dress, a mirror that remains empty like her own life. Seated in a sofa, back turned, he drowns in his indifference into the surge, and surely, it is his face that is seen reflected in the portrait hanging on the wall, an immersed look, barely visible behind the wide-open newspaper. Waters rise to the rhythm of the notes resounding from the rear window, in which a man with a white wig plays the piano, as though it were Mozart composing his Requiem. The painter raises inexorably the level of the waters, and the woman knows that even in that last moment, she will only be fulfilled by drowning in the torrent furtively surrounding them.

First published by Danse Macabre

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)


Desert Song

It all started when he set out in his suit and tie, searching for a sand rose in the desert. Wandering through dream’s corridors, he hoped to unearth a treasure that would resist the drought of feelings each millenary facet telling of the innumerable ways love can be immortalized. He must have taken a wrong turn since all he found, erect like a menhir, was a fossil: was it the hip of a dinosaur or rather a Titan’s, lost from times beyond memory, so smoothed by the scorching sun that it bore no signs? Looking closely he saw an open jaw with pointed teeth and a hole where an eye once stared. He feared he had to return empty handed in time for his date, but realized with terror that he had no recollection of the path that led him there.

First published by Danse Macabre

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)

The Memory of Unspoken Words

She has landed on the deck of an abandoned wreck, fails to remember how she swallowed the fiery ball that pulled her like a tidal wave into the stillness of a metallic sky steeped in lavender where angry clouds hover around the drowning sun suffused with coral. Her pillow is a melted cloud filled with birds that forgot how to fly and now swim in a pool that overflows the deck, washing the souls of dead sailors from every leak and corner. She presses on her eyelids to find a different ending to their story, sees her body glow with scales and the fish in the pool grow wings. She knows every drop of water will vanish at dawn, erasing with black ink her luminous shape, alive only in the formless night, and the rainbow will soon shine over a boat with discarded bags heavy with the stained memory of unspoken words and broken planks.

First published by Pirene’s Fountain

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)

Face à face

When with eyes closed, I face the mirror of desolation, I see myself as a dove fluttering in slow motion like a still mirage while I walk the desert dunes, wondering where I’d last seen the scarce palm trees still erect by the smothered tents where all the ones I’ve ever loved are now buried. I search for ashes shrouded in sand, and only see through half-open lids feathers the color of my hair, lidless eyes staring at their mirrorless reflection, lips pursed in triangular silence, and oh, yes, how can I omit those metallic blue shades making us all one, woman and fowl, in love and loss?

First published by The Bitter Oleander

From Under Brushstrokes (Press 53 2015)

LOCAL OUTLETS: Michigan News Agency, Kalamazoo. Kazoo Books, Kalamazoo. The BookBug, Kalamazoo. Barnes & Nobles, Kalamazoo.





PRICE: $14.95




Twitter @mannouna.


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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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