Claire Zoghb off Bradley Point, West Haven

Close to Home

From the ancient capital of Egypt, where a man buys fresh bread “just after the first call / to prayer, when the sky, still star-filled, / goes lavender along the city’s rooftops,” to the summit of Mount Everest, from which a “plume of snow” flies “like a silken Buddhist scarf,” Claire Zoghb’s poems are layered with potent imagery that hits home even half a world away.

A West Haven native, Zoghb grew up among the potent images peculiar to beach life, in a house just blocks from the sand, where the neighborhood kids spent every summer day while their moms parked their lawn chairs in a circle to watch them and socialize. Maybe the salt and sun of those days has something to do with Zoghb’s love affair with Lebanon, Egypt and other warmer climes that frequently provide the sounds, smells, tastes and other sensations of her poetry. But she traces the genesis of these poems to a life-changing trip she took to France as a graduate student. There, she met a Lebanese man who talked about the civil war then raging in his country. That serendipitous connection led her to pursue a thesis involving Lebanon when she returned to Wesleyan University in Middletown. And that project led to an interview with the man who would become her husband, Nicolas Zoghb, who had grown up in Lebanon and was then studying electrical engineering at the University of New Haven.

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In “Apples,” the opening poem of her collection Small House Breathing (2009), which won the 2008 Annual Book Award of the Quercus Review Poetry Series, Zoghb describes their first date, on which they stopped at a roadside farm stand. In the poem, a man picks out two apples, and he and his date drive on, eating. The narrator watches as he consumes his apple—core, seeds, stem and all.

I don’t know whether to be frightened or impressed
by this man who eats apples whole, takes everything into

himself and leaves nothing behind. Not even one polished
brown seed, hardened in the shape of a tear.

But it’s her future father-in-law, Fouad, whom Zoghb refers to as her “muse.” Their relationship got off to a rough start. They met for the first time in Cyprus at Nick’s brother’s wedding, but his father wasn’t expecting her and refused to acknowledge her presence. After shunning her for five years, Fouad came to visit New Haven. “He was great in the car on the way back ,” Zoghb recalls. Later, “he took from his pocket this little airmail envelope filled with seeds. And he gave them to me.” In “Seeds,” she writes:

I dropped the garden hose and into my palm
he shook some of the dusty seeds from their paper home,
seeds waiting for earth, destined to sprout, grow into trees
bearing a fruit for which there is no name in my language,
a taste impossible to describe in any tongue.

It was “the beginning of something,” Zoghb recalls. “Then we had fun, and I learned that I could tease him… We really had a wonderful time together.” A few years later, in 2000, Claire and Nick visited his father in Egypt, traveling through his hometown of Alexandria and down the Nile to Luxor and Aswan, a trip that later became the source of many poems. “After he passed, I started getting all of these poems from our travels together around Egypt,” she says. “It felt like he was giving them to me… I felt like I was being fed them, and I needed to take that.”

With so many poems inspired by balmy places, it may be a surprise to find Zoghb conjuring the heights of Mount Everest, where the bodies of English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory and his climbing partner were found 1,000 feet from the summit in 1999, 75 years after their expedition ended with a tragic fall. No one knows whether they reached the summit—their camera has never been recovered—but if they did, they beat Sir Edmund Hillary, widely credited as the first Western climber to reach the summit, by 29 years. Zoghb’s chapbook Dispatches from Everest (2017) imagines the Mallory expedition—his fall, his thoughts, the fate of his body, the group of mountaineers who found him. She says she found “something so noble” about Mallory as a subject. “I mean, that takes some serious guts.”

A graphic designer by trade—Zoghb is Long Wharf Theatre’s graphics director—she designed the cover and layout for Small House Breathing. As playful with form as she is with imagery, Zoghb writes in many poetic structures: ghazal, alexandrine, pantum, sonnet, shaped poem. In “Italian-Honeymoon Haibun,” from her collection Boundaries (2016), she uses the haibun form, a prose poem ending with a haiku, to tell of a tour guide in St. Peter’s Basilica who “grasps one of my husband’s glossy black curls, / stretches it taut in her overripe fingers,” then says in the final haiku:

Come Sansone…
I needed no translation
from this Delilah.

As we discuss poetry in general, sitting in Zoghb’s childhood living room just up from the beach, we talk about the unique function poetry serves among literary genres. “I think there’s a healing power to poetry and maybe a soothing quality to it because of the rhythmic aspects, the metrics and the form formal poetry,” Zoghb reflects. “I think it’s hard-wired into us.” She points to the poetic elements of hymns and psalms. “I think people really turn to poetry in times of duress, interestingly.”

The poet herself has turned to poetry all her life, as a way of “figuring out the world in an artistic and fairly rigorous way… It’s a tool to do that, and frankly, it’s just fun to noodle around with words. I’ve always done that ever since I was a kid.” Ironically, the least explored territory in her work thus far may be the closest at hand. For now, Zoghb says, it’s time for her poetry to leave Egypt and Italy and Tibet and return to the scenes of her childhood on a street called Grace, in a Haven called West.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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