THE BRILLIANT COPTIC AMERICAN POET MATTHEW SHENODA AND HIS COPTIC POETRY ماثيو شنودة، الشاعر القبطي
Matthew Shenoda is a Coptic American Professor in the School of Critical Studies at California Institute of the Arts, the San Francisco State University (SFSU). He is also a known poet who has published two poetry books that have been widely acclaimed by literary critics, Somewhere Else[i] and Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone.
Shenoda’s father left Egypt for economic reasons, as he says, in 1969 at the end of ex-president Nasser’s rule. He returned to Egypt in 1971 after Nasser’s death, and in the presidency of Sadat, to marry Matthew’s mother. They then, both, went to the United States of America where Matthew was born and raised.[ii]
Shenoda’s Coptic Egyptian roots inspired his work. Copts, and non-Copts, can read in his poems sweet words, one finds in his Somewhere Else, that are pregnant with meanings and feelings such as the River Nile, history, memory, Tātā, tātās,[iii] Coptic prayers, Coptic church, Coptic cross ‘the symbol of Egypt’, priest, alabaster jars, hippopotamus, ancestry, lineage, my people, relics, bones, coffins, victims, papyrus, Thoth, lexicon, language, pharaoh, martyrdom, Epip,[iv] agios,[v] pi-ekrom,[vi] our exodus, civilization, history and Copticism. These are words that make his poems particularly, and authentically, Coptic.
But Shenoda’s mind was not formed only by his Coptic roots – he has developed a trans-national identity that is inclined towards a leftist ideology. Shenoda talks about a ‘third space’ – that he always lived in a third space. By this he means the feeling of homelessness that he and his family found in both Egypt and the US, in their own home and in the diaspora. He speaks of a double-exile: when in Egypt they felt strange in a country often dominated by a foreign-Islamic culture; in the diaspora they felt estranged by being a tiny minority. This is responsible for much of the melancholic mood that drives a lot of his work. In America he developed an inter-ethnic solidarity with other dark-skinned, ethnic minorities against what he calls the common enemy of oppression and injustice. He has views on western-hegemony, capitalism and Zionism. In Egypt he sees the successive Egyptian governments as having been successfully problematic to the Copts and the Egyptians as a whole – they aided in discrimination against the Copts and all the population. It has not done anything to stop Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. As he says, “The government (in Egypt) has never worked for aid of the population. Period.”
Shenoda’s work which is derived from his Coptic Egyptian roots fascinates us, and possesses that sublime quality that can make a great poet. Few may favour his controversial, politically-motivated work with its leftist themes; but many will undoubtedly be moved by the poetry in which he so lovingly, and faithfully, reflects Coptic life, culture, sentiments and modes of thinking. How I would that he focuses on this type of work – he would serve our nation beyond imagination if he does. There is originality and genius in his work that may predispose him to be the inaugurator of modern national Coptic literature;[vii] a matter which our Coptic nation is in desperate need of.
In this article I would like to introduce the reader to a few examples of what I call “Matthew Shenoda’s Coptic Poetry”. They are just a few of his so many beautiful poems – the reader will do better by buying, or borrowing, his two books Somewhere Else and Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone in order to enjoy Shenoda’s work in full.
Our grandmothers walked the banks of the River Nile
Balancing on their heads alabaster jars.
Our tātās beat clothing on the banks of the River Nile
Ringing and rolling the precious drops against limestone rock.
They dried the dates of palm on the banks of the River Nile
Adding to their sweetness a kiss of peace.
They carried the weight of the River Nile
The weight of us all, on their backs, all the while bracing earth with
their toughened feet.
Song of Name
Inside the illuminated song
floats a note
that only the ancient can hear
three scales above the rest
it rides through the ear
deep past the bone
driven by the engines of memory
the ancient transforms
and the song of Name rings clear
Standing on the Corner
This poem was inspired by a true story, as Shenoda tells us – a real incident of Islamic hostility that affected a friend of his family. He says it represents a small example of that fanaticism that plagued Egypt all the time.
scrunched in the crowd
where millions gather daily
her Coptic cross hangs by her neck
a taxi swings toward the street’s edge
hand reaches out the window
to rip the symbol of Egypt
from her neck
Annunciating the struggle
knees sunk deep
on the banks of the Nile
hippopotamus beats and papyrus realities
remember how they skinned our brothers thin
sewed the flesh of the dead to our tongues
gifting us the evaporating taste of stealth
the language of another brother’s skin
like the campesinos cultivate
in the tradition of your people’s fate
breaks silence & starvation
Keep it real
with that hectic eclectic
* ṣaḥῑḥ is the Arabic word for “real”.
How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (30 December 2011), THE BRILLIANT COPTIC AMERICAN POET MATTHEW SHENODA AND HIS COPTIC POETRY, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/the-brilliant-coptic-american-poet-matthew-shenoda-and-his-coptic-poetry/
[ii] For more on Matthew Shenoda, visit his official website: http://www.matthewshenoda.com/Home.html I also found Shenoda’s interview on Voices of the Middle East and North Africa KPFA Radio program, which was produced by the Middle Eastern and North African Perspectives (MENAP), very illuminating in understanding more about the Coptic poet. You can listen to the interview by visiting: http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/14822
[iii] Tātā is the colloquial Egyptian word for “grandmother”.
[iv] Epip is the 11th month in the Coptic calendar.
[v] Agios is a Coptic word, borrowed from Greek, meaning “holy”.
[vi] pi-ekrom is the Coptic word for “fire”.
[vii] I take ‘Coptic literature’ here as any work, in whatever language, that has Coptic theme to it – i.e. work that reflects Coptic life, culture, sentiments and modes of thinking.