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Tea in Heliopolis by Hedy Habra

Hedy Habra’s debut collection of poetry titled Tea in Heliopolis is a charming book that begs one’s attention to detail. For this reason I suggest that you fix a cup of tea (preferably mint tea) before you begin reading this collection that was on numerous finalists lists before it was published by Press 53 this year. In this manner you will be set to allow yourself time to savor the nuances and motifs in this fine collection. You will travel to lands that are foreign to most of us yet while reading one discovers that “they”–the ones in Egypt and Beirut–are really no different. We all have desires and needs.

We have lots in common with the painter referenced in Vision who contrasts with the writer:

Now a mural, the page stretches, calling for paint, brushes, a ladder.

Two androgynous silhouettes engage in an elegant tango, twist and turn, limbs bent in unison.

you yearn for a sliver of diamond, reach for paper, pen to keep the vision alive, but it melts into water, vanishes as you hold on tight to your feather pillow.

And so we the readers, the visitors try to take in the wonders of the lands that Renoir, Boucher, Monet, Manet, Turner, Degas, and others captured—wanting to hold the essence of want with paint:

As in To Henriette aren’t we all reduced to water when it is all over?

He looks sideways, pointing an index finger, half-smiling, seduced by his own words, lascivious eyes oblivious to the flock fleeing the canvas. “She’s looking for trouble,” I often thought. “Did it take long,” I later asked, “to make her skin so real?” “I don’t remember,” you said, “but aren’t her nipples une petite merveille?”

“There’s no such thing as true love,” you’d say, “the greatest passion melts like ice.”

Here in this collection of memory and tension between family members for the choices they made, we can envision the lands of want and needs and come to conclusions that are simple but true as in the title poem Tea in Heliopolis:

For years, bent over your canvas, your youth was all painted, not lived.

These truths are not harmful but crawl under our skin and like those painted we so much want the figures to leave the canvas and do their magic because we have so few hours to measure the honey in our mint tea.

Habra gives us a gift with this collection. So join me—one who has picked up the book several times and each time I do I see yet another subtlety among the rhododendrons. Now we can eat a pomegranate which comes from the Middle East and savor its flesh, knowing that the ruby seeds / beneath [our] fingers paint us like a live canvas.

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