The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali delivers us into an Arab world stripped of exoticism, a world made palpable by mundane reality, an ordinary world made luminous by the vision and speech of a genuinely gifted poet.
—Sam Hamill, Final Judge for the Idaho Prize for Poetry 2013
Yahya Frederickson’s rich poems—weaving a world, shaping a place of filigreed detail, savory scent, “little bundles of herbs” and encounters, invite us to cross an invisible bridge. Here, in a land he is bound to through experience and marriage, a land of most ecstatic architecture, Yemen—we find gracefully created, intricate room-on-room dimensions of human lives, legacies, and linkage. May poems like these be protection for the precious spaces and breaths of attentive exchange.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Yahya Frederickson has experienced a world that very few Americans have, and to say the least, we’re fortunate for his eloquence in capturing and sharing it. Again and again in these well-crafted poems and prose poems there are startling moments:
“. . . a ragged old man tramps by looking like a bedouin, a holy man in hard plastic shoes, banging his walking staff on the pavement and reciting poetry, which, even though I can’t understand, I know is poetry . . . and now he’s dancing—banging his staff in rhythm, stamping a couple steps forward, a couple steps back, BANG!—I’ve got to admit that I am feeling it too, so I put my arms up in the air like his, he grasps my wrist, and suddenly we’re dancing together. . . .”
So, too, do we all learn to feel the poetry of these places, to keep on dancing through this richly imagistic excursion from a pediatrician’s office to a cemetery, from restaurants and shops to deserts and mountains. I’ve known since I first read drafts of some of these poems that one day they’d be published as a wonderful book, and I’m simply delighted that they have been.
About the Author
Yahya Frederickson teaches writing and literature at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from the University of North Dakota. Between graduate degrees he taught in Yemen, initially as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He served as a Fulbright Scholar in Syria in 2005 and in Saudi Arabia in 2011.He is the author of three chapbooks, including Month of Honey, Month of Missiles (Three by Three: Tigertail Annual, 2009); Returning to Water (Dacotah Territory, 2006); and Trilogy (Dacotah Territory, 1985, with Julie Taylor and Richard Schetnan). His poetry has appeared in Arts & Letters, Black Warrior Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, CutBank, Hanging Loose, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and many other journals.
IMMERSION BY VERSE
February 6, 2015
The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali by Yahya Frederickson (2014, Lost Horse Press. ISBN 978-0-9911465-2-9)
A chance meeting with the author of this volume of English language poems set in Yemen led me to buy a signed copy of The Gold Shop. Dr. Frederickson and I were situated next to each other at a local authors' gathering at the Duluth Public Library. We didn’t exchange books; we actually paid over hard-earned cash to each other (though a trade would have made more economic sense!). Not usually a devotee of poetry, my purchase sat on my bedside table for a bit. Needing a “read” for lunchtime at work, I brought The Gold Shop to the courthouse where it again waited its turn. I picked the book up earlier this week and found I couldn’t put it down.
Frederickson, a professor at Minnesota State-Moorhead, has spent considerable time in the Middle East, first in Yemen and then later, in Syria and Saudi Arabia. This slender volume depicts the turmoil, grit, atmosphere, and Islamic faith of Yemen in subtle, and, at times, direct ways. There is a mystical quality to Frederickson’s writing that is both touchingly sentimental and hardened by the reality of eternal war and conflict. Here’s a sample from “Revolution Day”:
On the roof of Bayat Abu-Talib, I’m eating grapes
and reading the explosions over Tahrir Square.
Liars, they proclaim, this is yours. But there is something
about their sounds, so distant, so muffled.
A few floors below, my friends light a candle
in the blackout, whisper the latest gossip
into the lapping light . . .
© 2014 Yahya Fredrickson
This is just one example of the power and brilliance of Yahya’s minimalist approach to evoking a region of the world, a culture, and a religion that few Westerners understand with any sort of depth or appreciation. I was so enthralled with the lyrical quality of these poems that I immediately went to the Bookstore at Fitger’s and purchased a translation of the Koran so I could begin to understand the point of religious view and culture expressed in these fine, fine vignettes.
I believe only the desert can know the aridity
of cardamom, coffee, and ginger. In his small divan,
Firas and I sip duqq with his distant relatives,
who have come from their village for medicine,
work, or maybe an official stamp. I don’t pry.
The poster above my head shows Saddam Hussein
atop a white stallion, greeting a clapping throng.
A cousin asks about America’s motives as if
I am my country and he is his. My Arabic,
tinder-dry, heats the room. But beyond the door,
Firas’s mother is listening. She hears me ask
about the drink she prepared. I sip until the faces
of relatives eclipse and it is time to excuse myself.
At the door, Firas places an aromatic sack
into my hand, recites the instructions his mother
gave him to give me for steeping the night.