Dancing on the Tarmac by Tarik Dobbs
Reviewed by Daniel Lassell
In the chapbook, Dancing on the Tarmac, the poet Tarik Dobbs invites readers into a deeply conflicted world, one where environment and being are, at every turn, being oppressed and destroyed. An expertly crafted collection, Dobbs illustrates a plethora of tensions in their poems, which excavate topics to become, when put together, a beautiful cohesion like a constellation. In this tight focus, they cover ground on topics that include Arab American culture, queerness, the terrors of war, the natural world, and humanity’s very behavior in existence, to name a few. Take these lines from the poem “Dogs”:
Sidewalks start & end
Just slabs at mushy green
Here, we get an interrogation of humanity and our perceptions of nature. Dobbs’ extends beyond observation to an objective: persistence despite destruction, a resolve to stand against a world that has grown so haunted, so utterly colonized and starved of honesty. In their very first poem of the chapbook, “in 1990 one sunset equalizes the light between […],” Dobbs offers readers a noticeable repetition in the first and third stanzas: “light it up” – a line ending that becomes an invocation to rally against the status quo, a world of innumerable violence. A world in which the speaker learns survival despite, for example, a father who can’t seem to show love in a way that doesn’t involve creating trauma. For example, the poem “everything my father touches” ends with the lines, “Come here, come / stand in this hole while father fills it with leaves,” which shows a parent intent upon outdated modes of masculinity, intent upon recreating toxic masculinity in his child. And the poet does not leave this toxicity spared, especially not the mirror they see in romantic relationships, as illustrated in this excerpt from the titular poem, “Dancing on the Tarmac”:
I brought ᴊᴏᴇs over who call me Dad & made
these boys mean while we pretend & pretend
And the poet’s feelings of displacement in this toxic landscape go further, as they wrestle with identity and presentation in society—a society that stereotypes based on appearance, sexual orientation, race and belief. And so, it’s no surprise the poet also shares a tenuous relationship with travel, from car rides to encounters with the TSA, to their experiences of elementary school and even in siblinghood, as in “My Brother Was Born Both Ally & Combatant,” which contains these poignant lines:
I hope this city begins where the state ends
that occupation ends where the state began ::
All voyeurism begins with surveillance.
Dobbs shows readers a hard reality of American society: we have become so obsessed with occupied spaces that now it has become normal to glance over ancestral homelands, without so much a second thought. As evident in the daily news. As evident in coverage of warzones and conflict-prone areas. Consequentially, sacred landscape is again and again degraded by those ignorant of its culture, as illustrated in “A Djinn Hums in Sakhnin”:
on the news, we hear the pines
planted seventy years ago are kindling,
starting to wither; dinner’s getting
later and later.
In all of their poems, Dobbs offers a lens to understanding the wider world through the fine-tuned images of their perspective, a message of daily oppression and a perseverance to survive despite it. And in this sharing, readers might even arrive upon glimmers of hope, as written later in “A Djinn Hums in Sakhnin”:
The djinn shows me many moons
ago, when the Galilee still stretched
undivided by the hard lines of empire—
families crossing freely through its valleys
What also cannot be overlooked in Dancing on the Tarmac is, perhaps, Dobbs’ attention to form, or better yet, their experimentation with it. In many ways, their subversion of it. A tree, an American flag, an armored truck, a person’s silhouette—and the absence of that silhouette—are just a few of the examples of where shaped verse displays the jarring inner anxieties, complexities and resolves of the poet.
In this chapbook, form functions as a vehicle to political and spiritual meaning. Yes, each poem’s words create the image, but so too does their form create an experience. Driven together, both form and meaning become at their juncture, inextricable. Even choices like not to capitalize “American” in their ekphrasis poem “Dragphrasis: Alexis Mateo Calls Home the Troops with a Death Drop” strike me as premeditated, and speak a political message. In this instance, that the term “American” as so many know it, is no more extraordinary an identity than any other modifier might impart. That the poet, more specifically—even though a U.S. citizen—doesn’t feel a belonging in the eyes of so many, relegated to other.
But perhaps what is most consequential in Dancing on the Tarmac is the aperture through which a reader sees, darkly lit, a diaspora too often tossed away from view or shaped in shadow—and Dobbs forces it back into light, so that readers may see the pain and the violence without much blanket of comfort. Dobbs ends their chapbook in a callback to the opening poem: “Now, where’s their light? / My toast of bottled kerosene?” Just as tarmac masks land beneath it, the land is still there—and it is resolved to rise again.
Tarik Dobbs is an Arab American queer writer born in Dearborn, MI. Dobbs’s poems appear in Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, & The Poetry Review. They are an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. Their chapbook, Dancing on the Tarmac, was selected by G. Calvocoressi (Yemassee, 2021).
Daniel Lassell is the author of Spit (MSU Press, forthcoming July 2021), winner of the 2020 Wheelbarrow Books Emerging Poetry Prize selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, as well as Ad Spot (forthcoming April 2021), a chapbook from Ethel Zine & Micro Press. His recent poetry can be found in Southern Humanities Review, River Styx, Grist, Colorado Review, and Prairie Schooner. In his youth, he raised llamas and alpacas on a farm in Kentucky. Today, he lives in Colorado. To read more of his work or to connect with him, visit www.daniel-lassell.com