“We carry the names of gods,” Athena Nassar writes in her oracular debut collection, Little Houses (Sundress Publications, 2023). Somehow celestial yet singularly grounded, Nassar dissects society’s ills with a wry humor and protective gaze unique to a big sister. This collection is divided into six “houses” that act as the structural apparatus of the manuscript—House of God(s), House of Temptation, House of the South, House of Technology, House of the Adolescent, and House of the Maternal—each as multivalent as the speaker of Nassar’s poems. In her houses, Nassar gathers and explores the various facets that make up her identity. As a BIPOC woman of Egyptian descent who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, as well as a devoted daughter and doting older sister, Nassar investigates the expansive geographies of her identity with a tenacity and care that correlates with those aspects of her being—both those she inherits and those she constructs. She writes, “Perhaps this is why I ate fluorescent lights as a child. / Not to glow, but to conquer the glowing.” Nassar is a poet who lovingly beholds all that is “defiant in nature,” whose practiced gaze lingers on the forces that threaten to consume her, and ultimately, makes something luminescent and bright of that defiance.
Nassar, like the inspector of a sinking home, refuses to shy away from the cracks and contradictions she encounters in America’s foundations. As she writes: “If you choose to dissect a mango, first you must bear down / on its stringy flesh.” In the first sections of the book, Nassar engages with her Arab heritage and Southern upbringing—what it means to “own” a body on the margins:
I count people in pairs. Pair myself with the wind
and blow in through someone’s back window.
I appear like a love letter sealed with hot wax.
My skin smells like comfort food, so I let them
eat me. They draw me in and fold me like linens.
Wear my hands around their backs and scrub me
until I am clean. I lie on the grass with an empty
picnic basket and count the church-going boys.
With quietly brilliant observations and surreal descriptions reminiscent of poets like Victoria Chang and Ada Limón, Nassar takes necessary leaps into metaphysical and imaginative realms as she makes sense of the world around her.
While an accomplished poet, Nassar is also an essayist and a writer of short stories. Of one of her stories published with Pleiades Press, titled “She Was Never the Birds,” she says:
I am always fascinated in discovering the surreal within the real. In shamanic initiations, the shamans see themselves die, as well as their bones after they die, and they call this experience the first death. This process is them transitioning to their true self, and that is really what the narrator is experiencing.
Nassar’s shamanic ability to imagine her own death is evident in poems such as “ghost girls” in which Nassar reclaims agency in her evanescence, writing “I pass through them because I am the breeze.” Nassar effectively blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead, afterlife and survival, in order to stretch the soul, connecting us across spatial and temporal boundaries. Similarly, in her poem “avareh,” Nassar expresses community and love for other “longing souls,” especially those with immigrant lineages, describing them as “crescent moons” and “birds” with the ability to foresee and mourn for beloveds even before they have died, a relationship that is especially potent between mothers and their children. “I want to tell you / I’m scared of waking up. My heart, a bird batting its wings to go / nowhere. My mother, a sound lodged in my throat.” In this elegiac and confessional mode, Nassar links border-crossing to an inherent spiritual power, and establishes these faculties as inextricable from femininity, girlhood, and the immigrant experience.
Channeling poets the likes of Franny Choi and Kevin Prufer, Nassar utilizes the language of technology and dystopia as a means of discussing race, femininity, and the self. “I am a lover of all things defiant in nature,” she writes, and literally embodies those entities in playful yet searing persona poems throughout the collection. While these persona poems may seem disparate at first glance, they are of a unified voice that allows the poet to dwell in newly imaginative realms, convincing her reader of the reality of alternate universes. In her poem “athena as villanelle,” Nassar becomes an assassin from the TV show Killing Eve, performing a hit on the patriarchy. She writes,
nobody could’ve seen this coming—me
a babe with a bangin’ body
igniting the big bang in his body
a Russian diplomat imploding
a galaxy caving in on itself
in the face of a woman
In these staggered lines and incendiary stanzas, Nassar touches down from the cosmic to insist upon the power of femininity in all its forms and universes.
Whether immersed in the worlds of science fiction, myth, spy thriller, religion, the supernatural, or domesticity, the driving force of Nassar’s motivations are established and made clear from the first poem in the collection: the poet’s fierce love for her family. She breathes new life into her beloveds by calling them back to the living body: “Like when bits of my grandfather // flooded into my brother / and made a home there.” In these death-defying and luminous poems, Nassar doesn’t only enclose and carefully examine her subject, but provides a sanctuary for her beloveds, a space in which she may bear witness to their enduring acts of care and love. Nassar writes,
I assume the other bits of him are somewhere
wherever heaven is
rolling in a bed of purple hyacinths
or asking what my grandmother needs
from the store
still pushing grocery carts
through the clouds.
Like the slow and deliberate flight of a snowy owl, Nassar guides her reader through “a kaleidoscope of gods,” teaching us to stir both the living and the dead, to be the beat of wings in the silence, the stubborn heart “where the dead things lie, / unbeating.”