Cities and Senses in the Poetry of Hala Alyan
“I have not found my home / but I have learnt / to live / in my voice” — Rawia Morra
In 1966, Etel Adnan became the first Arab-American woman to publish a collection of poetry in English, and a wave of Arab American poets began publishing poetry with an emphasis on the search and struggle to claim an identity. Arab American women have used poetry as a medium to explore issues of identity, feminism, and the Palestinian tragedy, melding the personal with the political.
For her introduction to The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, Arab American poet Nathalie Handal quotes Iraqi-British academic Kanan Makiya: “Poetry is the most revered and the most developed art form for the Arab peoples, occupying pride of place in a classical literary heritage which…provides the only persistent tie Arabs have with the past,” also noting Makiya’s observation that “constant invocation of this tradition… has become a powerful basis for asserting Arab identity.” Considering the deep-rooted tradition and history of poetry as an esteemed art form in the Arab world, Arab American poetry demonstrates both respect for the Arab identity as well as the searching and questioning belonging uniquely to immigrants. While such a focus on individuality can be interpreted as characteristic of American poetry, Kahlil Gibran’s “Arab Romanticism” in the 1930s, “born of the profound need for freedom at every level,” established “a poetry of individual yearning,” paving the way for Arab poets to “search for dreams and for interior and exterior liberation.” According to Handal, the poetry of Arab women is marked by “their inner and outer struggle for a personal identity, for self-realization, and their pre-occupation with bipolarity, biculturalism, bilingualism. This search is evident in the poetry of American poet Hala Alyan.
Hala Alyan explores themes of love, war, family and nationality in her collection of poems Four Cities. Alyan’s interest in describing land and cities is critical to her exploration of identity. This characteristic belongs to a lineage of Arab American women poets who, as Handal says, “describe the land and its elements and in doing so [assert] their belonging.”
In “Push,” Alyan presents startling imageries of juxtaposed settings to illustrate an internal turmoil. She addresses specific cities, including cities in the Arab world, evoking a sense of violence, “Beirut. I still love you like an arsonist,” as well as unexpected sensory delights, “Beirut. You are the cherry end of a cigarette.” She compares cities in the Arab world (Aye Nappa, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Damascus, and Baghdad) with Manhattan, Paris and Rome, as well as remote and rural U.S. towns in Kansas and Oklahoma: “Norman, Oklahoma. No one calls me Holly anymore.” The contrasting landscapes seem to demonstrate the breadth of the speaker as an individual; she contains multitudes, not just a mispronounced first name.
As the poet navigates specific cities and experiences, she often returns to certain lines, particularly via the repetition of the entire phrase, “Gaza. I’m sorry.” The repetition of this phrase occurs three times in the poem, with each repetition indicating a lingering and deepening of meaning. The repetition of “Gaza” also symbolizes a circling or ruminating resembling a fugue state. The speaker returns to her origins figuratively, in gestures within the poem. Each time she evokes “Gaza” in the poem, she calls it into being.
The poem’s yearning, however, is not overpowered by grief for the occupied homeland due to the poet’s emphasis on individuality and independence, which strikes a chord as a American characteristic. The poem reveals itself as inherently American in the revelation of the speaker’s struggle to be accepted, through places and people that misunderstand and misrepresent her; this conflict presents the heart of the American immigrant experience.
While Alyan recalls a memory for each city in the poem, which offer a range of emotions and sensory experiences, all of the vignettes addressing American cities possess a feeling of uneasiness. In “Boston,” Alyan writes, “I found the bird already dead crooked nest scattering the / pavement and for days all I saw was that constellation of bones,” while in “Wichita. The car rides / through your highway backbone. Always a thunderstorm.” Alyan evokes a sense of danger and discomfort in her nature-related imagery of the dead bird, “that constellation of bones,” that the reader reenters in the “highway backbone” of a Wichita thunderstorm.
The push-and-pull feeling toward claiming an identity is indicated in the poem’s use of white space and its title “Push.” The varying amount of space and its placement in the poem creates distance and separation, propelling the force of the poem while intensifying the central conflict: To what city does the speaker belong? Where is she going? What does she want? The answer is revealed in the final lines of the poem, which concludes in Gaza, offering a powerful resolution: “Gaza. I’ll tell you where I’ve been.” The direct address of Gaza as a “you” personifies homeland as beloved.
Alyan confronts the experience of nostalgia for her homeland in “Sestina for December.” The speaker contrasts the brutal winter living in New York to warm memories of her homeland, using references to symbols of her heritage like “arak,” a type of liquor, and “the lovely blue eye,” a symbol of protection. The six ending-words of the sestina demonstrate Alyan’s preference for imagery that engages all five senses:
green, God, salt, cake, air, and mouth.
The poem opens with a nostalgic reference, “Miles to the east there is a carnival of green— / whistling men drink arak.” Alyan uses sensory imagery to capture the depth of longing for “another weather, a coastline framed with salt… Gossamer, wispy as cake.” We feel the air, taste the salt and the sweetness of the place she describes, but has not yet been revealed in the poem. Alyan’s nostalgia for Palestinian cakes evokes a sensory experience. The use of food-related imagery is related to a tradition in Arab literature, according to Handal: “food is one of the most important themes in Arab-American literature. It provides an emblem of their history and culture, their Arab life away from home and their national identity.”
While the homeland is given other-worldly attributes, New York is described as “always nightfall, sirens staining the air / and that ugly moment of ice,” and “I hate this air, / graphite chamber with no daylight.” The sestina’s end words symbolize where these two worlds meet.
The weather plays a significant role, as the speaker’s nostalgia for Palestine creates an endless summer in her mind, such that even as she writes to her mother “I am remembering the air / of July, the tiny gods that waded with me in Haifa’s sea.” This is an essential aspect of the poetry of Arab American women, according to Handal, who argues that “Describing the land is a way to express where their roots rest… and it is a way to demonstrate love of their country or express resistance.”
Alyan’s sensory, imagistic poems allow her to travel through time and space, experiencing her homeland from wherever she may be. While her work often depicts a triumphant overcoming of stereotyping, “No one calls me Holly anymore,” she presents her poems with gentleness, focusing on her experience as an individual rather than the experience of the collective.
Since its conception, the poetry of Arab American women has confronted stereotypes, raised questions about personal and cultural identity, and depicted their homelands with heart-wrenching nostalgia. While distinctly Arab-American, their poetry, like Hala Alyan’s, pays homage to the emphasis on individuality spearheaded by Kahlil Gibran.
Nathalie Handal wrote in 2001, “Arab American women poets are also engaging in self-criticism and bringing to surface subjects that are considered taboo in Arab-American society.” Seventeen years later, poets like Alyan continue to challenge the status quo and craft a unique feminist perspective. In her poem “Wife in Reverse” published in Believer Magazine, Alyan writes “If a girl doesn’t have land, then man becomes land.” In “In Jerusalem” (Thrush Poetry Journal), the speaker asserts “Land remembers like a body does. A city full of men / still has a mother.”