my name on his tongue, by Laila Halaby

In her first book of poetry, published in 2012, Halaby mines issues of identity, geography and the dislocation that comes from inhabiting two worlds. Halaby, the author of two novels, and recipient of a PEN/Beyond Margins Award, calls this volume a memoir in poems: a story of home, borders, arrivals, departures, airports, memory, childhood, motherhood, the Iraq war, occupied Palestine.

“I come from there and I have memories,” wrote Mahmoud Darwish, and the celebrated Palestinian who spent most of his life in exile is present in the mood of Halaby’s collection. Though hers is a different brand of exile: growing up between places and cultures. With my name on his tongue, she mines a doubleness, or what she calls in-betweenness, which as she describes as allowing for “more immediate stories, those that demand raw descriptions.”

The collection mines Halaby’s concerns from different vantage points: as a tourist, a child, an exile, and an opponent to the wars in the Mideast and Palestine. In “how a tour guide in Petra reminded me of all I’ve lost (or never had to begin with),” a tourist in an unnamed Mideast country experiences a sudden and intense desire for a homeland. In “home,” the speaker charts the contradictions and ambiguity of growing up culturally and racially mixed. “I thought/I belonged /to the Whites because that/was where/my house was,” but that doesn’t prevent her from coming under, or even fearing, scrutiny: “…they questioned/my name/my face/my place of birth/my father’s absence.” Later on, she writes, “I opted for the Arabs.”

Halaby also addresses the roles of exile and the outsider, both of which address the connection of person and place. These roles are also examined in the context of relationships, of kinship and love. In “your country,” the uncertainty of connection becomes a metaphor: “…if I were your country/you wouldn’t be tired/in the evenings.” The poem features some of the book’s best writing, in the speaker’s voice that joins seamlessly with the subjunctive tense and stripped down images. As here, as the speaker wonders:

if you would compose songs for me
in honor of my springtime

would you fold my cotton dresses
the way you might fold your flag
if you were allowed to show it?

The American war in Iraq dominates the book’s final section. In “short video clip: Baghdad tattoo/November, 2006,” the setting features “three naked bulbs” and a man on a table. The man is waiting for a tattoo, and has a “rectangle of shaved hair/credit card in size/etched onto a pale slab of his thigh,” where his name, address and phone number will be tattooed as ID in the event he is killed. Wisely, Halaby fixes her camera on the small things. The stubble on the tattoo artist’s face, the neatness of the letters inked onto his subject’s skin. The poem’s tight focus renders it one of the collection’s most powerful.

Read Laila Halaby’s post for National Poetry Month at the Syracuse University Press blog.

—Lauren Alwan

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