i feel my absence, i feel my presence: A Review of Marwa Helal’s Invasive species

Marwa Helal’s Invasive species is now available from Nightboat Books.


In the eponymously-titled first section of Marwa Helal’s Invasive species, the speaker of the poem “the middle east is missing” seems to respond to its initial series of questions—beginning “wha do osama bin laden and i have in common?”—with anaphoric demands for utterance: “say we were occupied,” “say we did it ourselves,” “say je suis zidane, je suis egyptienne,” “say it to a rhythm not a plot,” “say it in the colonizer’s tongue,” and so on. A reader could argue that these interrogative and imperative prompts are rhetorical, intended only to be sounded in the mind. However, in a book that appears to take as one of its many ambitions a relentless, magnifying grid-like attention to the construction of U.S. American lexicons, a text generally concerned with how language is made to perform as both sector and suture in narratives of migration and that specifically illuminates the precise deployment of threat as a lexical tone embedded in the jargon of government “naturalization” documents and processes, Helal may in fact be invoking here the call-and-response tradition of oral poetry. Or am I not meant to feel in my mouth the consonance, morphemic divergences, and sliding inflections of these words?

say mine
say yemen
say yememi
say zay (like)
say hena (here)

In this same poem, the speaker asks “would you make a space for me? between zoot jute epoxy and a hard place somewhere.” For one, what proximity is there among these nouns other than that which the poet forces? “Zoot” and “jute” sing their common place of articulation and their assonance. In their denotations most immediately available to this reader, the former names a style of suit famously worn by Detroit Red a.k.a. Malcolm X a.k.a. el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, while the latter names a vegetable, the fiber of which is used to produce the fabric of such as burlap or crocus. “Epoxy” might refer to, among other things, a kind of resin used in some paints, coatings, and adhesives for structural materials. Similar linguistic collages/coagulations occur elsewhere throughout the poem; their sounds and denotative navigations resonate in such phrases as “jaunt, wax     wane” and “zoom in. stow the box, lock the key.” What space would the speaker want to have made from this dissonance of apparent fragments? Is the juxtaposition a corrective, an adhesive for what’s “missing?” This is a microspective instance of Helal’s efforts to enliven the play between registers, words, and even syllables (consider the processional intervention represented by the affixed affix in the title “Epiepilogue”) to reckon with geographic, linguistic, and memorial distances in her debut, which in parts chronicles the poet’s two-and-a-half-year pursuit of U.S. citizenship and almost four decades of being both Egyptian and American—in and of, to and from.

The subsequent piece, “the middle east experts are missing,” enlists the page’s visual field to involve the observer in dynamic agential work. Beyond the title, the sole text on the page arrives along its bottom margin: “* drops duct tape * wipes brow *.” In reading the blank space between the title and this subject-less evidence of action, what is it Helal has made the reader privy to? Accomplice to? The dimensions of the page conjure the interrogation room. Who has used duct tape and worked up a sweat? For what—a repair, a gagging, an erasure? Does the page use absence to force into question who the “middle east experts” are, or would be, even? What does Middle East expertise sound like and from whose mouth? Or, rather, given the attention lent elsewhere in Invasive species to the historically troubled terminology of “the Middle East” and its referents, is the refusal of text and simulated (presumed) muffling of speech an enactment of colonial-imperial practices of thwarting the colonized’s agency in self-identification? Is this where the concluding question of Philip Metres’s essay “Dispatch from the Land of Erasure (I)” reverberates? [ 1 ] Here, Helal delivers a nearly unoccupied field that is itself semantically occupied with the obscurity of those who would be pre-occupied with occupied territories. Who goes there? And what am I doing here?

In addition to the visual representation of absence—or absence as representation, as in “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids,” which features a square excised from the text as dedication to Tahrir Square, a site of protest and revolution in Cairo—Helal’s rhetorical and poetic tools are many. The texts of Invasive species employ, often in conjunction, epistles, footnotes, photocopies, found texts, appropriated government documents, the cento, and the Zuihitsu. The book’s opener, “poem to be read right to left,” instantiates Helal’s formal conceit “the Arabic,” which functions almost pedagogically to simulate the experience of newly encountering the directional strangeness of Western text, disrupting grammatical arrangements that native English readers might take for granted while contending with the poet’s own syntactical manipulation (“for mistaken am i native / go i everywhere / moon and sun to”), and eliciting inevitable neologisms and trips in meaning-making as the mind struggles to outpace the text. The abecedarian forms the organizing principal for the book’s second section, “Immigration as a Second Language,” a 54-page narrative collage of Helal’s immigration process, composed in parts of memoir, catalogue, travelogue, and glossary, and conveyed in tones of isolation, humor, and warranted anger. The book rounds out with a poem that employs a homeoteleuton of rapper Juvenile’s punctuating “ha,” as well as an ode to DJ Khaled that—with the redacted presence of Kanye West elsewhere, the echoes of Lil Jon and Oobie’s “Nothing Free” in Helal’s “of Ritual,” and the waves of liquid-heavy Arabic sonics that undulate like mnemonic refrains throughout—helps to underline music and lyric as sites for vernacular connection while foreclosing any kneejerk tendency toward hierarchies of register, art, inspiration, or responsibility to genre. These words from “poem for brad” resound: “the poets will say this poem is trash / but i don’t care.”

Candid and confident about its ecosystems of influence, at times wildly omnivorous and polylingual, purposefully pedestrian at others, the lyrical avatar of Invasive species is one whose existential impulse seems to be rabid availability—to the poet’s multitude of peoples and places—negotiated crossways by a slick, uppercutting investment in infiltration rather than naturalization, divergence (not “diversity”), and didacticism as a form of information smuggling. Helal’s is a work that could be described as attempting to alchemize M. NourbeSe Philip’s and June Jordan’s expressly stated needs—Nourbese Philip’s to “mess with the lyric” [ 2 ] and Jordan’s “to speak about living room.” [ 3 ] Invasive species swiftly takes its place among those volumes that have been donned with the epithet of “linguistically playful” but would more aptly be called linguistically displaced and reparative, formally discontented, prescriptively disinterested, and necessarily chimaeric. A scrubbing restlessness—and the question of what space of respite exists for it—infuses Helal’s utterance and demand for utterance:

but i can write you of ritual of ritual of ritual a structure of feeling a problematic repetition you see i am trying to break the mold i have no form    [ 4 ]


[ 1 ] This question: “What countries could we see, and what countries could we make, if we erased the erasures?” Metres’s essay is one of a series by Arab American writers, including Helal, that challenges—outwardly and amongst the writers themselves—the particular invisibilities and inarticulations of and within Arab American experiences in the face of white-ascendant colonialism and its myopic canonical and critical discourse cohorts.

[ 2 ] Read the full text in the anthology Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edited by Yopie Prins and Maeera Shreiber (Cornell University Press, 1997). Challenging the presupposed authority of the lyric “I” and reckoning with its collapse into (as well as its constitution of) a collective expression, Philip declares this need in the essay “Trying Her Tongue” and then practices it in the interior lyric piece, “Ignoring Poetry (a work in progress),” in which the speaker answers her own question: how does the poet work / a language / engorged / on her many / many silences // Carefully

[ 3 ] This line, from Jordan’s “Moving Towards Home,” is delivered repeatedly as if a chant toward manifestation and then distilled in its sentiment by the ultimate line—It is time to make our own way home—which I (mis)read as “time to make a home out of our own way, to create home from or within our own manners of speech and space-making.” Note: I read Jordan’s “our” as specific and intentional (I was born a Black woman / and now / I am become a Palestinian) and do not coopt it for the sake of this text.

[ 4 ] From “of ritual.”



Justin Phillip Reed
Justin Phillip Reed

Justin Phillip Reed is a South Carolina native and the author of 'Indecency' (Coffee House Press), winner of the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in African American Review, Best American Essays, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere. Justin lives in St. Louis. Come see about him at justinphillipreed.com.

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