“I recognized the song”: A Review of Hala Alyan’s ‘The Twenty-Ninth Year’

My past two years have been defined by their coinciding accumulations: eight hundred miles of relocation, thousands of sentences, University-subsidizing labor, and a record number of solitary hours. With time spent between myself, long windows in an unfamiliar city, unfurl hours of meditating on my relationship to being Palestinian, the pendant question, that animates and stains my every attempt at scholarship. I have come to realize my relationship to nationhood is not so distant from my relationship to reading—either way I am looking for someone or somewhere to greet me; I don’t know how to exist alone.

Palestinian-American poet Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year (Mariner Books) opens with an exile poem or a love poem or the first step towards recovery—admitting an unmanageable, an unmanaged life, “Hunger is hunger.” After “Truth,” a dirty mirror, comes a memory reel of detection, propelled by what is imposed—war and gender. “The exile knows his bones are 206 instruments. There is a song in each one,” she writes in “Transcend,” wading through the cosmic horror of Aleppo.

Alyan’s Twenty-Ninth Year responds from a set of spectacles and subjectivities that manage to be both highly pathologized yet underwritten: the exile, the daughter of immigrants, the addict, the Arab, the wife. Alyan approaches these origin wounds and distorted projections through lyric remnants, and in decorating a backdrop of mutilation with souvenirs of quiet grief and unkempt eroticism, Alyan manages to scrape back some of what has been violently taken:

The worst ghosts are the ones that don’t come back


The officer at JFK scans me. My body, ghost white, flickering on his

Pretty boy. Blue eyes.

Takes my fingerprint and winks.

Cheer up. You’re home.

One of the tensions taken up in The Twenty-Ninth Year, complicated and fastened by Palestinian diaspora, is the question, what makes a body civil? Alyan’s poems admit enough to distance herself from quotidian performances of docility and gratitude, expected of those who survive and obtain entrance into empire’s borders. Alyan also tosses back any fragments of the heroic—she doesn’t set out to be exile’s protagonist. “You can give it back. After you I swore off everything but white boys, sold myself like a country. When I’m through I’m through.”

While Alyan risks writing the nostalgia of rebellious girlhood to be nearly too romantic, paired with the realities of constant surveillance and the humiliation of being policed wherever she goes, Alyan’s stringent confessions of deceit, alcoholism, and theft can be read more incisively as micro-refusals, a diary of refusal:

I slept with your boyfriend. I stole books from the library. I pretended to be having a nightmare. It was an errant breeze that slammed the door; she’d already left. I never tried to call you back. I woke up and found a pile of twenties on the hotel nightstand. I mostly drank for show. I’m prettier than your wife. I still dream of what I did to you.

In Alyan’s poetry feminized beauty is a tool for picking locks and avoiding capture. In the poem “Telling the Story Right,” Alyan swims through currents of desire punctuated and mediated by state violence: “I loved the soldier who winked at me. I loved the soldier who tossed me a cigarette. The Nile in me, the bitch, knew what to do, a switchblade tucked between ankle and boot.” A scene in The Battle of Algiers that haunts me is when three Algerian women revolutionaries disguise themselves in European clothing, lightening their hair and skin, in order to pass through settler checkpoints to carry out a guerilla mission for the FLN. Winking and flirting with the French soldiers who kill, humiliate, and torture Arab subjects—in order to make it to the next day, to carry out the mission: a practiced illusion, guided by a rubric of freedom. Alyan does not carry out a revolutionary mission in the poem, but she offers the border’s maintainer enough to make it out alive, with enough time to tell the story.

While many of us who navigate the world might be familiar with the contradiction of using sex to evade violence, all the while beholden to the omnipresence of sexual violence, Alyan’s poetic layering heightens the blurred and often exaggerated distinctions of sex and work, desire and obligation.

Several poems in The Twenty-Ninth Year interrogate the interior life of a new bride. In Alyan’s poems, marriage, like nationhood, is a contract that, even as the speaker submits, can still be bent, stained, crumpled; from “Instructions for a Wife”:

so here my lips bright as pennies, here my bra shed on another porch.
Your country likes my hair long. My tits small as a boy’s.

My mother taught me how to dance in an empty room,
heels clattering on the tacky linoleum floor. My mother taught me.

I’ll cry four coats of mascara off. I’ll dress the trees with plastic bags.
Come winter, come Lent, I’ll cock myself like a gun.

In The Twenty Ninth Year, elegy—often attached to the totalizing ruin of war—is never set too distant from observing the modes of reproduction; those who have lost everything also harbor the next world. In the closing poem, “Thirty,” Alyan writes,

Thirty, honey. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. I can’t.
Someone died. It was a day. I ate ice cream until
I felt sick and my mother lied to me about her mother.
Marry or burn; either way, you’re transfiguring.

In my twenty-eighth year I don’t always want to know what comes next, carrying the annotated burden of proving existence, but Alyan’s poems offer some relief, a green door cracking open. To choose to keep living without adequate maps, without return, is to record the failed bedrooms, the broken windows, the unrepaired and unrepairable cities as essential settings; to keep the shadows as lockets and the memories of sickness as kindling, “To love the hibiscus, you must first love the monsoon.”


Zaina Alsous

Zaina Alsous is the author of 'A Theory of Birds' (University of Arkansas Press).

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