Shifting Spaces of Love: A Review of Doyali Islam’s ‘heft’

I’ve always been interested in how writers configure time in poetry. I’m drawn to poems that leap and bound across figurative landscapes, thriving in multiple directions. Poems that fragment and divide, and flicker in-between; that capture what feels like infinity and infinite possibility in a single breath, a single image. Chrysalis poems. “– 36th parallel –,” a poem that brilliantly unravels two places coexisting on the same geographical latitude, is an example of how Doyali Islam’s heft (McClelland & Stewart [Penguin Random House Canada]) captures these “shifting spaces.” Here, and elsewhere, Islam crafts her poetry with an intensity and intricacy that spins together remembrance, wonder, and witness:

We see this, also, in “hymenoptera,” an Ars Poetica representative of the lyrical, imagistic voice that sings throughout the collection. How, through the pattern of ants (a reoccurring motif of the collection) the space of the poem multiplies and gestures toward the figures which simultaneously underscore these poems: chronic pain, familial tension, and conversations with tragedy and survival:

Last year, I spent several weeks with heft. I thought deeply about how Islam’s innovated sonnets, in particular, wove in and out of “Asian Canadian diaspora,” a term which itself is constantly weaving out and into different imaginations. From there, it was a natural slide into considering how heft negotiates the past, present, and future, and especially how it crosses and challenges these neatly bordered segments of time. I also had the chance to exchange a few words with Islam on liminal (and not so liminal) identities. In a generous and tender letter, she wrote: “I don’t consider myself to be in a liminal space, because, to me, ‘liminal space’ implies that I know what I am between.” The letter was titled not liminal, but in a space of love. I think this is what heft does. It creates a space of belonging, of love and, especially, of empathy. It is a map that navigates those shifting spaces I’m so drawn to, like in the poem “virgo (the virgin),” where daylight is a pathway traversing mythology, ancestry, and displacement:

To me, thinking about liminality in the context of heft is unavoidable because of its very structure. The book is riven with gaps, redactions, and—its most noticeable and prominent feature—columns of white space. This craftsmanship prompts us to consider how the body, how language, how joy, suffering, and grief, do or do not take up space. And, so, I can’t help but also think about “in-betweenness.” About how reader, author, and subject are, much like the ants in “hymenoptera,” constantly in a state of arrival.

In his review of Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities, Will Harris suggests that “in every family with a recent history of migration, the question of ‘before’ is never far from the surface.” These “befores” are ghostly shimmers at the edges of belonging and “strangeness.” In “virgo (the virgin),” this tension is crafted in the imagery of daylight and its contrast with a darker sky. And, even for those of us who inherit our displacements, our “in-between” spaces, these “befores,” are felt, viscerally, in our bodies. I’m thinking, now, of the relationship between liminality and Canada’s colonial history—its ongoing colonial present—where whiteness and Westernisation hold power. How, for example, the English canon, too, entwines itself in our bodies. How Black and Indigenous Peoples, and people of colour (BIPOC) internalise this tradition, even as it gnaws complexly at the histories we embody.

So, what does it mean to embody “befores” and “afters,” to exist at the node of multiplicity? As noted by Avtar Brah, there is undoubtedly the “potential for conflict,” but this “does not mean, however, that different ‘identities’ cannot ‘coexist.’” In heft, Islam transforms the Shakespearean sonnet and restructures the potential for conflict into a symbol of reclamation and, perhaps, belonging. She innovates it into two forms. First, the split sonnet, which orients two 7-lined stanzas side-by-side, and next, the double sonnet, which orients two 14-lined stanzas side-by-side. Both forms separate each section with a column of blank space, as shown in “the ant,” a stunning double sonnet:

Mirroring the concept of Islam’s parallel poems, her sonnets undertake a clearly horizontal space and assume a landscape-orientation. This is also reflected in how the poems are situated in two different locations. Here, location extends beyond the geographical; it also means two different memories, or two different emotional tenors, or two different imagistic narratives—a technique reminiscent of Shakespeare’s voltas. I say precisely “two,” because the poems are represented as two columns and function as a duet. In “the ant,” for example, there is a shift in focus: from ant to father, or from narration to meditation. Both parts keeping, still, the same metaphor of a journey at their centres.

Similarly, the poem “letter: to anyone who is listening,” a poem of witnessing, which contains one of the collection’s most striking images (“for the moon / & the drone hang in the same sky), illustrates this multifaceted nature: how on the left, there is a body in despair, wishing for strength; and how on the right, the body realises this wish, becoming fibrous and sustained.

Although Islam’s work is undoubtedly full of surprise, readers may begin to find the analogous structures of each poem slightly predictable. However, Islam constantly puts pressure on these structures, at times manipulating alignment, or erasing one of a poem’s columns completely. Or, like in “– 38th parallel –,” where each half of the poem is to be read aloud by different people in altering lines, she directs us toward a new experience of reading.

And, then again, this structure is not an accurate description of every poem. Prefacing each of the book’s sections (astro poems, split sonnets, double sonnets, and parallel poems) are blackout poems, or inversas: a single, long line at the centre of the page, a page distinctly formatted in portrait-orientation. To me, the choice to switch between portrait and landscape orientations feels deliberate: it’s a distinction that creates an active sense of physical disorientation and displacement. The reader must reorient heft, the object, in their hand and physically turn the book (or reorient their digital version of it).

As I sit with heft in my hands, and as it spins from one orientation to another, I can’t help but feel a jolt. I’m awakened by this movement. To me, this dynamic turn also echoes the Shakespearean sonnet form. It acts as the very first volta in Islam’s innovated sonnets, a volta represented kinetically. Within this unexpected, evocative, and bodily shifting space, the possibility of the volta broadens. It metaphorically captures the physical act of moving, and demonstrates how different words, structures, and rhythms become in/accessible—somewhat less or more familiar, shimmering between belonging and “strangeness,” and always existing on two axes (or more) at once.

This experience may also represent that tenuous term, (Asian Canadian) diaspora. Perhaps that pillar of blank space, the gap between each sonnet, gestures toward a kind of loss. After all, to arrive somewhere means, also, to leave the exactitude of something behind. Not to lose it, but to allow it to transform—

The word “body” veins this review. And the body is central in Islam’s work beyond its metaphorical arrivals and displacements. Throughout heft, the body’s physical pain connects to human suffering. In the blackout poems/inversas that interlude the collection, the single, long lines at the middle of their pages represent the latitude line of Islam’s body; they symbolically and rhythmically explore Islam’s chronic pain. I found myself absorbed in their language and non-language: the revealed and the hidden, the visibility of one poem’s repeating word, “rupture,” and the electric, black-inked band in another, almost exactly halfway through the book. heft is intricately assembled, and these inversas relieve the other poems’ gaps, filling in their blank spines even as they knit with redactions. The result is a dazzling sense of “completeness,” a sense of figuratively homing the body:

Because of my own lived experience, my own obsession with liminality, my reading of heft is a series of observations on how a poem crosses time and space; how stunning, purposeful imagery and powerful rhetorical strategy both become vessels of transportation through our imaginations. But the collection is so much more than this single strand. It glimmers with memory and homage, with achingly candid depictions of a father figure, with cinematic and sensorial descriptions of place. It becomes strikingly empowering, like in “vulva” and in “v,” where Islam writes: “i thought i’d given up on my v but / it was just the world’s idea of it.”

Yes—heft shifts and moves; it leaps beautifully and leaves a space of love wherever it lands.

Image credits: Doyali Islam and McClelland & Stewart.


Alycia Pirmohamed

Alycia Pirmohamed is the author of two chapbooks: 'Hinge' (ignitionpress, 2020) and 'Faces that Fled the Wind' (BOAAT Press, 2019). Her awards include the 92/Y Discovery Poetry Contest, the Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest in Poetry, the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, and the Sawti Poetry Prize in English. Her work has appeared in publications internationally, including The Paris Review Daily, Guernica Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, Best Canadian Poetry, and others. She can be found at and on Twitter @a_pirmohamed.

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