Who Translated Kings and Not Birds: A review of Zaina Alsous’ A Theory of Birds

In Salman Rushdie’s essay “Imaginary Homelands,” he expounds upon the impossibility of complete description for writers writing outside their homelands. The state of bodily displacement is essentially matched in the imagination. “And as for risk,” he writes, “the real risks of any artist are taken in the work, in pushing the work to the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think.” This is precisely the fragmented yet limitless dreamscape presented in Zaina Alsous’ A Theory of Birds (University of Arkansas Press, 2019). It’s a poetry collection that insists, in a world where the relentless Palestinian question of return exists alongside the marketed penetration of Mia Khalifa, there are few places as redemptive as the imagination: “the author says the door is always open, / the ghosts say the door is not for us.” 

Confrontational and unafraid, the collection gives appropriate weight to the violence of colonialism, ethnic erasure, and displacement. But the violence is not entirely profuse, as her speakers offer retribution in the form of birds, radical theory, and surreal description. If the personal is political, these poems pull the thread tighter (or looser) by expanding our definition of political to include a terrain of endless possibilities where we may encounter worlds of redemption:

I don’t want to hear anymore history, unpin me
from the calamity of democracy when you are ready
to follow a tendency of anonymous feathers.

The ecosystem of the collection is one of transfiguration, a liminal space haunted by the desperate search for a compensatory truth, a place where concepts such as “return” and “beginning” are unmasked and reconfigured. In these worlds, beginning is appropriately avant-garde, and yet, to begin in nothingness is utopian and painfully reminiscent: “In a new city, all I see is memory.” Even with the poems’ demand for a new world order, historical violence must still be understood and admonished before it is exonerated: “Who drew Israel without the rank and file / Who stamped the passport.” 

The allure of imaginative displacement is engineered through the poems’ inventive free verse and the intentional distortion of language. The idea of language itself—its political power, its ability to question, expand, examine, limit, and oppress—is a point of both contention and ambition in this work. In “cinematography,” a eulogy of destroyed cinemas in the West Bank questions the ability of language and, by extension, canonized theory to adequately describe and produce meaning: 

In the demolished projection room of Al-Assi, live
Remnants of yellow frames. Marx and this poem fail
To fully explain the action of workers watching film alive
Under occupation. 

Similarly, “Can the Dodo Bird Speak?,” alluding to Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?, presents a catalogue of questions that symbolically defy a logical trajectory and casually obstruct established semantics, demanding linguistic and theoretical paradigm shifts: 

Can the apology anthro? Can the seed fuck?
Can the prisons extinct? Can the gold blue?
Can the thing name? Can the rot remember?

The agreement we make with the collection is a necessary humbling as we continually confront language’s inevitable failures, especially in the world of neo-imperial war and resistance: “When a US soldier kills for sport we say pathology, / not pathogen—patriotic trauma is aftershock, not origin, not/ infectious.” Once we have submitted to this new model of malleable vernacular, language becomes an open-air academy in which we are free to mean and not mean, fall out of line, push back, and, of course, begin again: “Everything they teach about enlightenment leaves / prisoners or my mother out. To answer your question: / I refuse.” 

Embedded in her refusals are also confessions of her corroboration. In “the subject of much debate,” she laments, among other things, her fixation on a “pale Boy” during the Arab Spring: “I mostly speak in english / and avoid the irony of my invasion.” The invasion, both sexual and political, is perfunctorily ironic but elucidates a complicated consequence of history—of the Arab who laments her displacement but is compelled toward resilience in the new country. Her survival becomes contingent upon the success of her amnesic assimilation. 

Violence, as with language, is often blurred with intimacy, a reminder that the political is not only concerned with bombs but also with social bodies. In “I have this nightmare about fucking Napoleon,” sex, like other aspects of colonial conquest, becomes an apathetic, omniscient sight of exploration and exotification rather than a mutually pleasurable act. The speaker is studied—“a petri dish of my saliva / in the morning”—and not loved. The extant exotification of the Arab woman is echoed in the poem ““Arab making”” in which the speaker asks, “Who marketed Mia Khalifa’s penetration,” and confronts her own disturbed complicity: “Who made me watch.” 

At the heart of the book is the bird, whose enchantment is used as the driving metaphor and theme throughout, defying definition and remaining a consistent symbol of other-worldly freedom. The species, who is—with its flight—enviably unrestricted and un-bordered and yet still somehow capable of extinction, begs us to consider the necessary work of protecting vulnerable populations from premature death: “Before I leave, I have a demand: a poem against / extinction.”  In “Dead as a Dodo,” the Dodo’s extinction elicits a metaphorical juxtaposition of racial and ethnic genocide and the political machinations that seek to erase their histories: 

As though one could paint a memory of the dead

Along the blue archway, melting into condensed rain

And be told                No, you must have dreamt them. 

The bird, with its multiple habitats, also forces an examination of the age-old questions of identity and the homeland. What is a nation to a bird? What is a language to a bird? The various disparities of displacement are further interrogated through the abstraction of “place” and how its insisted significance can subjugate our lived experience. In “Reading Darwish in Vermont,” we are asked: 

                                                        What is place?
Oh how badly my language shows American—densely haunted
and subtitled. I have not called my mother in weeks, 

though her kitchen is my only country;

As a result, nationhood and the ideologies that reinforce its existence are made insecure. In this way, the poems continue to ask, what does it mean to mean? To write? To write against? To write toward? To write from? To write as? The possibility of a transgressive imagination sprung from the wounded past is extended to news-media and prose in her series of “found maps,” where sentences from essays, photo captions, and newspaper headlines are reworked into lines of poetry. The ingenuity of the new form also questions (and refuses) the canonical constitutions of poetry while rendering the narratives of Arab resistance inherently poetic. In “found map 1,” she re-inscribes Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism

This woman who sees
being seen

frustrates the colonizer

The poet is dedicated to a sustainably circular existence where “Eventually the ocean drinks you back.” In response to the constellations of neocolonial and racial violence, the poems resist escapist tendencies toward a romanticized afterlife—“Heaven isn’t a happy ending, you know?”—and instead insist on interrogating nature as an example of ecological harmony that humans have failed to re-create. Hence, the bird, the trees, the sun, all of them begging for our attention and imitation: “Trees speak a language we could learn.” 

This collection is aggressively soft and in a hurry—running towards the future while still looking over her shoulder to make sure no one is left behind. The metaphysical imagery invites disarray while insisting on our power as creators: “Infinite moon wandering ice ages, cellular oceans cusping margins.” We are left with interminable ways of seeing, a new relationship to the language, and a manifesto: “When I say love, I mean these miracles are work.”


Maha Ahmed

Maha Ahmed holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon where she was recipient of the 2016 Promising Scholar Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 580 Split and Rusted Radishes. Find her on twitter @mahaahmed81.

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