SOMETHING SINISTER by Hayan Charara (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Marwa Helal
Literary heavyweight Hayan Charara returns with his first poetry collection in ten years: Something Sinister. The work is haunted by the voids of family life; the contradictions of a pious father:
Ta’ Ha’, Ya Sin, Sad, Qaf.
God of my father, listen:
He prayed, he prayed, five times a day,
and he was mean.
The loss of the speaker’s mother and his desire to reconnect with her in any way results in her spirit becoming a strong presence throughout this work:
My silence alone provoked her into
saying, “I wasn’t dreaming.”
And if she had doubts
about God or the afterlife or seeing
our mother again that night
As for me, I was simply jealous.
I loved my mother and let her death
ruin my life, yet she
never showed up, no matter
how much I drank
or smoked or banged my head
against the walls.
Charara holds nothing back as he navigates the most interior locales of the personal: dreams, hallucinations, the space between his head and the wall, loss, aching, violence and anger. His is a new take on what it means for the personal to be political. The title poem deconstructs the ‘us and them’, the ‘hearts and minds’, the ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ of the post 9/11 era. More than that, it is about an individual who is of both the us and the them, (whatever that means) and all of its complex implications. That is the interiority of Charara’s work. Here the personal is personal and the political is merely an afterthought, a bystander. In fact, Charara seems to hold the fleeting above all:
What does a ten-year-old
do with relativity? Or
the concept of infinity,
or a theory of everything?
And if the Big Bang and every
instant since turned out
to be a single everlasting
moment under the sun—
The final poem: “Usage” is a book within this book; a dense eight-page single-spaced mini-opus on dismantling the very fabric of America through its primary language and the impact of its usage on our lives. This last poem (and the book as a whole) should be taught in every English-speaking classroom.
Charara’s other titles include The Alchemist’s Diary and The Sadness of Others.
FOUR CITIES by Hala Alyan (Black Lawrence Press, 2015)
Reviewed by Marwa Helal
Alyan establishes herself as a poet to keep an eye on with her second collection, Four Cities, traversing her expansive geography and vernacular through these poems. From Venice to Aleppo to Gaza and Detroit, this collection is a journey through lands, the terrain of emotion and the surprises any traveler knows you can never plan or prepare for.
Gaza. I’m sorry. Beirut. I still love you like an arsonist.
This is the poetry of the new world, where Oklahoma juxtaposes Paris. The immigrant’s child, the refugee’s child has traveled the world and returned with these words:
Baghdad. Twenty six years and you still make me cry. […] Istanbul. Marry me. Dallas. I pretended I was Aladdin turning the soil over and gasping. […] Gaza. I’ll tell you where I’ve been.
Alyan succinctly and surprisingly captures the interior lives of women in both hemispheres while giving us access to the dreamlike quality of being an outside observer among extended family back home. In one scene, “the same Turkish soap opera/ is on the television set,” and in another, “I can show you a city torching itself./ The sea eats the sea like firewood.”
A recurring theme in Alyan’s work is the body as paper. If that is the case, then this work is the body folding and unfolding into a world map made of the poet’s words, as every season in every city seems to be contained in this work.
From “Portrait of Love as a Series of Dreamscapes”:
There are butterfly trees in cities now,
strung from branch tips.
Mammoth oaks shimmy
with the bristling of wings.
No one sweeps the carcasses when they fall.
Alyan’s surprising turns and musical, evocative language will leave you wanting for her next collection, HIJRA, forthcoming in August 2016.
Alyan’s other titles include ATRIUM and HIJRA (forthcoming 2016).