Today we continue our new series of poetry excerpts with a poem from clinical psychologist, novelist, and poet Hala Alyan. Her fourth book of verse, The Twenty-Ninth Year, is full of swift lines and crisp images. “Oklahoma,” a prose poem from her new book, appears among a variety of poetic styles and subjects—each united by Alyan’s intense language. The confident narrators of her poems shift between sensuality and sentiment, between lust and the lure of family. Even in the prose form of “Oklahoma,” her poetic syntax strikes: an appropriate lament for a state that she once called home, whose memory she can’t shake. “For a place I hate, I invoke you often”: Alyan captures the terrible millstone of memory.
For a place I hate, I invoke you often. Stockholm’s: I am eight years old and the telephone poles are down, the power plant at the edge of town spitting electricity. Before the pickup trucks, the strip malls, dirt beaten by Cherokee feet. Osiyo, tsilugi. Rope swung from mule to tent to man, tornadoes came, the wind rearranged the face of the land like a chessboard. This was before the gold rush, the greed of engines, before white men pressing against brown women, nailing crosses by the river, before the slow songs of cotton plantations, the hymns toward God, the murdered dangling like earrings. Under a redwood, two men signed away the land, and in history class I don’t understand why a boy whispers sand monkey. The Mexican girls let me sit with them as long as I braid their hair, my fingers dipping into that wet black silk. I try to imitate them at home — mírame, mama — but my mother yells at me, says they didn’t come here so I could speak some beggar language. Heaven is a long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school. Heaven is pressed in a pleather booth at the Olive Garden, sipping Pepsi between my gapped teeth, listening to my father mispronounce his meal.
“Oklahoma” excerpted from The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan. Published and
reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
are six notable books of poetry publishing in January.
Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne LauxThe final 20 poems of Laux’s book are written in memory of her late mother, and they are unflinching and resigned. “I am not deceived,” she begins the poem “Lapse.” “I / do not think my dead will return. They will not do / what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees.” Helpless but not hapless, she deftly writes of heartbreak—the absolute, gutting, severe loss of the one who brought her into this world: “go,” she writes to her mother, “where we can never find you, where we can never overthrow / your lust for order, your love of chaos, your tyrannies / of despair, your can of beer.” Laux is majestic here: “We never knew which way to run: / into her arms or away from her sharp eyes. / We loved her most when she was gone, / and when, after long absence, she arrived.” The elegies accumulate, settle into our throats, drill down—her selected poems are gorgeous to revisit, but these new pieces are symphonic—and they become a perfect coda of grief. “Soon she will be no more than a passing thought,” Laux knows. “Her atoms are out there, circling the earth, minus / her happiness, minus her grief.” She ends the book’s titular poem with transcendent precision: her mother belongs to the world now, but not all of her—not “her atoms of laughter and cruelty, her atoms / of lies and lilies along the driveway and her slippers, / Lord her slippers, where are they now?”
The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala AlyanAlyan’s fourth book of poems arrives with the earnest ambition of a debut, but the care of a poet whose lines have earned their sentiment. Poems of sorrow and shame live next to verses of desire. In “The Female of the Species,” “They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases / full of spices and cassettes.” The narrator can “tell stories about the women I know. / They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.” She also thinks about her cousin, how “the best night of my life was the one // she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed, / and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.” The narrator thinks of her father in “The Socratic Method,” a man “as lonely as Wyoming, a perfect country for no one to see.” Sometimes, in the mornings, she will “clutch my chest and chant God forbid God forbid,” thinking of his death. The Twenty-Ninth Year bursts with lamentations, hopes, fears, and a weary but wide faith: “To love the hibiscus, you must first love the monsoon.”
Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés CerpaOne of the most moving books of family and illness in recent years, Cerpa’s debut is a force of poetic will. The narrator’s father is living with Parkinson’s Disease, and each successive poem feels like a step deeper into darkness. The narrator knows “the father I hold onto in order to care for his shadow never gets old, // he is kind & clear, he rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle, he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.” Bicycles turn and return throughout this book: They move the narrator and his father across the Bronx, across time. The narrator arises from his grief but never forgets its origin; not when he is in Barcelona and “burnt a cigarette into my wrist like a botched tattoo”; not when, with resignation and acceptance, he concludes: “Let the earth do what it will — / have me, spin the spokes until my memory fades to a ruthless spring.”
Oculus by Sally Wen MaoThe poems in this collection consider the detritus and delirium of digital life. In “Live Feed,” the narrator warns that “After I am dead, I will hunt you / day and night. // Pixelated ghosts / will haunt your ears.” Whether wayward spirit or nefarious satyr, Mao’s narrators and characters inhabit the sense of oculus as eye-opening, a transformative door. The collection’s titular poem bends time and sense: “Before I wake, I peruse the dead girl’s live / photo feed.” Online we are dead, alive, temporary, and permanent. Mao’s serene descriptions are masterfully unsettling: “How the dead girl fell, awaiting a hand to hold, / eyes to behold her as the lights clicked on / and she posed for her picture, long eyelashes / all wet, legs tapered, bright as thorns.” Mao further examines our technological transfigurations in “Electronic Necropolis,” set in Guiyu Village, China, where ditched electronics are collected and recycled. Mao’s descriptions are precise and surreal, a next phase of evolution: “By slicing open dead circuitboards, / I cultivate rebirth. I douse / the hardware in pyretic acids / before it scrapes me, enters me, a lather of data / against my organs, bless them, / my warring insides.” An expansive book, but each poem bears careful reading.
Mothers Over Nangarhar by Pamela Hart“Dear one / From the yard I see Mars / While you keep watch in far-off deserts.” Hart’s collection begins with such a simple yet profound sentiment: We are so often mired in longing and distance, yet if we merely look up, we are together. Hart has said she has been inspired by lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Her son has served overseas with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and the poems in this book teem with domestic despair of many forms. A group of mothers speak in a Red Cross parking lot, after a meeting on PTSD. In “Sometimes We Talk About Nothing,” “Her son’s platoon / is moving / to a dangerous place // At the market Beth says / the strawberries / are huge // So sweet she eats / some / every day.” Eschewing punctuation and blending joy with fear, Hart captures the paradox of a service member’s family: Hope keeps them alive, but hope is exhausting. Hart’s book ponders the mixture of pride and love for a son, fear for his safety, anxiety and guilt over violence. “He was small and almost perfect at birth,” she writes. “Did I raise him up to be a warrior.” There is no question mark here because, Hart knows, there is no answer.
Reel Verse: Poems About the Movies edited by Harold Schechter and Michael WatersThis pocket-sized Everyman’s Library book is worth sneaking into the theater to browse during the coming attractions. A diverse selection ranging from the early days of cinema to auteurs and remakes, poetic cinephiles will find much to love here. Juliana Gray asks us to “Look closer” at Hitchcock’s Rope: “They’ve shut their secret in a chest, but failed / to lock it.” Virgil Suarez offers an ode to the late Harry Dean Stanton: “See it in the crow-black eyes, the stubble / And the way his lids sag as he belts out / The next sad song.” Chase Twichell thinks “Matinees are the best time / for bad movies.” Marcus Wicker writes a love letter to Pam Grier: “Even now I don’t know how / to love you right.” And Joseph O. Legaspi reminds us that the theater is always more than projector, screen, and sight: “My mother favors / tearjerkers in which women suffer in martyrdom, / fall from high grace, seek revenge, and reap moral / redemption. In this communal, cavernous space / celluloid glow outlines each solitary audience, / embraced by air-conditioning, drowsing into / forgetfulness.”