Review of Ahmad Almallah's 'Bitter English'
Review of Ahmad Almallah, Bitter English (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 87 pp.
Note: This review was given as an introduction to Almallah’s reading at the Kelly Writers House on October 15, 2019.
He stumbles as he says pretty much anything to himself — always while successfully conveying such stumbling to us.
He feels that he owes everything to one place but knows that that place is “not here” — not the here of the place where he writes, not even the new “here”-ness the poem makes. How can a poet occupying the space of a page, the classic “here” where even a lost poet can call home, be alienated even from that “here”?
The typical poetic existential “here I am” becomes a matter, always, of forgetting and remembering both. (It’s significant that one of the muses here is the poet’s mother, she who suffers from memory loss.)
Almallah seeks to redefine the idea of the order of a poem — structure, organization, stanzaic form — on the basis of the experience of the citizenship interview and its orders as commands. As he is “ordered” to do this or that, he can only think that his best response is to conceive of order in a different way.
So this is a book of stanzas — of form, and of formal encounters.
We encounter an English sonnet (part 2 of a poem called “Lines of Return”) in which appears a key phrasing of the book: “Everyone’s memory is here,” such that “here” again is the very space, the only free space, the poem establishes — an adopted form from another stanzaic tongue.
And here he is, a West Bank poet, digging in his West Philly garden, unearthing “the tip of an iron tool” like some archaeologist of neolithic life, but he doesn’t know the terminology of tools, and feels he is “a deserter of my own language unsheathing the sword of otherness” (29).
The poet comes into this own — in the sequence of this book but also, I think, overall as an emergent English-language poet refusing nonetheless to silence the mouthings of a mother tongue — in a devastating poem called “Into His Own.” (I do hope my friend decides to read this poem tonight. If he does, I think you will hear in the speaker’s confrontation with his father, the father who wants his family both “near and distant,” a deep connection between the father’s elaborately broken Arabic grammar on one hand and, on the other, the son’s own bitter English. The poem verges on confessional: “What is it with you and disaster?” — but, if anger is not sufficient (and it isn’t in a poem), there is a whole aesthetic, which to me is what I hope for in poetry that is both intensely personal and intensely political: “People do imagine disasters they can’t experience, but imagining the real: that’s too burdensome” (58). So, in the final lines of this turning-point poem, the speaker-son really turns away from the addressed father, and the poet finally realizes the power of linguistic alienation: “Do I dare, do I dare / write all this / in a language you understand” (59), where “you” is no longer anyone else but the writer of these words — himself.
Bitter English is a book about love’s difficulties, attendant upon boundaries, political crises, war always on the horizon, self-exile, linguistic and other barriers. “Love Poem” is written in a breathless, visionary terza rima. Think Dante in Purgatory or Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” “Love Poem” follows a troubled but lovely “Anniversary” poem and begins conventionally enough: “I wanted to write a love poem.” Yet: “I wanted to write a love poem [pause] but instead a watched the news: there is talk of Syria falling and there is talk of Syria rising […] There is always talk of Syria” (69). But then it’s the political passion, the worry, the impossibilities of the Middle East, that makes love all the deeper and more sustaining, and this is rediscovered at the end of the poem in Shelley’s wind:
have we not stuck together, have
we not against the winds […]
I do remember you, and I do
remember me and I do remember having, our
daughter called the sky, we will walk our steps
pretending that there are always streets to walk (69)
However provisional, these poems make a place: this is a home for now, this is land to walk on.