Ahmad Almallah: Finding the way between

Ahmad Almallah, screenshot from the film " Words Adorned: Andalusian Muwashshah Poetry "

In new poems Ahmad Almallah seeks not a way that is mapped or directed. Nor does he follow a course. His way — his poetic mode and compositional method — is to be scrappily “on the move” (as he writes in a new work), “the metal collecting / the way on the way.” The metapoetic nonnarrative gesture here is primarily aesthetic, of course (Almallah is a poet first and foremost — in intention, vocation, and desire), but the recalcitrant formal heterodoxy seems to be at the same time never an artist’s choice (I’m guessing he hates that MFA-program cliché) so much as an inexorable expression of obsessive topical urgency.

Almallah seems to feel that his poems must be the innovatively unstraightforward way that they are, if they as forms will be commensurate with the content of what he has to say. For all their resistance to semanticism, these poems are devoted to certain issues and concerns. One of the new poems I have read takes us not “on the way” somewhere, from some A (the city of Bethlehem) to some Z (Philadelphia, where he now lives and writes), but “on the way between.”

Everything in Almallah’s poetry, such that I’ve seen, seems to be between — word choice, setting, the lines themselves. That liminality and interpolation, he writes, “is the way of the land, center / coming out of center.” This “center” — real, geographical, precisely memorable, and yet never quite discernible — is hardly at all central in the sense of centrist or mainstream. It is defined rather as follows:

the in-
the open sore,
the one
that keeps
what has
been left

This is not a “center” familiar to our discourse — as far indeed from the postwar liberal, adjustment-oriented, anti-ideological “vital center”* as could be. This is center as marginal, breakable heart, as unhealed wound, where loss or absence is always somewhere else, an anxiety that is a longing severed from its object of desire.

Ahmad Almallah was born and raised in Bethlehem, about six miles south of Jerusalem. For seventeen years he has lived in the US, where he has earned a PhD in classical Arabic poetry (at Indiana University), was appointed to an assistant professorship at Middlebury College, and has worked on a book on Arabic love poetry and the ghazal. He left Middlebury and moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he devotes more or less all his time to writing poetry in English. And the poems I have seen are astonishing. Here I want to say a few words about two new poems, the aforementioned “On the Way Between,” written in four poem-length parts; and “Recourse,” a series of six poems, each with a one-word title, written as quasi-Wordsworthian “spots in time.” (The texts of these two poems are available here, below.)

The first part of “On the Way Between” is numbered zero, and so isn’t part of the poem’s movement so much as a prologue or proem. Strikingly it declares itself as in part an American poem, conjuring Whitman, Williams, and/or Ginsberg in its address. “[E]verything aside, America / is poor.” What with so much trashing, one finds here in this incomplete promise an impoverishment of the imagination (vide Williams). We are “still waiting for the proof, / the receipt.” This is a turn on another very different American modern poetic claim — that of Robert Frost in “The Gift Outright,” in which the “Something we were withholding made us weak,” whereupon we discovered “it was ourselves” that misunderstood the land we tentatively held. But, to be sure, Almallah’s way is not a colonial way westward, nor is it a Frostian conversative lament of a previous spotless, litterless golden age. The way between is paradoxically to train the poetic eye to “follow the roads / full of litter / and decay.” The proem declares Almallah’s intent to widen the scope of the poem written in English about the poverty of untruths. The receipt we await will record “how much do we give away / to lies.”

The second section (numbered “1”) furthers the junk of the first, but at the same time it tries out its relation to another genesis — that of the modern. The cultural junkheap here, a version of wasteland, is a latter-day immigrant imagist’s aesthetic dreamworld:

            the metal collecting
the way on the way:
matter and time, dead
petals of winter,
and the cold

One of Almallah’s many betweens lies among Anglo-American tellings of the modernist cult of the image, which bespeaks the cultural falling-apart that happens in spite of the lovely efficiency of the machine, the famed “machine aesthetic.” The machine here is ragged, a further sign of decay, but again, “this is the way of the land”: “the magnet, the machine / swindling over scraps, / attracting and losing.” Such attraction and loss sets up the polarity of nearly every stanza in this poetry.

The third part (numbered “2”) of “On the Way Between” seems to begin in a new landscape. Here there are (pastoral?) stone walls (but stonewalling, too). We have switched to a scene in which Frostian boundaries can be tested on their own terms. When such walls are ritually mended, false structures can be discerned:

then by stonewalls, stone
stacked against stone,
gray concrete
around edges
and missing some parts
of the stone ….

We are where boundaries bounded by such walls are of spatial consequence. Repair and patrol is not, as for Frost, merely a rhetorical test of separateness, a socio-aesthetic kind of occupation of the land, but an inevitable recognition (again) of an complex between, a site where “the wall keeps breathing land” precisely because it demands perennial repair.

The fourth and final section, numbered “3,” is a devastatingly good poem, the eccentric center of this indirect argument. It begins with further response to the delusion of “The Gift Outright,” which here seems to be a particular (and probably personal) memory: “back then we were / occupied in land.” This sets the scene for a powerful memory of the particular way that water “gathering on the flat roof,” moving toward and through “orange pipes / against the white walls” (another imagist poem of bright contrast!), finds, as water always does, its inevitable way, seeks its own level. This poem moves like the level-seeking water, like the fluidity of memories of home, and is about where and how (as the speaker evocatively recalls his home), things move downward. An exact memory of descent. But it is more generally a meditation on inexorable flow or movement. It causes us to ask: is Frost’s sense of the land being “ours” even prior to continental occupation (“Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, / Possessed by what we now no more possessed”) meant to be inexorable? In Almallah’s terms for such owning, “we were / occupied in land.” His “we” is more capacious, and the large memory of what “we” saw and heard is more personal and far more particular (the nonparticularity of “The Gift Outright” made it apt for the inauguration of a US president), and thus in Almallah’s verse the destiny is not at all manifest.

“Recourse” begins by signaling a relationship — it ends up being an ambivalent one, but it is in earnest — with Wordsworth’s sense of the lyric poem as conveying what Nathaniel Mackey has doubtfully called the “phanopoetic snapshot.”** Each of the poem’s six sections, each consisting of seven unrhymed couplets, presents such a spot in time.

In “Arms,” the first spot, we encounter a tour de force punning on the body’s arm (eye for eye, ear for ear, arm for arm), the arm of the law (under which “haunted” and “hunted” are homophonic near-twins), and armament, producing “blood pulsing in vein to / vein, the spill that stains.”

“Nest,” the second spot, gives Almallah an opportunity to reverse the valorization of soft. “Soft is not what we thought / in the empty structure / of a house not yet abandoned,” and thus is a poem of living, mouse-like, in close quarters.

“Cemetery” seems to be based on a powerful memory of playing soccer on dusty, brown ground, long enough to see color and all discernment fade to loss (like the memory itself, and the poem itself by the end) in black and white. This is what happens, the memory tells us, when you play “next to graves.”

“Cars,” my favorite of this series, depicts “olive green” automobiles (jeeps?), outmoded, once martial, and possibly junked, useless (“no doors to / open”). Yet “they” (children? — is this another memory?) climb in, and realize there is “nothing to steer.” In such a vehicle there is no way forward. “Cars” expresses further states of between (between play and war, for one).

“Glass,” the penultimate spot, is a relatively straightforward memory of schooling. It was an “end of no beginning,” full of “wrong answers.” “School was always no class.” But again this is not a Frostian scene. There is screaming and there are tears. The wall that once established the boundaries in which this child-now-poem’s-speaker is coming of age, growing into his in-between, does not separate apple from pine, nor modern subject from premodern object. The force that brings down that wall is neither elfin nor philosophically playful, nor merely atmospheric. The poem is indeed titled “Glass” and in this school there is a sudden traumatic shattering:

screams sounds shattering:
we scream together, tears

and all duck underneath

The little bodies of the children face fear and, pressed against their desks and classroom walls, smell “the bad / wood.” Their answers to instructors’ questions had been “wrong answers.” Now, knees against chests in fear, they tumble (in a remarkable torquing of idiom) “wrongs over heads.” The dominant iambic of Frost’s tracing of the “something” that makes a boundary collapse — “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” — in the hands of Almallah, pondering the memory of the fearful child, becomes this broken metricality, leaving us with a trimeter on its way to pentameter but always coming up short — breaking rank, breaking the line break, fracturing on a surprisingly unsettling spondee, thus finally breaking the “something” that is supposedly just there in the unsayable force that keeps us apart:

            something there is
that loves breaks

* * *

For the text of “Recourse,” click on the image of “Cars” below to read a PDF copy of the entire poem. The text of “On the Way Between” is reproduced below; it is also available here as a PDF


* See Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center (1949).
** Nathaniel Mackey, preface to Blue Fasa (New Directions, 2015).