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LitStack Recs: Without & Winterdance

Without Donald Hall This book is the only one that when picked up, is read from first page to last—no matter what I was doing before, or what time of day or night. In twenty poems, the poet Donald Hall traces the illness and death of his wife, the American poet and translator Jane Kenyon. […]

Donald Hall

It doesn’t matter what I’m doing or what time of day or night it is, when I pick up this collection, it’s the only one I read from first page to last. Published in 1998, Without traces the illness and death from leukemia of Hall’s wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in an arc of elegiac and starkly beautiful language. Hall, the esteemed poet, writer, critic and 2006 U.S. poet Laureate, first met Kenyon when she was his student at the University of Michigan, and the two were married in 1972. It was a proverbial May-December marriage, lived out nearly twenty years on his grandparents’ Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmont, New Hampshire. Then, in 1989, when Hall was in his early sixties, he discovered he had colon cancer (“I was the one who was supposed to die first,” he wrote). Three years later it metastasized to his liver. Yet after surgery and chemotherapy, Hall’s cancer went into remission, but two years later, in a tragic turn, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. “Without,” as the book’s cover describes, is both a testament and a lament to the marriage, Kenyon’s illness and Hall’s life after her death.

I read these poems to better understand both life and art: to remember that time is short, that living is important, and that what might seem like fleeting images are often the most enduring, shattering contact we have with life.

This first Advent alone
I feed the small birds of snow
black-oil sunflower seed
as you used to do. Every day
I stand trembling with joy
to watch them: Fat mourning doves
compete with red squirrels
for spill from rampaging nuthatches
with rusty breasts
and black-and-white face masks.
I cherish the gathered nation
of chickadees, flashy
with immaculate white vests,
with tidy dark bibs and feet,
spinning and whirling down
from the old maple, feather
ounces of hunger, muscle, and bliss.

—from “Letter at Christmas,” by Donald Hall

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2

my name on his tongue, by Laila Halaby

In her first book of poetry, published in 2012, Halaby mines issues of identity, geography and the dislocation that comes from inhabiting two worlds. Halaby, the author of two novels, and recipient of a PEN/Beyond Margins Award, calls this volume a memoir in poems: a story of home, borders, arrivals, departures, airports, memory, childhood, motherhood, the Iraq war, occupied Palestine.

“I come from there and I have memories,” wrote Mahmoud Darwish, and the celebrated Palestinian who spent most of his life in exile is present in the mood of Halaby’s collection. Though hers is a different brand of exile: growing up between places and cultures. With my name on his tongue, she mines a doubleness, or what she calls in-betweenness, which as she describes as allowing for “more immediate stories, those that demand raw descriptions.”

The collection mines Halaby’s concerns from different vantage points: as a tourist, a child, an exile, and an opponent to the wars in the Mideast and Palestine. In “how a tour guide in Petra reminded me of all I’ve lost (or never had to begin with),” a tourist in an unnamed Mideast country experiences a sudden and intense desire for a homeland. In “home,” the speaker charts the contradictions and ambiguity of growing up culturally and racially mixed. “I thought/I belonged /to the Whites because that/was where/my house was,” but that doesn’t prevent her from coming under, or even fearing, scrutiny: “…they questioned/my name/my face/my place of birth/my father’s absence.” Later on, she writes, “I opted for the Arabs.”

Halaby also addresses the roles of exile and the outsider, both of which address the connection of person and place. These roles are also examined in the context of relationships, of kinship and love. In “your country,” the uncertainty of connection becomes a metaphor: “…if I were your country/you wouldn’t be tired/in the evenings.” The poem features some of the book’s best writing, in the speaker’s voice that joins seamlessly with the subjunctive tense and stripped down images. As here, as the speaker wonders:

if you would compose songs for me
in honor of my springtime

would you fold my cotton dresses
the way you might fold your flag
if you were allowed to show it?

The American war in Iraq dominates the book’s final section. In “short video clip: Baghdad tattoo/November, 2006,” the setting features “three naked bulbs” and a man on a table. The man is waiting for a tattoo, and has a “rectangle of shaved hair/credit card in size/etched onto a pale slab of his thigh,” where his name, address and phone number will be tattooed as ID in the event he is killed. Wisely, Halaby fixes her camera on the small things. The stubble on the tattoo artist’s face, the neatness of the letters inked onto his subject’s skin. The poem’s tight focus renders it one of the collection’s most powerful.

Read Laila Halaby’s post for National Poetry Month at the Syracuse University Press blog.

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2

LitStack Review: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

Life on Mars Tracy K. Smith Graywolf Press Release Date:  January 1, 2011 ISBN 978-1-55597-584-5 I’ll admit it – I often have problems reading poetry. Don’t get me wrong.  I love poetry, or at least the idea of poetry.  It’s an idiom that is unique, that uses the look and the cadence of language to […]


my name on his tongue, by Laila Halaby

my name on his tongue Laila Halaby Syracuse Univ Pr ISBN-10: 0815632940 — ♦ —   Laila Halaby first read poet Mahmoud Darwish’s A Lover from Palestine as a child. The book belonged to her mother, and the English translations ran on the pages facing the original Arabic. At the time, Halaby read only the […]