my name on his tongue, by Laila Halaby
In the climate of inflamed rhetoric about immigrants that has predominated in this election year, a small, quiet book like Laila Halaby’s my name on his tongue can speak volumes. 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, who is also the author of two novels and the 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.
This April, National Poetry Month marks its twentieth year of celebrating poetry with readings, festivals and events in communities across the country. This year’s celebration includes the new project “Dear Poet,” inviting students in grades five through twelve to write letters in response to poems written and read by award-winning poets.
Mahmoud Darwish, the celebrated Palestinian who spent most of his life in exile, is present in the mood of Halaby’s collection. “I come from there and I have memories,” he wrote. Though Halaby’s is a different brand of exile, having grown 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 as a tourist, a child, an exile, and an opponent to the wars in the Mideast and Palestine. In the poem, “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 the idea of 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 the poem, “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, when 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?
In detailing the history of my name on his tongue, Halaby tells of enrolling in a poetry class the summer before graduate school. The teacher, a Kentuckian, was Joe Bolton, a gifted poet who died in 1990 by suicide at the age of twenty-eight. Bolton published three books of poetry: Breckenridge County Suite, Days of Summer Gone, and The Last Nostalgia. Of Bolton’s work, the poet Kate Benedict writes, “The persona Bolton created walks on an edge, sings from a liminal place between the present tindery moment and total combustion.”
Halaby recalls, “he taught me how to read, understand and spill poems… my name on his tongue is a memoir in poems, a series of tiny stories, a collection of heartbeats and snapshots, and an homage to a teacher who unlocked the door to a rich and necessary world.” That bond gives the writer someone to write to, to write for, and for the reader, a window into the poet’s way of being and seeing the world.