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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 translated poems, but she recalls:
when I was older, I studied the collections of words in both languages, going back and forth from one page to the other as though they were puzzles that needed solving.”
In her first book of poetry, Halaby continues to grapple with puzzles, though of a more irreconcilable nature. Born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and American mother, Halaby has lived across the U.S., and in Jordan and Italy. In my name on his tongue, she mines issues of identity, geography and the dislocation that comes from inhabiting two worlds. Home, borders, arrivals, departures, airports, memory, childhood, motherhood, the Iraq war, occupied Palestine, these all comprise the puzzle. Though it’s not one Halaby seeks to solve. In her poems there is an adherence to Chekhov’s precept that the artist need not have the answer to questions, merely know to ask the right ones.
“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 her point of reference arises from a different brand of exile, a more contemporary context; that is, growing up between places and cultures. Nearly a decade ago, on the release of Halaby’s first novel, the New York Times observed, “Like all immigrant groups, Arab-Americans have a sense of doubleness, feeling torn between their parents’ traditions and their new culture.” (Though it should be added, according to her Twitter bio, Halaby describes herself as “non-hyphenated”) With my name on his tongue, she continues to mine that doubleness, or what she calls in-betweenness, in the form of poetry, which as she describes as allowing for “more immediate stories, those that demand raw descriptions.”
The collection is divided into four parts, each 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. The structures that determine so much of place and self—fathers, governments, armies—all figure largely in these poems. For Halaby, growing up between places and cultures results in the lack of a center, an absence of a true home ground. That doesn’t prevent the feeling of ghurba, Arabic for homesickness, though it’s more a sense of missing a place that never really was.
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. It happens when she hears her name uttered by the tour guide, a native speaker, and triggers a powerful longing for a place that “from north to south will never be mine.” It also brings a momentary sense of belonging, an inadvertent discovery of identity.
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 scrutiny: “…they questioned/my name/my face/my place of birth/my father’s absence.” Later on, she writes, “I opted for the Arabs.” That opting to one side or the other is a prerogative of one who is racially mixed, though the choice is never without its complications, as the speaker observes, “the view changes/depending/where I sit/which window/I look out of.”
Coming of age, the choices become more complicated. In “Air Force visitors (for Vasudha), two teenaged girls spend summer afternoons at a hotel pool and encounter a group of Air Force officers on leave. The contrast proves ideal for Halaby’s subject matter, as the speaker confesses, “…our bodies that peeked out of suits/too tiny to accommodate eastern figures/eastern standards/would have shamed our eastern fathers.” And yet an incident between the speaker and an enlisted man results in a decisive coming of age experience.
In “on going to the movies with a Jewish friend 1990,” the boundaries between the self and the Other become increasingly complex. At the movies with a Jewish boy, the speaker becomes hyper-aware of their identities in the context of each other: “we were close/as we sat in the darkness/our elbows touching/mine and the enemy’s.” Even so, as they try on each other’s glasses, they see that neither their glasses or their features are not that different.
The book’s third section focuses on exile and the outsider, roles that most directly address the connection of person and place, though Halaby also examines these roles in the context of relationships, in the context 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?
In this same way, “final video snapshots on the way to the airport” employs metaphor and voice. The poem tells of a departure in which leaving produces a clarity of place, etching the images out the window (Beirut? Damascus?) in her memory: “turn back to see/laundry squeezed together/flapping farewell/satellite dishes/black water cisterns/clustered on rooftops like women/wondering who you will marry.”
The American war in Iraq dominates the book’s final section, and as in “your country,” Halaby’s most powerful images reside in the seemingly simplest ones. However, in “short video clip: Baghdad tattoo/November, 2006” the effect is more chilling. In the opening lines, 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.
In “intentions,” the tensions of war are closer to home. The speaker recounts an incident at her son’s school with a parent serving in the military: “he’s back now from Qatar/or Jordan/or Iraq/or whichever Arab country he was sent to/where I have friends or family.” “February, 2003” tells of a wry incident in which the speaker, presumably Halaby, is photographed at home by a photographer from the New York Times. The session is a success, they drink tea together, but after he leaves, she checks the bathroom. “A nagging voice in my head/whispers/if it seems to good to be true …” as she searches for a planted bug. The paranoia and profiling in the years following 9/11 feel distant now, made more so by the economic fallout of the past four years, and more recently a new presidential election. It’s right that Halaby’s work should remind of the intensity of that earlier time, in which detainment and no-fly lists and internment camps for Arab Americans were part of the frenzied response.
Notable in this collection about in-betweenness and identity is an altogether different poem. Titled “good morning, in memory of Joe Bolton,” it’s the opposite of absence, an account of a bond between teacher and student, the teacher American and his student who “cried /for the mulberry trees of my father’s land.” Between the two there is a natural affinity, a connection between opposites, an understanding across boundaries. Needless to say, the class was a fruitful one for the speaker, who recalls that she:
wrote about all those things
—aches, distance, exile—
that are everyday to me
you told me to keep going
In detailing the history of my name on his tongue, Halaby tells of signing up for a poetry class the summer before graduate school. The teacher, a Kentuckian, was Joe Bolton, a gifted poet who died in 1990, committing suicide at the age of twenty-eight. He 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 says something about boundaries between writers—and their readers—that those bonds are often the most enduring, with a longevity that reaches beyond borders. It’s a bond that gives the writer someone to write to, to write for, and seemingly out of nowhere creates a place nothing like the world we came from, like nothing that ever existed for us before.
*The title of this collection is lower case on the cover and therefore, our contributor kept it as such in the body of her review.*