Review: My Name on His Tongue

Laila Halaby’s My Name On His Tongue (Syracuse University Press, 2012) is a frighteningly urgent and incisive poetry book about living the Arab-American experience. Naomi Shibib Nye claims Halaby’s words are “a wake up call” and they certainly are. Take for instance her poem “the Iraq War, day 6” in which she states “I am angry//at everyone//for not doing enough// to stop this//I am numb//with fear and sadness//for everyone involved//mostly I am impotent.” This harkens back to Auden’s adage “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives//In the valley of its making where executives// Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy grief’s,// Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,//A way of happening, a mouth.” Poetry may not make anything happen, but it is a clarion call, a warning in a time of apathy.

Halaby is daring and persistent enough to address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in her prose-poem “Letter to an Israeli Soldier” by stating “I am writing to you today because I want to tell you about a village, one you may or may not have passed through in a heavily armed and armored jeep (was that you I saw when I was walking back from the well with my family?) You have not bombed this village. Recently. Yet. Nonetheless, you need to see it. Close up.” And further in the poem, “Take one last look at the faces. Each time one of your missiles sail through the air in an excruciating display of force, those are the faces at the other end, the faces that in an instant will be splattered on white stone walls and ceilings, on flowers and rich earth, on sand and car upholstery, and on mothers and fathers.”

Here is a poetic voice that is not inhibited. It hits the reader like a missile. We are a nation that supports Israel and yet we are rarely aware of the Palestinian  devastation. This poet provides that emotional weight that recalls the tenacity and clarity of Adrienne Rich’s verse, although Rich was undoubtedly Jewish. ““War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” Like Rich, Halaby even addresses a poem to the “enemy” in her deeply ironic piece entitled “on going to the movies with a Jewish friend.” “a new summer//out of the bookstore//into a movie theater//with the enemy at my side// we were close//as we sat in the darkness//our elbows touching//mine and the enemy’s//we traded glasses//to see which frames//best suited our Semitic features//they were not dissimilar//our glasses//or our features//they’re dusty//he whispered//as I put his frames//around my eyes//in the safe darkness// I winced// at the blurs on the screen//he turned away//embarrassed.”

There is the recognition of division and yet there is the serious want or deep desire to understand and remap the territory. Read this book for its inquiry and urgency and evanescent political language. It is laced with fearless candor that is sorely lacking in much of today’s poetic discourse.

Author: Leonore Wilson

Leonore Wilson taught English and creative writing for more than twenty years at various colleges and universities in the San Francisco bay area. Her new book of poetry is Western Solstice (Hiraeth Press, 2011). Her poetry, stories and essays have been published in such magazines as Quarterly West, Madison Review, Laurel Review, and Third Coast.

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