Alex Rowell

She’s no philistine

 have to begin with a confession. When I sat down to read Atrium, the debut release of the 26-year-old Palestinian-American poet Hala Alyan, I didn’t have the highest hopes. It was going to be a formulaic rehash of the familiar tropes, I decided: A railing against patriarchy here, a riff about imperialist hegemony there. Perhaps a paean at some point to the stoic wisdom of the olive tree.

Events, however, didn’t go to plan. Over the course of the proceeding hour, Alyan chewed up my arrogant, sexist, Orientalist prejudices and ceremoniously spat them down my trembling, humiliated face. And she did it with style. For Atrium is, in fact, a formidable volume: irreverent, clever, hyper-erudite and laugh-out-loud funny, with moments of arresting darkness and disturbing intensity to boot. Whether it’s Greek mythology, nightclub culture, obscene sex acts or Beirut, there is scarcely one subject in these 88 pages to which Alyan doesn’t bring fierce originality, feeling and flair [Disclosure: I am a slight acquaintance of hers].

Take these lines from “Scarlett O’Hara at the Nightclub,” an unsettling reflection on the one-night-stand: “My newly waxed legs/ emerge from the sequins/ of this tiny dress […] In the bathroom,/ women huddle/ like grazing things […] Like origami, I garlanded myself./ Met you with my bones. I forget that sometimes,/ remember only the fog, the scuff/ your shoes left in the foyer./ Remember only the dead moon of cigar ash./ Your bastard exit.”

That description of sex as a meeting of bones betrays an almost Larkinesque morbidity. In an email exchange, Alyan told NOW Extra that her “unease” about today’s youth culture was a muse of sorts. “For all things romantic, I think the unrequited can be a fertile ground for creative expression. There can be something fragile, even damaged, about certain aspects of youth culture, and I think it is important to draw attention to it.”

Not that Alyan is a mere lugubrious brooder. More upbeat is “Pandora,” perhaps the shortest poem, and the funniest: “i./ When you sin,/ you go to church./ Cut your hair and watch French films./ Drink nothing/ but tea for/ an entire winter./ ii./ I just wash my sheets.”

Part of what makes Atrium such a refreshing read is its utter lack of the sentimental or saccharine. Alyan actually writes, in “Gemini,” “I think/ sometimes/ it is better to say the/ essence, to say, simply, the sky is beautiful today […] instead of reaching always for the poetry.” As she elaborated to NOW: “There was a time, in my teens, when I began to metaphorically frown upon what I considered to be ‘sappy’ […] And that evolved into something more organic over the years, so nowadays I’m drawn to poetry (whether I’m reading it or writing it) that has some degree of distance, or even cynicism, but still manages to excavate a certain veracity.”
At the same time, when she does “reach for the poetry,” the results are quite astonishing. Her command of metaphor, for example, is superlative. From “Taurus”: “You know this earth will please you:/ hills mauve-lipped, vaginal,/ rivers bruised with tiny flowers.”

Moreover, as with all good poets, Alyan takes an evident delight in words themselves: toying with them; inventing them. In “Barbie,” she nicknames the doll her “cuntless confidante.” And in “Palestinian-American,” she brilliantly turns marriageable “Daughters” into “Arable girls.”
Indeed, there are attacks on patriarchy, and these are some of best poems in the book. “Sahar & Her Sisters” is an especially dispiriting story of misogynistic, homophobic familial violence: “Their father set fire to the midwife after the/ fourth, rammed into his wife bark etched with holy verses/ to free her of the cancer that is girl […] When a story comes/ to the village about women who love women, women who drain/ women, the fathers say, Close your legs, daughters. Say,/ You don’t love the way that I love so that can’t be love […] It is foxes,/ foxes that come/ sniffing/ the/ river’s edge, foxes/ that find/ Sahar and her sisters,/ ink-haired quartet,/ hanging/ like constellations/ from the trees.”

Darkest of all are the appearances of the July 2006 war, during some of which Alyan was in Lebanon. “You ruin everything,” she tells Beirut in the eponymous poem. “I cannot wear/ lipstick/ without seeing cupped palms gathering blood from/ wounds […] Mediterranean witch. Baby, save your/ thunder.” As she explained to NOW: “I adore Beirut. Some of the language I use toward the city is harsh, but it comes from a place of frustration, not censure. It has a lot to do with watching a place I love being wounded, in a variety of ways, and feeling powerless to protect it.”

Which raises a natural question, given Alyan’s nationality: How is it that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is virtually absent in her poetry? “The political situation there is something I have found very difficult to write about in any coherent, structured manner,” she told NOW. “I would say, though, that while politics might be absent, Palestine itself is very much a presence in my writing, in that it informs how I perceive the world, the themes I am drawn to, the emotions I choose to focus on.”

In which case, contra the Mitt Romneys of the world, with Atrium we have incurred yet another debt to the enduring richness of Palestinian culture.

Atrium was published in 2012 by Three Rooms Press (New York).