03 May 2012

a review of laila halaby's my name on his tongue


my name on his tongue, poems by Laila
Halaby (Syracuse University Press, 2012)
my name on his tongue
Poetry by Laila Halaby
Syracuse University Press, May 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8156-3294-8
Paperback: 136 pages; $17.95

my name on his tongue, Laila Halaby’s debut collection of lyrical and narrative poetry, is a stunning collection dealing with various struggles, both personal and political, all revolving around the central theme of identity. The poems in this collection engage a haunting tone of self-reflection and cultural engagement. Each of the poems in Hallaby's collection is rooted in the development and examination of identity.

Halaby’s collection guides us through various scenes of identity formation, from being “a tourist at home” to discussions of the various roles and identities that at once define and defy us. From the very beginning of this collection, Halaby allows memory and identity to breathe into her poems—a tour guide’s words to her (“you have been gone / but you are still one of us / the branch stays close to its roots”) reflect both the connection and distance felt by Halaby in connection to the recurrent theme of dual identity. A sense of longing to be known, and yet feeling apart, presents itself throughout these poems. Identity is, in this collection, a series of “vomited labels” (“the journey”) that give the collection a tone of memoir and personal history.

There is nothing careless about Halaby’s presentation of identity in this collection. She engages in clever word play, and is very much aware of the power of line, throughout this collection. In the book’s second section poem “the journey,” Halaby recounts various battles to find and hold onto a sense of identity despite conflicting social and cultural cues. This poem is highly autobiographical, and at times what is withheld strikes a tone of mystery in her identity just as potent as what is shared. We hear, in this poem, why Sara, a “Jewish girl” loses her place as the poet’s best friend, but nothing of figures like Shawna or Nina beyond the small yet seemingly significant roles they played in the speaker’s life. This lack of explanation makes the keeping of friends like “Kaiser” and “Annie” in the poem ring with a sense of self-revelation, that at times the identity of others—and what set them, like her, apart from the more “traditional” ethnic and cultural identifiers—was (and perhaps is) as important to her as her own identity: where the “chop”ped Shawna and Nina bake cookies and teach dance, the kept Kaiser and Annie’s only notes of significance are that he “was Chinese / after all” and she “was half Mexican.” Color and culture create a rich tapestry of experience, but also drive home that sense of a desire to belong yet always being in some way an outsider.

The last section is perhaps the most politically charged of the collection; the section title, “my grandma and your grandma were sittin’ by the fire,” is itself a reference to the conflict-charged song “Jock-A-Mo,” or “Iko Iko,” that tells the story of two rival “tribes” clashing. Halaby weaves together imagery in this section that elicits both extreme sympathy and paints such a vivid picture of conflict that it is impossible to ignore. In “refugee” we are presented with the image of a man

with tears
racing down his cheeks
as he bleeds
a river
to take home

This poem, as are most of the poems in this section, is at once alive with beautiful imagery and heartbreaking in all its implications. This section, perhaps even more than any other, tells readers that Halaby’s is a voice that cannot—and will not—be ignored. 

The poems of my name on his tongue, though at times hard to take in emotionally, are absolutely necessary, and reflect and reveal many of the unspoken conflicts and injustices inherent to any struggle with personal, national, cultural, or ethnic identity. When Halaby ends with the quote from Ghandi (“A confession of errors is like a brook which sweeps away the dirt and leaves the surface brighter and clearer”) she leaves us with the sense that we all have work to do.

*****
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*****

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6 comments:

  1. This sounds and looks intriguing, Khara. And yes, we all have work to do.

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  2. Khara, if I haven't said so already, I love your blog! Wanted to let you know that I've nominated it/you for a Liebster Blogging Award. You can get the details from my latest post at www.justventurescoaching.com.

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  3. Another in-depth and contemplative review. Thanks, Khara.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Val! I appreciate you reading it!

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