"The Doors of Exile," the prologue-poem of Nathalie Handal's accomplished and affecting debut collection, presents the bleak and disorienting nature of the Palestinian diaspora:
The shadows close the door
this is loneliness:
every time we enter a room we enter a new room
the hours of morning growing deep into our exile
prayers stuck in between two doors
waiting to leave to enter
waiting for memory to escape
the breath of cities.
For those in exile, there is no arriving, no here or there, only loneliness and a hope that memory-of something unspoken and unspeakable-will fade. And exile produces a multifaceted loss; it has more than one door. This poem sets the tone and theme for the collection.
Handal divides her book into three untitled sections. The first set of poems focuses on the nature and consequences of Palestinian displacement. In "Gaza City," the narrator laments:
My hands and my cheek against
the cold wall, I hide like a slut, ashamed....
Every house is a prison, / every room a dog cage.
This is the nature of being made unwelcome in one's own home: the victim feels guilt, like a "slut," nothing more than a "dog." With remarkable and brutal clarity, Handal shows us the longing created by war when she focuses on an individual's suffering. "It's been a long time-," begins the narrator in "The Combatant and I," remembering her absent lover, "where have you been, where are you?" She recounts her loss:
I miss your frowns,
the dark shadow of your oval chin.
I can't breathe at night, can't feel my legs.
Dreamed I stopped seeing.
Are you lost?
And she imagines his response:
I suppose you would say,
I should be happy that I can
Part two of the collection follows the Palestinian dislocation into Latin America
displaying the wonderful and unusual blending of culture and language. In "El Almuerzo de THabiba" ("Aunt Habiba's Lunch"), Handal recounts the simple joys of visiting her relatives in Mexico:
Half past six in the morning
the kitchen is wide awake,
no time for many cups of coffees
for TLiliana, TMercedes,
TLayla and Twadie
are coming for some of THabiba's tamalitos, lamb,
hummos, laban, and grape leaves.
But with the adoption of other homes comes confusion of self-identity as described in the poem, "Strangers Inside Me":
Words slide down my throat
like velvet rivers and outside
a tiny echo=2 0is calling me
as I travel and move
from one continent to the next,
move, to be whole.
Though there is the linguistic freedom found in codeswitching from English to Arabic to Spanish to French, there is also the acknowledgment that these multiple identities grow out of forced dislocation which, in turn, makes one feel less whole, less connected to one's true self.
The third part of Handal's collection consists of one long, eight-section poem, "Amrika." Handal takes us to the Middle East, New York, New England, Latin America, Marseille, Miami, London. Diaspora creates a "tyranny of distance" that makes one ask:
How does one begin to understand the difference
between Sabaah el khayr and bonjour,
the difference between the city of lights and black-outs.
Notice the lack of question mark. This is a statement; there is no answer. But Handal does eventually offer a question, one that attempts to uncover one of the primary catalysts of military action against other countries:
I wear my jeans, tennis shoes,
walk Broadway, pass Columbia,
read Said and Twain,
wonder why we are obsessed
our need to change the oher?
And again, there is that longing for a home torn asunder by such wars:
It is later than it was a while ago
and I haven't moved a bit,
my voice still breaking into tiny ieces
when I introduce myself to someone new=2 0
and imagine I have found my way ome.
This longing is so strong, not only does it dislocate time, but the narrator is willing to pretend that she is finally home. The Lives of Rain is a stirring, heartrending collection that forces us to look at the gonizing ramifications of military intervention and the Palestinian diaspora. Handal does ot point fingers; perhaps we all are to blame on some level. But one thing is clear:
Handal is an important and eloquent voice whose poetic vision is as rare as it is ecessary.
(*) Nathalie Handal's Love and Strange Horses (University of Pittsburgh Press) is forthcoming. The new book, writes Pulitzer Prize Winner Yusef Komunyakaa, "is riddled with provocative incantations that verge on a conjuring solidly based in this world and beyond. There’s a subtle singing locked inside each poem that raises the stakes. This cosmopolitan voice belongs to the human family, and it luxuriates in crossing necessary borders. The pages are lit with scintillations that transport the reader to pithy zones of thought and pleasure."