In the 2001 song "Somos Más Americanos" (que todititos los gringos), the popular norteño band Los Tigres del Norte critiques the legitimacy of the US's southern border by chiastically flipping the notion of the "illegal" border crossing on its head: yo no crucé la frontera, la frontera me cruzó. I didn't cross the border, the border crossed me. So many of this last year's most powerful books of poetry reckon with what Wendy Trevino in her late 2018 book calls the "cruel fiction" of borders. They do so from the position of lives lived variously, inventively, and irreducibly under the severe pressure of national, physical, economic, and bureaucratic boundary conditions, psychic and emotional too. Marwa Helal's Invasive species, Aria Aber's Hard Damage, and Raquel Salas Rivera's while they sleep (under the bed is another country) represent just a handful.
Now as 2019 draws to a close, poet, translator, and editor Nathalie Handal's latest joins these books. Life in a Country Album is a deeply ethical offering to all whose lives are crossed by borders, written with steady, uncompromising vision in the language of the many paths Handal has walked in search of belonging. For those who wonder how we might carry our stories to wherever it is we are going, out of "salt, syllables and stones" she has shown how to build us a boat.
Speaking musically, but not only, what makes country "country" has always been a question of the actual versus the fictional. If you grew up in the United States, as the story goes, you either said you wanted to hear "anything but country"- or else you probably listened to a lot of country. But if that story were true how come we - as a country, almost - were just this year celebrating at full-blast Lil Nas X? And nodding at the catch in Billy Ray Cyrus' throat as he sang in the remix "wish I could roll on back to that Old Town Road?" What constitutes country - or a country? "Love isn't a lie, but a country is?" Handal's poem "Declaration of Independence" riddles us. Into this problem space Life in a Country Album ventures - with the music playing, whenever it can: Prince, rebetiko, a raï, Gladys Knight and the Pips, "L'Amérique" and "Keskin Bıçak," Juliette Greco, Anthony Corleone "playing Brucia la Terra, as if his life depended on it."
If the spirit of country is no rules, no limits, no preconceived notions, Handal's book, which dispenses with conventional country-as-political-geography, is very country. A new order is arranged via the book's structure, organized so that a truer shape of life, including Handal's life made exilic by her family status as a diasporic Palestinian Bethlehemite, can be traced out to create a new kind of map, one of affiliations and solidarities that might take shape. Not so much in the world of visas, identity cards, and documents, but in language, culture, linkages and intimacies of all kinds. In order to do that, she has to recalibrate orientations, redraw affinities, and reinvest meanings. A person, presumably a migrant, carried "a black wing" and "parted the curtains after a bomb fell on a loaded song" in the "The Record Keeper," the first poem in a section titled [Album méditerranéen]. He may or may not have survived his crossing. In Life in a Country Album, the question of his fate, either in the sea or perhaps as a survivor on dry land, is irrevocably bound to Mediterraneaness just as Mediterraneaness, and Mediterraneans, are now definitively bound to him. This includes - surprise - the Irish, who in "The Messengers" are "Mediterranean like us, / just placed elsewhere" as they whisper "follow the blackbirds" when asked "What's harmony?"
Countries here are "country" in the sense that their rudiments are humble, not reinscriptions of the grandiose imperialist project that conquers by parsing, chopping out states, "Middle Easts" and "Europes." They are things of the ground, the earth, and of the sky which lacks natural boundaries, where poetry can dream beyond moral bankruptcy - why not model human affiliation after birds? Why not clouds? In this sense, [Album méditerranéen], like the other five albums in this book, is an aesthetic redistricting on principles of liberty, and not one that stops short at asking, for example, how refugees might move across state borders within the context of imperialism. Handal looks beyond to envision a wholly alternative framework for seeing, knowing, and feeling one another, a gesture in the direction of a world that might be organized as much by principles of freedom as well as by structures of care, responsibility, and solidarity. A multiple world, ordered not by the domination of center, margin, and wars that cause human displacement in the first place, but by a dream "where beliefs burden / gods with disbeliefs // and replace this place / placed in place of pleasure," with a world "where freedom is everything / we want it to be // nothing we hope it to be," as in "Eleutheria," the sole poem in [Album Mixte] and final poem of this book.
Sometimes, as in "The Messengers," the shape of that potential world can already be glimpsed. In [Album français], the first album in the set, its glimmerings and failures take on a different sensibility, the context having moved to French culture and into the intimate space of the linguistic and erotic. [Album français] begins with "Les chemins lumière," a ride in Franglais through the poet's "chapitre bohème" in Paris that begins, in turn, with a passage by Alain Mabanckou, who breaks down the distinction between speaking "in French and speaking in French." The poem then proceeds to remix lyric passages in which the poet navigates Frenchness with prose excerpts from transcripts of French reporting on poverty, Desert Storm, the failure of the European Union to intervene in Bosnia, the relative tristesse of the French versus Afghans and Iraqis, and an image of Catherine Deneuve reflecting as she surveys Lebanon after the 2006 war. Among this news of devastation the poet seeks salvation in language and comes up short.
I looked for franglais words for
des invasions, des morts, des massacres⎯
as if naming might save us.
In "Les chemins lumière" there appears to be a news blackout on Gaza. As the poet watches "the West try to unstitch the East," the poem breaks into a short, almost incantatory chant, knowing that the silence on Gaza is not one of lack of awareness, and that a name holds as much power as language grants it.
Et il y a toujours
Gaza is revisited, though only once by name, in [Album méditerranéen]. Meanwhile as [Album français] progresses, war and injury are not confined to the news as in "Les chemin lumière" but increasingly become forces in the poet's erotic life. In "La gaffe," the world of love starts out as good as socialism and La Nouvelle Vague.
A baroque frame above our bed,
I fold his shirts to find the heaven
he left on my body,
the kind that makes you think you're sleeping with Belmondo
and la gauche is still leading
Nice to forget, for a moment, la droite. The lover is wet. The beloved, however, is nowhere to be found and stays nowhere, and I can't say why without a major spoiler that may or may not have something to do with a gun, a pair of red panties, and the Psalms. The erotic trope of disappearance hasn't been a surprise since at least the Song of Songs. But this nowhere is different. "La gaffe" turns reflective.
I understand 3/4
he broke apart
because he found peace
and that was too much after combat
Here peace itself has become a shattering trauma, no longer to be sought in a lover's eyes or imagined in opposition to war. Instead it is confused, continuous with it. Even peace, war's putative antithesis, has become crushing rather than constitutive, emptied of its meaning. To read this solely as a paradox is to refuse its potential lesson: war is total degradation with the capacity to trash everything, even its own signification. Because if there is no more peace to be had anywhere, even in love, how can there still be war? This is not just a thought experiment. How many have witnessed this distinction collapse within a person, right in front of their eyes?
What is left to safely name, when the realm of possibility itself is threatened by the actual? Meaning's crisis is also one of being - how much pressure to place on it? This disruptive knowledge, this questioning is at the heart of Handal's poetics and is what orders the surface tension maintained by her careful (but not cautious) syntax: a poetic structure, far from simple, in which an image of the world trembles as if in a drop of water, upside-down, acute, dangling from a leaf hanging by a promise. Somehow the weight is borne. Gravity buoys us. How?
Handal's "tidy strophes" have earned Mary Oliver and her a comparison. While there are aesthetic similarities, Handal's approaches are best considered in dialogue with the intellectual strategies and discipline of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, public intellectual, and occasional politician who was also Handal's late friend, interlocutor, and mentor. As Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh has discussed, Darwish, like Adorno but not always for identical reasons, maintained that poetry should be a space for what cannot be said in prose, particularly for the defeated, lest poetics become confined to historical tragedy and existence and identity reduced to suffering.
"Poetry doesn't fight wars... poetry is slyer and it extracts its strength from the fragility of things and its own fragility," he wrote. "If we overwhelm it with burdens to solve the problems of the universe, we break it down. What poetry is capable of is gazing at the light. It is capable of learning from the strength of the grass more than it can learn from that of the aircrafts of war."i
In his elegy for Edward Said, "Exile IV: Counterpoint," translated here by Fady Joudah, Darwish delivers a special injunction "Don't describe what the camera sees of your wounds / and scream to hear yourself, to know / that you're still alive, and that life / on this earth is possible" ... "Invent a wish / for speech, devise a direction or mirage / to prolong the hope, and sing." Could this, in part, illuminate why certain poems and moments in Life in a Country Album seem to go blank, like a screen does - of names, colors, and what might be "seen?" "Echoes: A Historical Afterward" offers no faces, no names, no sound, only a spare dialectical shape, stripped down.
The reason is they've been killed
The truth is you've been too
The truth is you are now without a home
The reason is they're in your home
The reason is they've convinced themselves you left
The truth is you only went to safety
Even without historical context, the location is apparent, especially as the poem progresses: "The truth is you are part of the same tribe / but no one speaks about that." On the other hand it is not made known, and that might be liberatory in the sense that what is constructed is less a scene and more a tactic, one strategy among many within a set of principles, a strophic maintenance of what is true that forms a basis for identifications with other "afterwards." Among the outcomes might be a liberation of Palestine - from its exceptional status and political isolation.
"Ghetto" utilizes a similar tactic. "The only way out of the ghetto - is to march. / To march out of the ghetto - together." Who can read this and not think of Gaza and the "Great March of Return" that persists even in the face of violence, maiming, and death - and in the same thought, marches of resistance from Birmingham to Ferguson? In "Ghetto" the marches are one, not having been parsed by name or event. This poem is slyly constructed. It seems to ask not so much how will we march, but who's with us? Depending on the reader, they'll either recognize the claustrophobia of an actual ghetto, the psychic terror of the internalized ghetto that can trap both victim and oppressor from inside, or both. Robin D.G. Kelley has praised the convergence of Black-Palestinian solidarity not so much as a "chain of equivalence" or interchangeability of historical parallels "but an insistence that the struggles were linked, not only to each other but to injustice and oppression around the world."ii This solidarity is based on shared principles of justice that are almost certainly not an oppressor's. On the other hand, according to this model, potential ghetto-dismantlers need not have identical stories or positions, just a recognition of some kind of linkage in want of a naming. There's no easy solution here, just as language alone was not salvation in "Les chemins lumière." But there is, possibly, a scaffold for the mutuality needed to imagine one.
Isn't this notion of linkage Kelley speaks of, this mutuality, precisely what draws Darwish and Handal after him repeatedly to Andalus, the convivencia, however idealized, of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the medieval Iberian peninsula? "For me," Darwish said, "Andalus was a meeting place of all strangers in the project of constructing human culture. It isn't just that a coexistence of Jews and Muslims prevailed, but also that their fate was the same."iii Handal explores Andalus in her 2012 book Poet in Andalucía, and in many ways Life in a Country Album is a continuation of that project. Though Andalus is not mentioned by name, this is a book about fate. In the West we speak of intimacy primarily as the sharing of bodies. But what about intimacy as the sharing of fate?
In "Europa Nostra," a poem in [Album méditerranéen] that tests Handal's capacity for equilibration to the maximum, an Andalus of mutuality and gentle strength is constructed out of names, splintered glass, and feathers for a handful of stories who have made the crossing into Europe. "Now that we are guests in our bodies, how do we survive?" the poem begins, then pushes off in a litany, a vessel stable and buoyant enough, across a hundred mountains, a mattress that hides the sun, through landscapes strange and intimate toward an end that does not insult or condescend to its addressees in the slightest with sentimentality or outrage, but instead takes its form from the tender gravity of real talk dispensed with care, recognition, and respect:
Roya kept the shadow of the Caspian sea in the man who needed her.
Mykola dreamed a mystery turned cruel by another dream.
Maybe the past is the beginning and return is staying absent.
Meanwhile, when anyone says toughen up,
look at them until they fade.
Few poems will match this one. In [Album arabe à Paris - Place des États Unis, Conversations avec Mahmoud Darwish], another Andalus at the heart of Life in a Country Album, Handal creates an meeting place in which a friendship that began in mutual exile in Paris can continue in poetry. She does so in a way that refuses to stop dreaming what might be shared, but resists construction of yet another exile, the exile of memorialization. "Interior Roads" seems to meditate on Darwish's "Another Road in the Road," a poem longing for a return that no longer exists, in a way that speaks to the multiplicity of what remains, however diminished: "Some find another country / others only a motion in the same hour." "Your Mystery is the Milky Way" returns to a line from Darwish's "Sonnet II" in The Stranger's Bed, not only as an homage to that book's Andalus, the gathering and naming of love poetries and traditions from the Muallaquat to Kama Sutra to Ritsos, but also to trace an erotic tangent in a new and multiple idiom. Andalus is also found in rebetiko, a people's music. To rebetiko, the Greek blues fusion of Turkish, Jewish, Greek, and Arabic music, Handal returns as to a homeland in the poem "Canto Mediterraneo." In [American Album], a poem titled "American Camino," speculates whether a rebetiko song inspired Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."
As Chicano poet Eduardo Corral has put it, writing in multiple language and idiom is a refusal "to privilege just one way of seeing." Handal's idiom too is prismatic, in the sense that it also has the power to harness that by which we see, when we see - the light that was so important to Darwish, lover of rainbows - and slant it, revealing how multiplicity always inheres in what we imagine as singular. It could be said that Handal introduces forms of Arabic poetry into English, such as the short single themed lyrical fragments, or qit'a, that appear by that name in Poet in Andalucía and pepper Life in a Country Album, as in "Aleppo:" "Nothing matters / but the arrow / about to be aimed / at the bride / in the dark." But to say this would obscure her achievement as well as the reality of the cultural transmission - Handal is just daylighting what is already here. The Western tradition has always taken from the East, never citing sources as rigorously as Darwish and Handal, and American poets have probably written a million qit'as without knowing it. The cruel and miserable fiction of the border that separates subject and form (a barrier that so many poets seem so eager to enforce, separating us from our lives) obscures this even worse. Subject is form, and vice versa. Just like love is a shape as well as a theme, but never merely a parsed-out addend to life, at least not in its true state.
Speaking of love, speaking of country. In "Declaration of Independence" [Album français], Handal proposes a different paradigm. It's nothing like Thomas Jefferson's, nor the one that Darwish himself wrote in 1988, nor that of any such other. Knowing how easily statements of principle can be abandoned and ignored, Handal instead writes a riddle.
Do you know anyone
who loves more than one country?
Of course -
This isn't an opera.
You are right -
it's more folk or a litany.
What could we be, if whatever we swore to was a question kept open? Put another way, what if authority of love and country were less hierarchal, less fixed, and embodied more the feminine principles of vision, fluidity, and spirit? Less monogamous? Love as a political term can be dangerous. But really, how much discontinuity is there between love's failures, even the private ones, and the ideologies that make and unmake worlds? As Handal observes in "Killing Me Softly," "we stopped listening / way before we stopped kissing // like those who lead us." In "Even in Love," she concludes "even in love / war inhabits me."
This has something to do with scale. "No good opera plot can be sensible" said W.H. Auden. I can't help think of Trois Couleurs: Bleu, the 1993 Kieślowski film, and how the haunting, spare melody at the heart of a ponderous and unwieldy musical score, commissioned to celebrate the new unity of the European Union, is kept alive after disaster only in the mind of a grieving, reclusive woman and the street musician who plays it on his wooden flute. Similar images of love and liberty that have also survived grandiosity abound in Life in a Country Album, as in the title poem, where liberty is "a blue at the center/ of women who dare/ to carry water/ to every other side." And in "Eleutheria:" "Though I walk / without chains of fears // I am not the light / in midnight's dream." And in "American Camino," where the poem begins "She opens her voice to me the way freedom does, when it walks to all the directions of the dream," - and in which "she" might be "Clifton, Brooks, Rich, Walker, Jordan, Paley, Sapphire, Lorde."
Handal concludes "American Camino," a litany in which America takes many forms - a misheard Prince lyric, God climbing a piano - not triumphantly, but with a frank nod toward a belonging that "can't begin until mouths open, and sins spill." "I celebrated America the way Whitman did" Handal writes in this poem, one that does in fact celebrate America very, very differently than Whitman, whose intoxications are not incompatible with genocide and land theft.
The similarity lies in the sense that for Whitman, America is also a promise not yet realized, not yet arrived, lacking a present, like the lovers in Darwish's The Stranger's Bed. Out of time and place, like the absent and deeply wounded lover in Handal's "La gaffe." America in that sense is an erotic problem, needing an erotic solution. James Baldwin, in the last sentences of The Fire Next Time, turned to the image of lovers to imagine the motion, the action, of what might be necessary to bring about an end to the "racial nightmare," writing that in love we "insist on, or create the consciousness of the others." But in order to come to love, that kind of love, we first need a meeting-place, and also the courage to hear and make the call. "I waited for thee," begins the title poem of Life in a Country Album,
said, Come to bed,
where bodies drown love
to reach pleasures
free of parsing, said, Come to dreams
that undress other centuries.
Teach me the thunder
that took you away
and told you
to stay nowhere. Tell me if this album
is the love we swore to.
"Nowhere" has an authority. Edward Said, writing of intellectual exile, speaks of the pleasure of its surprises, the resourcefulness it teaches, and its windows, in which the world appears in a "sometimes new and unpredictable light."iv Nowhere might also be ideal, a utopia, from the Greek ou-topos, "no-place." A negative positive space. In the world of the actual, nowhere might also be an excruciating choice between two other nowheres: exile on one hand, and on the other, a life of daily abjection. And on and on. Of course these same nowheres might be translated back into the realm of the figurative, as in love, and all might land at once, as in "La gaffe." Nowhere are you? Is this also how "Keskin Bıçak" (sharp knife), another extraordinary poem in Life in a Country Album, hurts?
Hold me against you
one last time
don’t leave me
between two nowheres
don’t leave me
at the sharpest edge of desire
like an agony at the end of history
A friend from Jerusalem's Old City, whose exile might be similar to Handal's but for a piece of plastic in a blue sleeve, wonders whether he really has the freedom to love, and be loved, when he is "nowhere," or "living beside life." When the pleasures and dreamings of friends, family, and intimates are shaped just as much by emotions or erotic attachments as they are by papers and permits that can be ripped up and trashed in a split second, what liberties can a heart take under such conditions? Another friend, a Jewish Israeli, also speaks in the language of the heart to describe an occupation-precipitated social phenomenon he calls "heart drain," an outflow of his fellow citizens whose consciences force them to choose exile, circling back through time and space to the very places their grandparents once fled, or couldn't - Paris, Berlin, Moscow - rather than wake up every morning and try to live right lives in a makeshift laboratory of war. Last time we spoke he and his young family had moved to the south of France.
And? In the United States? What does ethnonationalism do to a heart - or, where else does it seek to perfect its violence? What's the story at the end of 2019? The real story, not American romcom. And forget the news that stays news - where's the truth that stays real, right now?
"The right poets can heal, rebuild after hurricanes, cross borders, and translate the untranslatable by other means," Raquel Salas Rivera has written. Whitman may be great, but he wasn't quite right. One especially beautiful gesture in Life in a Country Album is Handal's own persistent nudging of the reader towards the healers, the builders. Not the palliative care, but the balm.
"I dwell in possibility" wrote another strategist - her life settled as Handal's is nomadic - well after the war had started.
Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —
In "American Camino," Handal relates that "Outside in Anchorage between ice spirits, a passerby told me, It's a border town, a violent, a racist town. I said, Read Joan Kane, a great native."
i al-Shaikh, Abdul-Rahim. "The Political Darwīsh." Journal of Arabic Literature 48.2 (2017): 97.
ii Kelley, Robin D.G. " From the River to the Sea to Every Mountain Top: Solidarity as Worldmaking." Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. XLVIII, No. 4 (Summer 2019), p. 69.
iii Yeshurun, Helit. “'Exile Is So Strong Within Me, I May Bring It to the Land:'” A Landmark 1996 Interview with Mahmoud Darwish." Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), p. 50.
iv Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994, p. 60.
Kerry Carnahan is from Kansas. Her poems have recently appeared in Boston Review and she was named a runner-up in the 2017 92Y 'Discovery'/Boston Review poetry contest. After a decade working in civil service as an urban environmentalist, she currently pursues doctoral studies in English at the University of Connecticut. She is completing a poetry manuscript titled Who Intimately Live, a translation of the Song of Songs with commentary and photographs, and a book-length essay titled The Water Will Come.