The Twenty-Ninth Year
By Hala Alyan
Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach
As I eagerly turned the pages of Hala Alyan's fourth book, The Twenty-Ninth Year, I wondered what truth would happen next and what vivid images Alyan would use to bring that truth to us. What would happen when the family in the collection leaves the Mideast for the Midwest? Would the speaker spend another night drinking or was that just a lie to mess with us? What exactly happened with the speaker and that other woman's husband? Set in Beirut, Texas, Iraq, and Oklahoma, as well as places of transition like boats and airports, the speaker in The Twenty-Ninth Year teeters on the cusp of change as Alyan takes on the themes of truth, cross-cultural lives, anorexia, alcoholism, and sex.
Alyan sets off the collection's first poem, "Truth," from the four sections of the book like an epigram. Besides setting up all the book's major themes, "Truth" is a good representation of Alyan's style. If you like a blunt tone about painful topics, like "Of the worlds, / I love the Aztecs' most of all, the way they lit fires / in the gouged chests of men to keep the world spinning," you are going to have fun in this collection, as I did. Sometimes truth means an aggressive confession without remorse: "I slept with your boyfriend. I stole books from the library." But that same poem ends "I made it all up," so the poem becomes not about the facts of the case and instead focuses the reader on underlying struggles of identity, survival, and anger. The spacing in "Cliffhanger" creates pauses in the narrative:
my family for years received these phone calls unknown caller saying your
daughter is a whore a bad girl saying rape saying you won't
recognize her body
The hesitancies in the voice cover a painful topic and the slippages of memory, the breaks and fragments in truth.
So many of the personal struggles in these poems get placed within the cultural context of being a refugee, an immigrant, a person moving back and forth between two cultures. In "Gospel: Diaspora" Alyan writes, "sometimes I wear a cowboy hat sometimes I wear a keffiyeh." I appreciate how she zooms in on small moments of cultural clash: "My grandmother / asking the Burger King cashier / for pommes frites." In a poem called "Call Me to Prayer," she shows us "in the exile's suitcase, a carpet of dead grass. Seven persimmons. A dandelion stem skinny as a grenade pin." The images are surreal, yet full of tenderness and danger. There's so little in terms of material possessions the exile gets to bring but so much in terms of their personal importance.
I wouldn't say these poems claim that being a refugee and living under threat, whether of war or racism, causes anorexia, alcoholism, and bad sex, but those three issues bedevil the speaker as she moves back and forth between worlds. In the very first poem, the speaker ends: "and every night I wanted to drink but didn't." That need sets up a pressure that permeates the book. Similarly, sexual encounters get revisited in nightmarish fragments. The poem "Common Ancestors" is a good example of all those themes coming together. Alyan writes:
When I came to America,
white men took me to their mothers. I became proof,
mute and pretty. Spare underwear in my pocket like a firearm.
White men want to use the speaker to prove something to their mothers—their transgressiveness? Their desirability? Even though the speaker is rendered mute, she thinks of her sexual preparedness—her spare underwear—as a violent agency. She's got the gun that's going to take her home safely. And that "proof"? Given all the other references to alcohol in the book, I took it as her turning into/to alcohol. Perhaps she is now a powerful danger to these men, or perhaps she is turning to drinking alcohol herself as a solution to her own problems, becoming her own dangerous intoxicant. I appreciate how these few lines give me a story, a powerful image, and layers of meaning.
In most of these poems, Alyan uses long lines or avoids lineation all together as she does in the collection's prose poems. These choices let story and tone come through most strongly. Her lines are so vivid I often feel as if I'm watching a documentary, as when she writes, "They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases / full of spices and cassettes." But it's a documentary that lets me see inside the suitcases and hearts. One of her great poetic techniques is juxtaposition. For instance, the poem "Step Four: Moral Inventory" ends with the lines:
and I eventually gave up and watched
the birds, hundreds of them in formation, a dark V that swooped and pirouetted
against the rose-pink dusk, and for a moment I finally shut
up, prayed only that something so beautiful would know that it was.
I love that this poem juxtaposes trying to make a moral inventory against stepping back and appreciating the natural world. At the same time, it juxtaposes the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous against her experience.
Two famous quotes kept coming to mind as a I read this book. First, in a book titled The Twenty-Ninth Year, I couldn't help thinking of Virginia Woolf's admonishment to a young poet, "And for heaven's sake, publish nothing before you are thirty." But, since Alyan has already published three books of poetry and a novel, I think that ship has sailed. Furthermore, the book convinced me twenty-nine was a cusp worthy of exploration. This leads me to the other quote I kept hearing—Lucille Clifton from her poem "won't you celebrate with me": "come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed." So much tries to destroy the speaker in these poems, but The Twenty-Ninth Year is a book of triumph, the worlds courageously explored, the speaker, and the reader, changed.