I am the fable with a mouth… This line from “Ballad for Kissing Beneath the Tawdry Fireworks” encapsulates the magic of Hala Alyan’s second poetry collection, Four Cities. Haunting yet hopeful, musical yet desolate, nostalgic yet grieving—this collection gracefully interrogates themes like love and war. In these poems, the personal and the political weave together to form deeply felt poems that simultaneously put readers in a trancelike reverie while also waking them up to the horrors of the world.
These poems touch the wounds of places like Gaza, Ramallah, and Baghdad, while also exploring love and desire in places like Paris and New York City. Alyan’s ability to do both of these things at once is part of what makes the collection so awe inspiring.
Despite the collection looking fearlessly at topics like war and occupation, the poems radiate a sense of hope through lines that are almost like prayer. In “Birthday Art,” Alyan writes:
I want to be a woman of dusklit
mosques, of ginger prickly in tea,
steam netted for a lover.
The images in her work function powerfully through their sensuality. Not only do they often explore love and the body, they also cater to the senses. In “Birthday Art,” we can visualize the dusklit mosques, we can taste the ginger in the tea, we can feel the soft burn of the steam along our skin. Thus, the urgency of the speaker’s desires manifest themselves more potently; the desire and hope feel desperately tangible.
But these prayers tackle ambitious subject matter, and Alyan has an ability to take poems in unexpected directions; the poems often umbrella out into bigger subjects than which they began. In “Music,” the poem begins by watching a beautiful Japenese woman play music. In between songs, the woman talks about her father and his cat. The poem sets the stage for expectations of nostalgia in familial love, but then it turns to focus on the music and a man trying to touch the speaker’s fingers while she pulls away. When the man asks the woman how the music affects her, she replies:
It makes me sad. The man is confused. Like Rain, I offer.
Here, the poem takes a major shift as the speaker’s memory recalls Beirut and gunfire, hip hop music as furniture is dragged away from a window. Music, therefore, comes back to the poem, but in a starkly different context, an unexpected place from where the poem began. The poem continues to alternate between music, war, and love, until the ending, in which they are all woven seamlessly into a tapestry of pain, even harkening back to the cat recalled by the singer at the beginning of the poem:
yes, damnit, I remember: our mouths shy
beneath the display of bombwork, the muffled light of
fishing boats, the debris, the cats—always—mewling.
The poem ends with the repetitive music of cats, a feral sort of longing, one that can be interpreted in myriad ways—need, pain, fear, desire.
As an American Palestinian, Alyan’s poems seem to wrestle with her sense of identity through those two cultures. In “Push,” the poem falls into a seesaw litany, one that acknowledges privilege and desires to travel the world, but tempers that freedom through repeated apologies to Gaza. For example,
“Rome. When I think of my future self she is walking your piazza wearing something yellow.”
“Gaza. I’m sorry.”
“Damascus. Nothing is as dangerous as an unlit match. You taught us that.”
“Beirut. I bruise as easily as you do.”
“Istanbul. Marry me.”
“Gaza. I’m sorry.”
By looking at some destinations with a dreamlike wonder and other destinations with a melancholy telescope, the speaker acknowledges the pull and push of her identity. On one hand, she’s American, afforded freedom and dreams to travel. But her legacy is Palestinian, a people who’ve suffered occupation and the horrors of war for decades, partially at the hands of the American government. The poet’s specific reference to Gaza lends a particular haunting and horror to the poem, as the Palestinian population is not free to leave or enter the Gaza strip, nor can they import or export goods, making Gaza the world’s largest open air prison. Therefore, while the poet dreams of all the places she can go or has been, all the places that move something in her heart, she can’t stop looking back at Gaza and apologizing, as it’s a place where people of her ethnicity may never leave. Later in the collection, the speaker has a poignant epiphany: “I want to say teach/ me how to love one country/without hating the other.”
Another aspect of identity that’s explored in the collection is womanhood. In “You, Bonsai Girl,” womanhood is yoked with various natural disasters, so that womanhood itself becomes a sort of personal storm. The poem mentions rain, hurricanes, and wild creatures that twist in the murk—all of these giving the effect of being exposed nakedly to the elements or of being threatened and haunted by nature.
how you held your body still in his bed
like you were no woman, but object.
yellow, pulled from a witch’s
garden and oh
sister it was real. That sky. Those streets full of men
applauding your legs.
In these lines, the poet exposes some of the concrete disasters that come with womanhood, beginning with the hope of love and intimacy, turning to the despair of objectification, then finally the sad power a woman carries solely through performing for the male gaze, her body always on display for the “streets full of men.” In another poem, “Meimei,” the speaker also explores this subject through interrogating generations of women in her family to listen to their wisdom and ideologies in relationships to both men and home. We can see that the idea of womanhood has always been bound to an idea of suffering.
Another touchstone in this collection is that of dreams or a surreal dreamscape in which the poems exist. In “Dinner,” the speaker begins with dreamlike images: circling lions, plants that unfurl like steam, following a man down a dark hallway, and a “slow awakening.” Then the poem turns from the dreamlike to a cry for the spiritual: “I want god, I want God, to bury myself/ towards the swarming.” After, the poem moves to images of food—tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, baguettes—all signs of nourishment and the need to quench starvation, perhaps a spiritual starvation. Then the poem introduces Sangria, so that the nourishment turns to intoxication, and just as the speaker makes that dizzying turn, it spins on itself again and introduces death through coffins, war, forests that “receive bodies like a wife.” The poem ends with another nod to ravaged cities: “Gaza. Homs. Alexandria. O, Damascus.” In another poem, “After Thunderstorms in Oklahoma,” the speaker has a literal dream in which she’s in Ramallah (a Palestinian city in the West Bank), surrounded by images of sickliness, lack of growth, decay, and darkness. There’s a haunting pulse of threat in the poem. Finally, the speaker says “I woke and it was sun I had forgot.” The dream had blotted out all potential for hope.
Alyan’s poems don’t disappoint in the realm of poetic technique either. Her gift for description surprises in every line. For example, her keen ability to turn nouns into verbs, “Our faces lanterned,” paint vivid illustrations. She can take images of violence and weave them into images of beauty and adornment as seamlessly as she can explore seemingly contradictory themes. And while her poems are treasure troves of images, she also strikes gongs of truths throughout them as the poems search for meaning:
“Yesterday I found out that Gaza means treasure.”
“The petal is rough as tongue.”
“Americans, their hearts bleed for cats.”
Another poem,“Marketplace,” is almost a pastoral of daily life, of feeling out of place, of being spiritually and physically lost. Both home and not home. It ends with the speaker walking the winding road asking about cities in Palestine, an image that harkens to Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Four Cities is a collection ripe with Dorothy’s sort of magic, fear, nostalgia, and beauty. It’s history blended with hope, truth seasoned with mythology. In short, it’s a wonder.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013) and The Dark Length Home (Noctuary Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Redivider, Cider Press Review, New South, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial grant, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Wheelock College in Boston.