While still in manuscript form, The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser, her debut collection, was awarded the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. As a published book, it more recently received the inaugural Maya Angelou Book Award, and Almontaser’s work may garner further honors yet. Although publishing awards to some degree reinforce the status quo of competition ideologies in the arts, there is nothing status quo about Almontaser’s startling and fresh work.
Perhaps not unlike a fox—the animal that graces the book’s title as well as stark cover and who trots through these pages with various mentions, appearances—the speakers of these poems often go wild, give slip, and keep surviving with cunning. Yet wildnot in that frequently pejorative sense; instead, a common theme here is the struggle to free oneself from taken-for-granted structures of control, to evade devices of containment.
In fact, the trap of so many either/or conceptions of identity is intensely felt and thus interrogated and exposed via subversively deconstructive strategies together with a razor-sharp play of forms and languages (poetry, rhetoric, Arabic), often intently unconventional. Call it patriarchy, call it state surveillance, call it assimilation pressure cooker, or the intersection of these as well as other systems and mechanisms of oppression—the weight of dominant cultures is likewise felt throughout many of these pieces. Meanwhile Almontaser’s strategies, perhaps along with that evocative fox, suggest ways to thwart these problems of power traditions.
Among the problems, for one, should the speaker be daughter or wife? Even husband versus wife? Almontaser takes such concerns head-on, especially the feminine or masculine dilemma. “Hunting Girliness” problematizes those patriarchal conventions or associations: i.e. passive vs. active. For example, consider the confrontational yet interrogative opening lines “My girliness is the size of a Cerberus. / I unchain it out my body”—soon after followed by the speaker’s musing about ways to “beat up boys / at the park, make one my wife / in a white dress when we play marriage” (5).
We see other kinds of boxes imposed by dominant cultures. The strains of assimilation and nation certainly get invoked on multiple occasions by Almontaser’s speakers. Those pressures are unambiguous when the speaker of “Hidden Bombs in My Coochie” states unequivocally that “I sing two anthems / squeeze a moshed lineage / in every boxed foyer” (56).
What’s at stake here goes beyond such cross-cultural discomfort or, say, the strangeness of hearing family speak in Arabic while listening to Britney Spears. In fact, those stakes get much higher. For instance, Almontaser shows just how dangerous the figurative violence can be for those in similar position to these women, Arab American speakers living in a post-9/11 era. In “Hidden Bombs in My Coochie,” there’s a denial of self-identity (perhaps due to assimilation’s constraints) with how “amreeka settles my body into place” and then “tells baristas / my name is tina / tongue ebbing far away / from me” (56-57). Additionally, the speaker feels pushed to the brink of violent potential with possibly the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy yet scathing irony:
the news makes me believe
I was born to cock
back this rifle sleek & steady
like a true terrorist the news
make me want to grab
my phone & gun
it out the country [. . . .] (57)
Or what of the line in “Guide to Gardening Your Roots” when the speaker ratchets up the tension with another instance of where language meets power meets potential violence, here with a speaker who visualizes a soldier: “I tell myself, as an American, I am not bound to just one land. I can taste a soldier’s finger across the ocean as it caresses a trigger, its black tonsil” (37). The synesthesia is remarkable. Moreover, there’s a dynamic mix of playfulness in line breaks together with enjambment, startling imagery, and ideas full of risk and wonder.
As for this post-9/11 era and its anti-Muslim sentiments and policies that indirectly then directly assail these speakers: of course hate crimes and terrorism get directed equally if not more so at Muslims—and, in Almontaser’s poems, at times specifically at Yemenis. More to the point, “Please Take Off Your Shoes Before Entering” responds to the mass shootings of Muslims in New Zealand in 2019 while simultaneously it references the day-to-day terrors that Muslims and Muslim women face (80-82, 95). In other words, there’s the foregrounded terror that intrudes on the mosque, the “man bouncing on his toes by the entrance / his molecules percolating / a blood-spore frenzy”; in the same poem, a different kind of dread lurks for the mother on the subway who’s accosted by “drunk men / pulling her headscarf” (80-81).
However, Almontaser’s collection is about more than merely being stuck in cycles of violence, trauma, and cultural relegation. It suggests a method of coping, a trick to break out of these traps. The collection does so in more than one way, especially when taken as a whole and in light of the playful brashness demonstrated by many of these speakers, titles, and unconventional forms—forms mixed with Arabic words and phrases as well as translations. For example, Almontaser even presents her own translations of some selected poetry by the Yemeni writer and poet Abdullah Al-Baradouni, an author overlooked by English translations.
But what of the titular wild fox? It appears more complex than a facile avatar, particularly in one of the trio of poems from a “Dream Interpretation” series. Elsewhere, the fox becomes a promising symbol that indicates a path of escape, even liberation. What is the fox but one of folklore’s most wily creatures? One meaning becomes clearest in “After Running Away from Another Marriage Proposal”: not only does the speaker feel simpatico with this creature who “stands heavy over my heart,” the speaker knows how to slip a trap, too, here an ill-fit marriage proposal (73). It’s another way that the speaker is like the fox and sees herself as such: “I, alone—in the quartzed dune, a fox elusive as water, out of reach” (74).
M. G. Moscato teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked as a book editor as well as in arts management. Work has won awards from the Academy of American Poets and Poetry Society of Virginia. New work appears in or is forthcoming from Poets.org, Birmingham Poetry Review, Raritan Quarterly, and Michigan Quarterly Review (Mixtape imprint). Third Coast is excerpting work from an in-progress collection of poetry, prose, and visuals; the working title is Country of Béisbol.