What It Does with Wreckage: On Hala Alyan’s “The Moon That Turns You Back”

Anthony Alessandrini reviews Hala Alyan’s “The Moon That Turns You Back.”

What It Does with Wreckage: On Hala Alyan’s “The Moon That Turns You Back”

The Moon That Turns You Back by Hala Alyan. Ecco. 112 pages.

IN THE FALL of 2021, Hala Alyan published two searing poems in The New Yorker. “Topography” and “Half-Life in Exile” came in response to Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza in May 2021, which killed more than 250 Palestinians, a quarter of them children. In “Half-Life in Exile,” she reflects:

         Is it compulsive to watch videos?
Is it compulsive to memorize names?
Rafif and Ammar and Mahmoud.
Poppies and snapdragons and calandrinias:
I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you under the missiles.

Both poems are included in her latest collection, The Moon That Turns You Back, published this March. Reappearing now, amid Israel’s ongoing genocidal assault on Gaza, which has killed or wounded more than 100,000 Palestinians, the pain evoked is exponentially greater. In an essay for The Guardian written four months into the genocide, Alyan describes the responsibility of diasporic witnesses like herself who “must root themselves in steadfastness, must engage not in the individualistic, late capitalist tacks of avoidance, detachment, distraction, productivity, but in the practices being modeled for us by those that are still there.” The call to witness, and the responsibility that such a position brings, runs through her latest book of poetry.

The Moon That Turns You Back is Alyan’s fifth poetry collection, alongside two novels and a co-edited anthology, We Call to the Eye & the Night: Love Poems by Writers of Arab Heritage. It’s a remarkable output for a writer still in her thirties, and that’s not to mention her prodigious work as an essayist, her frequent presence in the world of podcasts, her cinematic work (she has acted in two short films and written another), and her career as a clinical psychologist. Obsession-compulsion is her frequent theme, and one gets the sense of a writer at once relentlessly busy and deeply vulnerable. In poems like “Sleep Study No. 3,” one of several poems in the collection that reference diagnostic language, we encounter traumatized speakers who are nevertheless stubbornly persistent in bringing their vulnerability to light:

         See also: I run to the living room half-asleep, clutching my throat. I’m choking, 
I yell at my husband. I’m choking. […]

See also: You’re not choking, my husband says.

Says, Look

Says, Look, look, all this air.

The book cycles through multiple themes, but two keep returning: Alyan’s devastating experiences of lost pregnancies (she has experienced miscarriages and the horror of an ectopic pregnancy) and the loss of her beloved maternal grandmother, Fatima, a frequent figure in her writing. Loss is figured throughout via various forms of redaction, including the literal obliteration of words: “Yes // [redacted] // at my throat, dressed like neon for // [redacted] //” (“Fatima :: Comment Out”). There’s also a series of whiteout poems, constructed from (we assume) the medical records of Alyan’s pregnancies, with the almost-erased words barely visible on the white page. Such techniques are often easier to admire than to love, but Alyan teases out passages of surprising tenderness from the cold diagnostic documents, as in “Record”:





to be given
an escort

Another set of poems are headed “Interactive Fiction”: beneath an opening line, three columns descend, allowing the reader to “choose their own adventure” or, more accurately, to experience the poem in parallel versions. “Interactive Fiction :: Werewolf,” one of the finest poems in the collection, pushes the reader through the headings “house,” “body,” and “language”—all keywords in this book—to three alternative endings presented simultaneously on the page: “the wolf // that turns you back”; “the bullet // that turns you back”; “the / moon // that turns you back.”

Amid these formal innovations from her most experimental collection yet, Alyan turns to one of the oldest poetic forms of all: the ghazal, which traces its lineage back to seventh-century Arabic poetry. Consisting of a cascading series of couplets linked by a repeating rhyme scheme, it has a rich history in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu literatures and has been increasingly used by English-language writers, albeit with mixed success: Agha Shahid Ali, a master of the form, described the pain of having an American poet exclaim, “Oh, I just love guh-zaals, I’m gonna write a lot of g’zaaals,” until he blurted out, “OH, PLEASE DON’T!” If Alyan’s couplets lack the precision and melancholy wit of Shahid’s ghazals, the best of them capture the rich musicality of the form, providing a counterpoint to the sparseness of other poems in the collection:

         I sent my superstitions West with the children—spit at 
the bad angel, righted
sneakers. At the American airport, I opened my mouth
and out flew dust.

Salim, you’ve never seen such color: Prairies. Two-for-ones.
Six news channels and not
a single coup. Televisions as warm as a mother: one stunned
eye, all blue dust.

The reader can’t help but notice the many double colons scattered throughout, as in the above poem, “Fatima :: Dust Ghazal.” The use of a colon in a title is of course ubiquitous—a friend once described the template for every academic paper as “Catchy Phrase: One Thing, Another Thing, and a Third Thing”—but the double colon is a different animal. At first glance, it calls our attention to analogies. Anyone who has taken the SAT or an Intro to Logic class knows the game—smile : mouth :: wink : eye. Analogy is also, of course, the game that poems play: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”

But there is something else at work in Alyan’s double colons that speaks to the collection’s interest in parallels, limitations, and loss. The double colon plays an important role in coding, where it signifies a scope resolution operator. “Scope,” in turn, indicates an enclosing context where values and expressions can be associated; a programmer might express this as a process of “name binding,” delimiting a context within which a name is linked to an entity. Redaction has a place here too: known in coding as “comment out,” it renders a block of code inert, as Alyan explains in a note attached to the poem “Fatima :: Comment Out.”

Alyan’s allusions to coding in these poems take us beyond the parameters of computer programming. Figuration itself might be seen as a form of name binding: an invitation to the reader, within the delimited scope of the poem, to associate the disparate meanings of juxtaposed words such that they create a new space of meaning. That’s the sort of name binding Alyan enacts in four linked poems with her late grandmother’s name in the title. In each of them, the speaker blurs together Fatima’s voice with that of the poet invoking her: “It’s beautiful to speak for her; she’s dead,” begins “Fatima :: Solstice.” Bodies and machines, hearts and intelligences, absence and presence are bound together in complex combinations.

All this might sound very abstract and disembodied, but the body speaks here too. Literally, in some cases—both the uterus and the amygdala (a region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes) are given speaking roles. There’s a viscerality to Alyan’s best poems, and she is powerful and concrete in her evocation of place. Movement—from the enforced movement imposed upon exiles to the willing movement of pilgrims, and all forms in between—has been her most consistent theme, reflecting her own peripatetic life: a childhood lived between Kuwait and Oklahoma, college years in Beirut, adult life in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. The poems here visit all these places and many more, from Barcelona to Jerusalem to Maine, and if the recurring references to present-day Williamsburg sometimes lapse into cliché, that might be the right tone for a neighborhood that has itself lapsed into cliché.

Behind all these places, and all these movements, is Gaza. Though rarely summoned by name in Alyan’s poetry, Gaza is always present. Her father was born there, the child of refugees from a Palestinian village destroyed in the Nakba. Witnessing today’s still-unfolding genocide via a social media feed that has become “a boneyard,” Alyan writes in her Guardian essay: “These children, these babies and men, are somewhere I’ve never been, somewhere my father was born, somewhere my grandparents, my uncles, my great-grandparents, lived for years.” When Gaza appears by name, as in the blistering poem “Naturalized,” time telescopes traumatically. A scene of her father playing soccer in Gaza as a boy occurs alongside today’s horror show of child corpses in a bombed-out hospital:

         My father plays soccer. It’s so hot in Gaza.
It’s so hot under that hospital elevator.
That’s no place for a child’s braid. In the staff meeting,
I stretch my teeth into a country
when they congratulate me on the ceasefire. […]
It’s okay. They like me. They like me in a coffin.

Alyan presents her own relationship to the land as grief-stricken and guilty: “Gaza. I’m sorry,” she repeats in a poem from her 2015 collection Four Cities, ending with “Gaza. I’ll tell you where I’ve been.” “Here is the most shameful thing I could confess,” she wrote in The Guardian. “I forget about the land all the time. […] This forgetting feels like treachery.” “Can I pull the land from me like a cork?” she implores us in the opening line of “Naturalized.” At the same time, she is unstinting in representing the trauma of having to carry the lost land in the body. “Topography” is a painstaking working-through of “the land” as metaphor, beginning with the first sentence: “The land is a crick in the neck.” The speaker diagnoses the toll taken upon the body of the one expelled from the land, recounting the final days of her grandfather, who has spent his life carrying the land within himself:

         The land looks white on the MRI images:
you call your grandfather. He’s been finding the land
in his stool. His body contours the mattress like a coffin.
His hand trembles. When he drinks the land,
the urine comes out rose-colored.
The land sears the esophagus.

Even in death, there can be no return to the land, only a consignment to nameless, placeless dirt: “He dies and they harness his body to the dirt.”

The Moon That Turns You Back concludes with “Spoiler,” and I suspect that many readers will find reassurance in the resounding final line: “I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.” For me, however, the heart of this collection resides in “Half-Life in Exile,” with its clear-eyed interrogation of what poetic success might mean in the midst of catastrophe: “Everybody loves the poem / It’s embroidered on a pillow in Milwaukee. / It’s done nothing for Palestine.” Though there is little comfort here, for the poet or the reader, there is urgency nonetheless. The work of the poet as witness must continue:

         Was the grief worth the poem? No,
but you don’t interrogate a weed
for what it does with wreckage.
For what it’s done to get here.

Though often challenging, the poems of The Moon That Turns You Back are always soulful, a testament to what Alyan has done with wreckage. Read these poems, and let yourself be moved from spectator to witness, and beyond.

LARB Contributor

Anthony Alessandrini is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College and of Middle Eastern studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is also a member of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different (2014), the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives (1999), and the co-editor of “Resistance Everywhere”: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey (2013). Alessandrini is a faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a co-organizer of the International Solidarity Action Research Network (ISARN), and a co-editor of Jadaliyya e-zine.


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