“You Passed Through Here Like a Miracle”: On Maya Abu Al-Hayyat’s “You Can Be the Last Leaf”

By Lena Khalaf TuffahaJune 29, 2022

“You Passed Through Here Like a Miracle”: On Maya Abu Al-Hayyat’s “You Can Be the Last Leaf”
With You Can Be the Last Leaf, exquisitely translated from the Arabic by poet Fady Joudah, English language readers gain an elegantly curated introduction to the work of Palestinian poet Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. Abu Al-Hayyat is a versatile writer, with three novels and four poetry collections to her name. Selections from each of those collections are arranged chronologically in this book, giving us a clear sense of the poet’s development over time, as well as of the consistency of her vision.

Abu Al-Hayyat’s poems embody the extremes of a woman’s life under a brutal colonial regime, a life marked by sharp ruptures, mundane longings, and the volatile tedium of waiting. As Joudah puts it: “The allure of these poems is simple. They illuminate the inseparability of private and public domains within a forcibly imposed and constricted, indeed strangled, space.” The poems are marked by repetitions that reveal the surrealism required to maintain a life, creative or otherwise, under such conditions. The speakers in the poems are, by turns, witty, acerbic, hilarious, and broken-hearted. In “Plans” she ruminates on squandered possibilities:

My plans eliminate longing from stories,
remove exhaustion from groans,
place full stops in runaway sentences,
rescue even soldiers at checkpoints
along with children
who grow up in detention centers […]

Her solutions are upended by “plans that my impoverished / creativity ultimately kills.” With such deftness, Abu Al-Hayyat critiques a violence that infuses every aspect of life, from the most intimate groans to the communal disaster of children growing up in detention centers. The closing lament underscores the despair: “My plans, they would have worked, / they would have saved us all.”

Writing and art are recurring themes in Abu Al-Hayyat’s work. In the opening poem, “My Home,” she confides: “In a text, I can build a house/with windows and balconies / that overlook galaxies.” In “A Contemporary Novel,” a female protagonist expresses the ordinary grief that many of Abu Al-Hayyat’s poems illuminate: “There’s no time on which / my body leans that does not fall.” Her conversation with and about art stands out as a bright hope where she frees the narrative from the social and political forces that control her life. The opening line of “Daydream” is arresting: “I’ll write about a joy that invades Jenin from six directions,” a keen imagining of liberation for the beleaguered city and its camp that has endured repeated military invasions. The poem travels unimpeded from one refugee camp to another. This in itself is an act of imagination. The speaker places balloons in children’s hands, soothes hunger and distress to quiet “breastfeeding babies all night,” and envisions a woman dancing for people stranded at Qalandia checkpoint, one of the bleakest and most dehumanizing spaces in all of occupied Palestine. This wistful sonnet writes what none of the people can live, “about you and me/stuffing our pockets with seashells and madness/and building a city.”

Despite her belief in art “as reparation for love and wisdom,” Abu Al-Hayyat’s poems remain firmly planted in the realities of a colonized homeland. In “Massacres” the state of siege that marks all Palestinian life is laid bare:

Massacres teach me not to wait for
those who’ll be pulled out of the rubble
and not to follow the stories of survivors.
I go on with my day without pausing for wonders.

Abu Al-Hayyat’s best poems write about loss in multiple valences, the brutality of colonialism animates the scene but the violence of repetition, the daily heartbreaks inherent in a long-term practice of hope propel each line and attune the poet to unexpected sites of wonder.

Nothing’s forever.
Not success or laziness,
not dithering or labor,
even dazzling verse
grows onerous,
and to stumble or shatter,
is sometimes beautiful.

Love in its many iterations looms large in this collection. In “Wedding Anniversary,” the doldrums of long love strip the day of its florid symbolism. “You’re not a present. / Love dies” the speaker announces and offers a vision of a what a gift might look like in middle age. It includes the ability to “enjoy brushing my teeth / for a whole half hour” among other privileges of solitude and silence. The poet’s wit shines in “Trash,” in which the speaker laments a love that finds her at an inopportune moment. Instead of arriving in a more romantic season when the fragrance of “the neighbor’s jasmine fills/the street with dreams,” it is forever marked by the scent of trash. In “Since They Told Me My Love Won’t Be Coming Back from the War,” she explores a series of failed remedies for loss: “God, for example, / I leaned on his chest and prayed” and “I tried my hand at politics, / memorizing patriotic songs/befriended legislators, / adored warriors.” Each of these endeavors reteaches the speaker the titular lesson of the poem, widens the absence, and deepens the bereavement.

All love poems in this collection build toward one understated masterpiece in which Abu Al-Hayyat encapsulates a profoundly Palestinian grief and the exponential losses endured by a society persevering against decades of oppression. In “Mahmoud,” the speaker imagines the life of a young boy who is killed. She addresses a beloved, lamenting “he [Mahmoud] could have been our son.” With this simple phrase, the poet introduces a catalogue of immeasurable grief that follows the murder of a young person. Reading this poem after the massacres in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas is especially searing. “We would have bought him a crib with a blue quilt,” and “with a new Nikon camera, / we could have captured his first step” are among the early devastations. The catalogue grows more excruciating as it builds, including parents arguing over a choice of school, bickering over budgets, and alternating feeling distant from their adolescent boy. “And when his voice changed he’d hate us both / and love the neighbor’s girl more.” With the precision of a filmmaker, Abu Al-Hayyat delivers scene after scene of the would-be family, shifting between the emotional lives of the parents and the boy’s developmental stages, which includes throwing his first rock “at soldiers at the checkpoint, / to raise his heroic stock in Manal’s eyes.” The parents’ anxieties take a crushing turn in the final lines of the poem, when the reader learns that Mahmoud never existed because the man who could have had such a son, the beloved addressed by the speaker, was killed first.

Abu Al-Hayyat’s poetry spans the years after the second Intifada to the present, in which Palestinian society navigates the wreckage of the Oslo Accords and the military incursions and wars in its wake. In his introduction, Joudah astutely notes that she “has the measure of civilization’s pulse, its desire for supremacy.” Her poems are marked by a mother’s impatience with tyrants. She excoriates all who traffic in slogans. In “I Suffer a Phobia Called Hope” she declares: “Each time I hear that word / I recall the disappointments/that were committed in its name.” In the pointedly titled “Similarities,” she pushes against narratives of heroism and demands: “Give me a reason/to hand over my kids to you/and resemble the hordes.” Her poem “Revolution,” is even more direct: “Those who win by killing fewer children are losers,” a line that instantly brought to mind the Solmaz Sharif’s poem “Dear Aleph,” in her book Customs: “You’re correct. Every nation hates / its children. This is a requirement of statehood.”

Abu Al-Hayyat’s disappointments and critiques are matched by her poetry’s tenderness, and its compassion for all of the struggling humans around her who fall short of the legends they make. “Like the rest of you, / I thought of escape, / but I have a fear of flying,” she confesses in a “A Road for Loss.” Her poems map the concerns of a modern Palestinian woman’s life, “Do you know a road for loss/that doesn’t end in a settlement?” and turn inward, invoking themes of universal resonance: “Each time an opportunity arises for me to not believe in one thing/or another I smile from ear to ear/to let all this freedom in.”

LARB Contributor

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. She is the author of three books: Water & Salt (Red Hen, 2017), winner of the 2018 Washington State Book Award; Kaan and Her Sisters (Trio House, 2023); and Something About Living, winner of the 2022 Akron Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from University of Akron Press. For more about her work, visit lenakhalaftuffaha.com.


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