POETRY

Bitter English

Univ. of Chicago. Sept. 2019. 96p. ISBN 9780226642642. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780226642789. POETRY
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In the prefatory poem to this finely crafted debut collection, Palestinian American Almallah (Arabic & Arabic literature, Univ. of Pennsylvania) proclaims, “this english tongue cuts me/ through, because this english tongue owes me// a language,” and his poetry shows him caught between not just languages but a past no longer his and a present not entirely comfortable. Returning to Palestine to see family, he is haunted by a feeling of not belonging (“you are not/ you, you are you, done with, over”), the uncertainty of memory (“forgetful/ and remembering/ and dusting/ off the winds”), and the confusion of identity as he decides which passport to use at border control. The political inevitably enters in flight (“From above/ we pass/ the places/ I couldn’t visit on this return”), while back in Philadelphia Almallah tends the garden with tools he can’t name and decries being “a deserter of my own language.”
VERDICT From his citizenship interview to a final meditation on the past as he asks his daughter to repeat her sentences in Arabic, Almallah’s poetry-cum-memoir doesn’t shout but with pointed, persistent, limpid lines minimized to the very essence sums up loss and fractured identity as sharply as any jeremiad.

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