“No coffee grains scattering into/ an immigrant’s fortune, we wear/ our cities like helmets,” says the speaker of “Loving the Remains.” Like a protective garment, as well as a fortification, these lines suggest, images borne out through the entirety of Four Cities, Hala Alyan’s second full-length collection of poetry. These cities are New York, Detroit, Beirut, Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Tripoli, Paris, and elsewhere. To call these poems place-based, however, would be a misnomer. More like place-haunted, as the poet inscribes relationship to cities as deep as that between a poet and her lover, in poems of faith, love, and occupation: “Ever teethed by a lover my organs pulse for certain cities”; “I glitter like dew for/ your gaze and write Morocco in dust/ with fingertips.”
One of the collection’s most moving poems is “Push.” Herein, the poem invokes Gaza, Beirut, Venice, New Orleans, Boston, Aya Nappa, Tripoli, Rome, Wichita, Ramallah, Dubai, Aleppo, Baghdad, Doha, Istanbul, Dallas, Norman, Oklahoma, Brooklyn, Dublin, Damascus, Jerusalem, London, Manhattan, and Bangkok, with Beirut and Gaza being the two cities that are spoken of more than once. Of Beirut, the speaker says “I still love you like an arsonist,”; “I bruise as easily as you do. We are both anemic veins and unbrushed hair.” Of Gaza, the speaker says only “I’m sorry,” repeatedly. A Palestinian American, Alyan balances the tension between her wanderlust and the harsh reality of Gaza’s political embroilment with Israel and the American governement for decades, with poetic precision and a kind of Orphic looking back at a place she has left. At the end of “Push,” she says of Gaza, “I’ll tell you where I’ve been.”
There is a musical resonance in these lyrics that defies logic. Luminous images, of rumpled maps and wailing flowers, of bodies eaten like leaven bread, gather only to disperse. The natural world, with its downpours and sunsets, continues apace while the speaker threads throughout cities and continents, Palestinian bazaars, a courtyard in Hamra (a city in Abu Dhabi), and a Midwestern motel room. The incongruity between what is experienced in one lived city versus dreamed in an imagined city lends gravitas to the collection, as in “Narcissus”: “Trees litter Brooklyn streets// with blossoms. I wake to Iraq,/ to neighbors kissing.// I am a ghost ship/ smothered by Neruda’s stars.// Is that what you wanted?/ To hear me say I ache? I ache.”
Formally, the collection is divided into two sections, and many of the titles are bleeding titles, connected to the first line of the poem. There is a sense of suspended animation throughout, whether the speaker is speaking in the present tense (“I am the bread you are/dipping now.// I am the oil”) or the past tense (“I bought new perfume, sulfurous,// the bottle of clouded glass”). As metaphor and in memory, the speaker’s metamorphoses—even in the conditional tense—are as multiple as the cities she inhabits.
I hear him call land
daughter, and, like a damsel,
For two nights I dream of him
appearing on a bridge,
lifting me by the hip. Done over,
I would lean in.
I would give myself like fossil.
This doubling and halving speak also to the poet’s dual identity, and the struggle to maintain a sense of belonging but also integrity, in the movement between languages and cultures.
The great subjects of the lyric are all present here, as is the search for beauty and permanence among the perishable delights of earth, yet surprisingly so, as in: “Love,/ I hunt a Valentine that will flare.” “To flare,” rather than “to last”—an important distinction. Repeatedly, attention is drawn to the speaker’s body as an otherworldly source of light, in poems such as “Junebug” (“ . . . I stand/ on your lawn naked as tundra/ waiting for the sun to rise/ on me, lit like a moon”) and “Fruit.”
. . . Undressing makes
confetti of the night
and I am a slowly lit
Roman candle that all
gathered to watch burn.
The body, here, is not a figure immortalized or prone to dissolution, but, rather, a symbol of illumination. Elsewhere, the body is presented as an object or represented by its wounds (a “fence of lamplike/ bones”; a yellowing bruise). Taking part in—and contributing to—the traditions of topographical poetry, archival poetry, documentary poetry, war poetry, and love poetry, Four Cities is a collection whose singing wounds of war and love prove inextricable. The lyric body, here, precedes the geopolitical body, or shows the two to be one.
. . . The men
returned ruined and
we scoured the blood
from their shirts and
kissed them asleep.
And, from “Lizard”: “Misfortune is an atlas/ in British hands, cut, quartered, and each crossing asks// fury or love?”
In this feverish dance, the images the speaker creates are eidetic, fossilized in memory. For in our sleep, the speaker reminds us, we are islands. The role the speaker takes in this archipelago of a collection, then, is as a curator of lost things, and souls. “Atlas/ I curate the forgotten, stretch clotheslines/ tight to/ pin mementos . . . ”
Like Elizabeth Bishop’s curatorial poetics, there is nothing that the “peppered lips” of this attentive speaker doesn’t hold in her hand, or savor in the body. Whether tangerines or clams brothed in lemon, this collection recalls Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” In Alyan’s world-making, the muezzin comes to life, calling all to prayer, and through the speaker’s response, not a single element of these lived cities and imagined dreamscapes—and the people that inhabit them—are lost.
Did you taste it, do you still taste
it—the salt from the hands that
shuffled life from the dirt bitter
salty and sharp as any truth.
Wanderlust can suggest the life of a dreamer, or privilege, but it is also a metaphor for exile and the existence of immigrants who are displaced, new languages and customs grafted atop the known. If we bring Friedrich Hölderlin’s expression “poetically man dwells” to bear in this collection, we return as readers to the site of an original exile, the exodus from which is the occasion for naming each place and wound.
In reading of such a journey, we envision a peace between the real and the imagined, the political and mythic. Alyan’s myth-making is as mesmeric as it is grounded in the horrors and vagaries of contemporary life, whether in the States or Ramallah, Palestine. Unlike Orpheus, however, who was punished for looking back, Alyan’s gaze casts forward and back without fear, reclaiming the past, and creating a fragmented future out of this dizzing welter of sensory impressions. What unifies this collection is a dazzling, shape-shifting voice that is divided by conflict and capable of inhabiting multiple places at once, whose poetic empathy for places lived and selves inhabited is seemingly without borders, or bounds.