Tuesday, January 31, 2023

natalie hanna, lisan al’asfour



i think we can address the problem here by making
full disclosure of our respective positions in this
touchy situation, for example, i did not anticipate
in medias res, that you would drop your large warm
hand onto my thigh as ii was advising
on the tax implications of your monthly payments
and i know legalese is a little off-putting and
you’re unfamiliar with the language of rigidity
inter alia, so i will make it clear about
the next thing that happens (“index of error”)

After some twenty-plus years of publishing poems in journals and chapbooks, Ottawa poet and lawyer natalie hanna’s long-awaited full-length debut is lisan al’asfour (Winnipeg MB: arp books, 2022), a sensual blend of narrative fragments awash with lush precision. Hers is a narrative infused with a full flow of lyric, composing a flow of phrases and fragments across an array of sentences, from short poems into extended sequences. She writes of love and lawyering, writing the heart across such boundaries and echoes of love, even while responding to a wide range of levels of racism and misogyny, whether personally or through the culture. Her lyric weaves elements of folk tale and song (consider the delicate touch of her title, an Arabic phrase that translates to “bird’s tongue,” the name of a particular Arabic soup dish), offering a poetry that sings a story or document an experience, from family offerings, responses from legal clients and even the 2022 Ottawa convoy occupation, and the inherent responsibilities of the individual to those beyond themselves. “where does your body end / and mine begin?” she asks, as part of her convoy poem, “there are some in every crowd,” writing “how many cycles / inhalation, exhalation // before we have shared all the air / in this atmosphere with each other / with the neighbourhood / across the earth? what is in you / lives in me, as risky as a kiss [.]” Throughout, hanna responds with deep empathy to poverty, grief and heartbreak, aware of both the spindle prick and the possibility of a happy ending. Of Middle Eastern descent, and raised in both English and Arabic, she writes of the distances between languages and cultures, and a blend she has yet to fully manage or master. “ya Rab, she says,” she writes, as part of the poem “naharda,” “do you ever stop talking? / i am afraid if i do not fill the universe with words / i will forget language altogether / i have already forgotten one [.]”

There is something about hanna’s use of the lower case that intrigues, specifically her name and the narrative “I.” The late Toronto poet bpNichol utilized the lower case “i” as something predominantly visual, while others (including myself), have attempted to utilize the lower case “i” as a reduction of the narrative self (counterbalancing New York School poet Frank O’Hara’s “I did this, I did that” poetic style), arguably allowing the poem more space in which to speak for itself. The late artist and poet Roy K. Kiyooka, who spent part of his childhood in a wartime Japanese interment camp in Alberta, utilized his lower case “i” as a distinction against the dominant culture, against what he deemed “Inglish.” On her part, hanna appears to utilize hers as a blend of all of the above, allowing the lyric to flow through and be but a part of her, set on the page both resolute and firm, with a complete lack of interest in putting up with other people’s nonsense. hanna’s examinations around language and cultural distinctions are something she celebrates, even as she mourns the losses that can come through existing between two cultures. As she writes as part of the poem “tokyo cinema”:

i have stopped recording my dreams
in a book for they are all the same
dream where we are sitting at a table
in the homes askew where i grew up
and i am feeding you or you are feeding me
the home food of our ancestors
from across the middle-east and we
are crying, we are crying, with our faces
in our hands for this meal will never be perfect
and i cannot cook the rice your mother made
as you cannot cook the rice of mine, but the music
of the meal in our mouths is so close
and recalls what we have lost, and our tears
become our salt, each according to their need
and i cannot hold you, as i cannot judge you
for wanting to drown the world under your hand
in the darkness of your grief


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