A Palestinian Poet’s Fragmented Grief

In his second book of poems, Palestinian scholar Ahmad Almallah seeks a language that captures the afterlives of the mother tongue. The 2023 collection, his second to date following Bitter English (2019), blurs the borders between languages, the living and the dead, presence and absence.

“What does not getting used to it do for me?” he asks in the book’s eponymous poem, “Border Wisdom.” By which he means not getting used to the violence that Palestinians — in this case, those living in the occupied West Bank — have been subjected to every day for the past 76 years. The daily abuse, limited mobility, systemic incarceration; the grotesque humor of occupation soldiers and the way Arabic in their mouths degrades the body by degrading language.

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What would it mean to instead get unaccustomed to coexisting with your humiliation, to denormalize rituals designed to break you, to become unwise if wisdom means resigning oneself to continued violence? There can be no wisdom under occupation, no living under borders, no border wisdom. 

But the collection doesn’t proceed from a rhetoric of refusal. Rather, it lingers where it hurts the most: in indeterminacy, at the edge of what he refers to in “The Name Elegy” as the “real,” where lack is both claimed and refused. “I own no language,” he writes. Neither Arabic nor this American English, both of which he uses throughout the collection.

This decision is at odds with his previous book, in which he deliberately abandons his mother tongue for English following 10 years of forced exile in the United States; legal complications related to visa issues prevented him from returning to his native Bethlehem. Written in the wake of his mother’s death, Border Wisdom stages the clash between English and Arabic on the page instead. It embraces the fissures between language, identity, and ownership, as well as the brittleness of their ideological alignments.

Yet what I appreciate the most is that while writing from an in-between position, Almallah resists fetishizing the liminal. He is fully conscious of the impossibility of being whole and the fraught performance of belonging that the diasporic self, in its split nature, can never truly escape. In “After Ten,” he reflects on the decade of separation between himself and his homeland: “There I was, after my ten years of absence, wrapped in a Palestinian scarf, playing the part.” 

Which is why translation, he argues, should disturb fantasies of linguistic containment. “They are done often in the service of convenience. I prefer to be inconvenienced,” Almallah writes, foregrounding the discomfort and agency in mistranslation. Certain things, like grief, can’t be translated. The poems in the collection that Almallah wrote after his mother’s death could only be written in Arabic. Perhaps wisdom exists in the refusal to prioritize comprehension in the name of consumption. A kind of translation that, instead of glossing over its losses, centers them.

Also scattered throughout and at the end of the book are abstract line drawings, which, not unlike asemic writing, gesture towards meaning while remaining illegible. These lines mark the reading experience with the gesture of a hand, an arbitrary border materially demarcating the page.

At the core of this collection is an ethos I can only approximate through a series of questions: When a mother tongue and a land gradually abandon us, what replaces them? How do you grieve from a diasporic position? When do you book a return ticket after a loved one has passed? Can Palestinians ever mourn? And because mourning is forever deferred, postponed until justice is achieved, how do you forge a relationship to memory in the absence of rituals designed to process loss?

A sketch by Almallah in Border Wisdom (2023)

In their proximity to death, Almallah’s poems offer a witnessing that keenly questions its own ability to witness and a reminder that sometimes poetry must defer to objects or to the land itself. Chairs feel proud without bodies sitting on them, he writes in “The Disappearance.” Freed from the weight that molded them, they exist on their own and interfere with the arrangement of the living. In Almallah’s poems, objects are sentient and what we remember isn’t contingent on our own remembering. Everything exists regardless. “The orange pipes breathe and the walls keep breathing land,” he writes in “(On the Way Between).” Perhaps to own no language is to abandon the logic of property, and let things claim themselves as they will: “water, water, water.”

The problem with poets is that they see everything: the end, the needles, the mother as another. And the brilliance of this collection is that it forges an ethics of grief that challenges human containment, estranging the act of living from the first person and divorcing lyricism from its habitual “you.” Between Arabic and English and without slipping into nostalgia, Almallah crafts a place from which to write where sentiency extends beyond human conventions. And what is more defiant than claiming that what you have lost has also lost you? Than reversing the direction of grief, whereby the living are indebted to the dead and the dead too insist on claiming the living? There is nothing the occupation can do about that. 

Border Wisdom (2023) by Ahmad Almallah is published by Winter Editions and available online and at independent bookstores.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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