My Name On His Tongue (Syracuse University Press, 2012) is Laila Halaby’s first book of poems. She is best known for her novel Once in a Promised Land, which won a PEN/Beyond Margins award. The poems in My Name On His Tongue are straightforward, breathtakingly simple (in the best possible way) and powered by a deep, deep compulsion.
Halaby’s mother is American, her father Arabic. She understood these facts to weave the exotic nature of her life, along with a taste for zaatar, languages and an extended family inhabiting more than one continent. Not so very different from the rest of us, immigrant-born from countries we’ve never been to.
And then 911 happened.
And the War in Iraq.
And anything Middle Eastern became suspect.
The lens of the world forces her to reevaluate who she is, where she is in her life and what it all means. Halaby was born in Jordan but spent most of her life in Tucson, Arizona. She is married and raising children in America.
The poems explore her evolution as an Arab American writer, a woman, a mother, a wife and a daughter of mixed parentage. She begins as a tourist in her father’s homeland, witnessing the “untidy heaps” of her “injured memories.” The sound of her name in the mouth of a native tour guide reminds her:
all that is not mine
took my breath away
from “how a tour guide in Petra reminded me of all I’ve lost
(or never had to begin with)”
Many of the poems chronicle moments of Otherness. Some of it the recognizable kind: mother-daughter, teenager-parent, white-not white. But throughout the book, Halaby turns the Otherness on its head, owning it in a new way.
is like an old trailer
that’s always frowned at
because no matter where
out of place
There is a recurring image of “tongues” in Halaby’s poems; the organ in the mouth, the language, the utterance. She tells the stories of other exiles she encounters – family members, strangers, notable countrymen and women. Halaby honors their experience with her poems, and her tongue serves them with her words, all part of the compulsion which drives these poems.
Halaby’s tongue especially unleashes in a series of poems on the War in Iraq. Like the rest of America she watches the turmoil unfold on television. She goes about her day-to-day life, seething below the surface.
her words have found the keyhole
to my locked up anger
which is purple in color
from “rage, the iraq war, day 6”
Halaby is campaigning in these poems for more tolerance, a better America, and an end to the War in Iraq. Her poems are smooth stones, spare of much punctuation, each line a cogent thought.
Halaby’s book of poems includes two letters. One is in the middle of the book addressed to an Israeli soldier. Another is at the end of the book addressed to president-elect Barack Obama. These letters are more intimate “poems” of possibility.
Halaby appeals to Obama’s mixed parentage, his foreign-sounding name, his Otherness to look at the situation in Palestine, the long history of conflict and work towards resolution. As he makes moves to do so, her name just may be on his tongue.