Both Beauty and Horror: Water & Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

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Water & Salt is the debut collection of Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, an American poet of Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian descent. The collection takes its title from Tuffaha’s ode to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who, in 2014, undertook a hunger strike during which they refused to let anything except water and salt cross their lips. The poem, characteristic of Tuffaha’s interest in the capacity of language to convey both beauty and horror, quickly settles into a sort of chant, rhythmically enumerating the freedoms the hunger-strikers yearn for:

we claim the freedom

to turn stone into sunlight streaming through your jails
to sip water and salt like sacrament

freedom

to own our bodies and the land beneath them
to breathe the air on both sides of the wall

freedom

to wait and wait….

Just as the reader’s ear becomes habituated to the drumbeat of this anaphoric list of liberties, the poem takes an unforeseen leap at its conclusion. Through the wizardry of poetry, the water and salt of the hunger-strikers’ meager meals are transformed into the water and salt of a “crashing wave,” an act of God that brings the Palestinians’ longings to fruition:

…a crashing wave
of water and salt you never saw coming, this cleansing,
how we have become the ocean.

“We have become the ocean”: in this sudden disorienting shift from unrealized infinitives to the present perfect tense, the poem transcends list to become lyric.

Tuffaha’s verse is rich with subtle verbal maneuvers of this kind, which she uses in her deeply felt efforts to illuminate the ills currently besieging the lands of her ancestors and the waves of refugees those ills have produced. In her poetry, she alludes to, and thereby aligns herself with, poetic predecessors as far-flung as Naomi Shihab Nye (another American poet with Palestinian roots) and Bei Dao, a Chinese poet persecuted for his alleged political affiliations and forced to live in exile. Tuffaha’s verse is generally much more direct than Bei Dao’s in its approach to political topics, however—her lines longer and more prone to relax into the contours of impassioned speech. In “Newsworthy,” for example, Tuffaha uses angry, biting sarcasm to prod readers to rethink the axiom that news coverage ought always to accord equal weight to all points of view in the name of “nuance” and “balance”:

see for example the brown-skinned boy
slender limbs running across the street
a rock in his hand….

if you feel a bit unsettled by the chaos unfolding on his street
the smoke billowing from fires all around him
the tank pouring out armed soldiers
at the vanishing point where he aims
steady yourself with the thought
of the damage the rock could conceivably do….

a tank isn’t necessarily a bad thing a semi-automatic
weapon aimed at a child maybe isn’t

Given Tuffaha’s preoccupation with themes of political injustice and exile, her choice to allude to Bei Dao makes sense, but I would argue that Tuffaha’s poems bear a stronger kinship to the long-ago epics of the Near East: observe her penchant for recurring epithets à la Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” (the phrase “stone walls the color of my skin,” or some variant of it, appears in Water & Salt no less than four times), and her soft spot for the ancient literary device of anaphora. Anaphora is used to great effect not only in the collection’s title poem but also in the powerful “Mountain, Stone,” which seems to be in conversation with Warsan Shire’s “The Birth Name,” as it advises parents on how to name their children:

Do not name your daughters Shaymaa,
courage will march them
into the bullet path of dictators.

Do not name them Sundus,
the garden of paradise calls out to its marigolds….

Tuffaha’s poems overflow with the love of language that is so often a defining characteristic of people who are fluent in more than one tongue. In her poems about mothering young children, like “The Whole Point” and “Many Hats,” Tuffaha shows a particular fascination with how youngsters acquire language: “I knew to lean in to the quiet and listen, / to learn their language before they could speak it,” she says in “The Whole Point,” and in “Many Hats,” she celebrates how for a six-year-old “the world’s magic is still within reach / and language can rise and reveal it.”

Tuffaha’s passion for words is also evident in the lush, ornate diction of the poem “Rules for Recitation” (“linger in the plush velvet of consonants, / turn the vowels over and over in the light of song”), a tribute to grade school teachers in the poem “Copybooks,” and the comparative linguistics practiced in the poems “Translation,” “Dhayaa’,” and “Tu’burni.”

In “Dhayaa’,” Tuffaha compares the Arabic and English words for loss, inviting readers who have a Whorfian bent of mind to draw conclusions about how loss is experienced differently in different parts of the world:

In my language
the word for loss is a wide-open cry,
a gaping endless possibility.
In English loss sounds like one shuddering blow to the heart….

“Tu’burni” is a poem that begins similarly, introducing readers to a Syrian word for which no exact one-word English translation exists. Tu’burni, according to the poem’s explanatory epigraph, “translates as ‘bury me’ and means ‘I love you so much I hope I’m the one that dies first.” This word, the poem goes on to explain, is a “dark prayer” encompassing the old wisdom that “children should bury their elders,” not the other way around. Just as the reader is starting to be lulled into comfort by the gentle scene the poem paints of a grandmother laughingly using the word tu’burni to express affection for her granddaughter, the poem takes a sudden turn, fluidly veering into grimness:

In my grandmother’s old
Damascus neighborhood,
slender-limbed boys and girls
scrubbed clean of war’s detritus
sleep soundlessly
in shrouds against the stone wall of a classroom.

The dark prayer,
unanswered,
burns to white ash….

In a volta not unlike the one that marks the ending of the title poem “Water & Salt,” Tuffaha harnesses the legerdemain of lyric to link love and grief, anger and hope. Her poetry is a timely reminder that we should not let ourselves be lulled into complacency by the rhythms of the everyday, that each and every one of us readers is part of a bigger, more complex, multilingual, interconnected whole.


Jenna Lê, a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, lives and works as a physician and educator in New Hampshire. She is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor & Plume, 2016). Her poetry has appeared in AGNI Online, The Best of the Raintown Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and Massachusetts Review, while her essays and criticism have been published by Burrow Press, Fanzine, Pleiades, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, and SPECS. Her website is jennalewriting.com. More from this author →