Rumpus Original Poetry: Four Poems by Hala Alyan





Instructions for a Wife

I’ll be beautiful. I’ll wear the wrong skirt the right way—
thigh-high and blooming to the crotch. You’ll pass through me

like bad weather. Can you see the stitches of the handsewn curtains?
That’s how I touch you. Another woman left an animal inside you;

I feed it crickets. If I build you a piano, you let it rot.
There is rage in the whistling kettle. There is rage in the lopsided cake.

My name waits like an obedient clock, meant for another season,
ticking away in your mouth. At midnight you are me

becoming my father, an explosion of sheets. I sleep with my thumb
against the crown of your head. I want to be forgiven,

so here my lips bright as pennies, here my bra shed on another porch.
Your country likes my hair long. My tits small as a boy’s.

My mother taught me how to dance in an empty room,
heels clattering on the tacky linoleum floor. My mother taught me.

I’ll cry four coats of mascara off. I’ll dress the trees with plastic bags.
Come winter, come Lent, I’ll cock myself like a gun.



I’m Not Speaking First

Please. I wore the mascara for myself, to remind my eyes
they’re green. December, old friends for an afternoon,

and still I remembered you like Beirut: unmade beds, Marlboros.
A thing that never wanted me. Nowadays, I can nest my husband’s grief

inside me like a Russian doll. The smallest one is a black oval seed.
Maybe I was wrong. You wanted me thin so I ate. You wanted me sober

so I drank. I’ve always liked my lies. When something pressed against me,
I took it fast. I don’t have to tell you twice: Listen,

I know I’ve made a mess of everything, I know it’s too late, I’ve stood
on your balcony, twenty-five floors above the cars and billboards and dunes,

my eyes suddenly filling but instead of speaking—god, that chain-link against
my back, you cradling the billiard ball you taught me to hit—I spat,

a full mile to the ground. You know me. I’ll spin my bruised hipbone
into an affair. I’ll play with your new daughter until the sun sets.

Back in Manhattan, when I do dream it’s of octopi, tentacles twisting
their purple suckers around my finger like an engagement ring.

Nothing’s Freudian anymore. A cigar’s a cigar. I want to love something.
I want to love something without having to apologize for it. Please don’t tell.



Dear Layal,

When it became clear that America wouldn’t apologize, our mothers decided it was time to leave. The YMCA pools, the cafeteria trays, the tornado sirens vanished, but the houses we snuck in our girl-pockets, whole acres of cotton crops and the state’s best Ferris wheel dug into our hipbones like quarters. We’ve both been trespassed. But I was so eager for touch I didn’t stop to ask questions. Since we are being honest here, I’ll tell you I envied you topless in the Barcelona sea, your hallucinogens, the way you danced like an animal caught in its own net. The last time I drank I spoke to the trees and they had your voice. They said it was too late to go back. My life glittered like drugstore nail polish. I’m not here to talk to you about Fatima; we both wanted to become her and we failed. Instead, I’ll burn Berlin to the ground. I’ll take you back to Texas and find a motel Bible to steal. If we look long enough, we’ll find what our mothers did to us. You can blame everything on a highway, your Baba’s temper, the prison cell your grandfather squatted in for six months. A girl meets her madness with two good hands. A girl falls asleep in Central Park. I told all my good stories to your brother. Here’s one last one: a girl unloves her house, but it is too late. The house is her eyes and her ears and the wind she pins her hair by. Layal, I meant every lie I told you. Some things can only be endured. The night our fathers gambled they ate like kings with the winnings. The God our grandmother forgot told her to smile at the floating specks of dust in the afternoon. Because.



Step Two: Higher Power

For a while it was easy as inventing an oak tree:
start from the top and worry your way down the trunk.
Or a new continent, emerging green and deserted after
years on water, the simple rapture of the highway going coast
to coast with more America than any of us ever wanted.
I guess you could say I love this city like I love prickly pears,
which is to say, not very much, or only when I’m starving.
My friend sends me photographs of the plane crash
in Curaçao and says they’re opening a restaurant there,
people eating among the dead, which I find gruesome
but she says isn’t Manhattan built on a slave cemetery,
and every time I’m in an airport I see all the unmade beds,
the houseplants too shriveled to save. I’m afraid of sleep this week.
Next week it’ll be something else: mosquitoes, black holes,
the snap of fireworks from one rooftop to another.
It’s like how I lied about getting sober: it was hard.
I’d pretend it was a road trip, that I’d be drinking again
on Saturday, and the Mondays and Wednesdays would tick by,
until it was Saturday, and I’d lie to myself again,
it’s too humid to drink today, I’ll drink tomorrow,
and tomorrow would be my mother’s birthday, then
Monday would arrive like an artless, trilling wife.
This is how a year passed, with hundreds of lies,
like that midnight walk in the French countryside dark,
my sister giggling nervously, no streetlamp for miles,
one footstep after the other, and the only way out ahead.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, Salt Houses, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and was the winner of the Arab American Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her newest poetry collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year, was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. More from this author →