Why I Chose Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


This is a slippery book, filled with slippery poems. My experience with books that delve as deeply into trauma as The Twenty-Ninth Year does is that they usually provide something stable for the reader to reach back for—a timeline, a narrative, an extended metaphor—to serve as a counter to the chaos of emotion that can rise from experiencing trauma even vicariously. But The Twenty-Ninth Year doesn’t do that. Hala Alyan’s poems jump through time and space and subject and even when you think you’re starting to get a sense of who the speaker is, there’s a poem like “New Year,” which ends with, “I made it all up.” The result is that The Twenty-Ninth Year demands that you read every poem in its moment, even when the titles ask you to read the poems in conversation with each other: there are six poems with Gospel in the title, and four which reference steps in a twelve-step program. It’s an important reminder that 1) people are more than their trauma and 2) that trauma narratives are messy and non-linear.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of The Twenty-Ninth Year, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Hala Alyan, you’ll need to subscribe by December 20!

For example, in the poem “Cliffhanger,” near the end of the book, Alyan writes “we all become our worst stories     this is mine.” In the poem, the speaker is recounting being in an abusive relationship to a stranger in a Brooklyn teahouse, but the line also makes a statement about the collection as a whole. I think Alyan is talking about the ways we can let our trauma define us in our own minds. Part of this might have to do with the fact that our brains process trauma differently from other memories (which is something I’ve been working through with my therapist for a couple of years now).

What this poem in particular (along with many others in this collection) does is illustrate how many behaviors we might consider self-destructive might be reactions to trauma. The very next lines in “Cliffhanger” are “I went / back     for more     nobody made me do that     I just hated being ignored,” and then still later in the poem “I leave this out too     how I still defend him how a wound / like that     over a decade     becomes a kind of heart.” How many times, when we hear a story about a woman being killed by her partner, do we hear the question “how could she stay with him?” Often we’ll hear about how abusers isolate their victims, but we don’t hear as much about how that isolation is tied into emotional attachment to the abuser, even if the separation is successful.

There is lot more happening within this collection, and I’m looking forward to talking with our members as well as with Hala Alyan about some of her structural and formal choices and the familial relationships she explores in these poems. Please join me in January as we read and discuss The Twenty-Ninth Year, first together and then with Hala Alyan in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by December 20 to make sure you don’t miss out!

And, thrill any and all readers on your list with a Rumpus gift subscription—we have 6-month and 12-month subscriptions to our incredible Poetry Book Club, and we have 6-month and 12-month subscriptions to our equally awesome Book Club! (And if you’re really out to impress a reader in your life, sign ‘em for both clubs here.) All subscriptions come with a PDF you can print out and slip under the tree, so these make a great last-minute gift, too.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →