A Strange Liminal Space: George Abraham’s The Specimen’s Apology

Reviewed By

To call George Abraham’s work ambitious would be a gross understatement. The premise of their latest chapbook, The Specimen’s Apology, seems nearly absurd when simplified: an exploration of queer Palestinian identity, mental illness, and the inherited trauma of diaspora, through the lens of topology, quantum mechanics, and the video game Bioshock: Infinite. What they create in the space between these disparate concepts, however, is a complex, innovative, and artistically inquisitive collection of poems, each of which delivers an abundance of surprise and bewilderment.

In one poem, they fracture a word across the line break to create “an infinity: of dim / -ensions: & impossible: bloodlines.” In another, they ask of the reader, “ i mean, / what is colonization ___if not an aftermath _____of hands, / of men _____searching for home?”

Abraham has an incredible knack for conveying difficult, nuanced ideas in precise, uncomplicated language, which propels their intricately crafted poems forward.

Although The Specimen’s Apology could stand on the merit of the individual poems alone, it is the deep thematic interconnectivity of the poems that elevates this chapbook to brilliance. When Abraham says, in the introduction to the chapbook’s framework, “This is a history of parallel bodies,” what he means is that his body and the body of Elizabeth—a character from Bioshock: Infinite who “has the power to open holes in the space-time continuum and travel between parallel universes”—are one and the same. Both are struck-through in the titles of their poems, “palestinian/queer” and “Elizabeth,” each becoming the titular “specimen.” This situates the subject of these poems in a strange liminal space, between reality and fiction, between gendered spaces, and between dual histories of abuse and trauma.

The works contained within The Specimen’s Apology are a lush and sprawling series of overlapping parallel universes in which Abraham is constantly innovating and abandoning forms. Each formal experiment is a temporary hole into a new world that opens, then collapses, behind the reader. This creates within the chapbook a shifting, fractious landscape where its author’s interdisciplinary work as a PhD in bioengineering shines through. In the opening third of this collection, one after another, they introduce a poem constructed around oppositional binary systems contained by parenthesis—“[male/female],” “[conflict/occupation],” “[terrorist/freedom-fighter]”—another poem which uses form of an academic symposium to explore the racist dimensions of scientific research and the impossibility of “apolitical” science, and a third which employs algebraic topology to define the structure of the speaker’s trauma.

While, in the hands of a different poet, this could all prove extremely daunting to the reader, Abraham wields these high concepts with incredible grace and trust in their audience. And that audience is rewarded by immersion in the unique language and logic of this work. Few poets can slip lines like

the love that turns
__________________2 mirrors in on themselves,
unraveling those infinite & countable dimensions;
_______somewhere, i pluck an apple ____________& a parallel self suffers


if desire is,

as my language translates, a moon,
let this body be the satellite

who learned its own escape velocity,…

with no sense of artifice surrounding their language.

The formal considerations of this collection not only draw on Abraham’s academic background, but often literalize the tense intersection of politicized queer and Palestinian identity. “ars poetica in which every pronoun is a Free Palestine” brilliantly explores this conflict in the face of Israeli settler-colonialism which weaponizes its progressive stance on queerness while erasing the presence of queerness among those they oppress:

no, FREE PALESTINE will never give FREE PALESTINE’s self a name
not rooted in upheaval—FREE PALESTINE, hyphenated by settler flag:

FREE PALESTINE hyphenated by settler pronouns: FREE PALESTINE will not
pledge allegiance to Arabic. or English. FREE PALESTINE will exist

in no language.

Although The Specimen’s Apology is packed with Abraham’s own innovations, it also wears their formal influences on its sleeve, particularly the work of Marwa Helal. The series of “Maqam for Moonlight” poems—which take their name from an Arabic word literally meaning “the place where one stands,” and which has come to mean both music and a burial shrine,—utilize a variation on the Arabic. This is a poetic form that Helal innovated with “Poem to be Read from Right to Left,” which structures English in the reading order of Arabic, forcing readers to consider the Eurocentric mode in which they consume poetry.

This sequence of poems also draws from a lineage of other Arab poets who have written in the form of maqams, such as Zeina Hashem Beck and Fady Joudah. Abraham’s use of this form demands a heightened level of engagement with the text, as the reader slows to process the content and strange musicality of phrases like:

a ask to— ___blood of conjuring a is desire of know i what
&______ sweat its in humid__ listless it was or ___me of nation tired
—deviance quantum &___ stochasticity own its in__ lost ___: entropy
.carries it __blood the hence & __design its through thing a name to learned we

It is, of course, impossible to talk about this chapbook without discussing the illustrations that Abraham’s poems are placed in conversation with, provided by graphic novelist Leila Abdelrazaq. Her illustrations are haunting and ethereal, yet often grounded in the violence experienced by the bodies within them. Each image is also steeped in the iconography of Palestinian resistance, with many images, including the keffiyeh (a chequered black and white scarf traditionally work by Palestinian farmers), the Arabian gazelle, and Palestinian rock-thrower, repeated throughout.

One particularly striking image depicts the silhouette of a Palestinian protester hurling a stone as a bullet strikes them, then collapsing into the dirt and rising again beneath it, the bullet still held inside them. The form of this piece gestures toward the famous illustration by Rudolph Zallinger, “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” that adorns the pages of most biology textbooks, an image that is often incorrectly titled as “The March to Progress.”

Abdelrazaq seems keenly aware of this image’s history as she places it against the history of Palestinian protesters murdered by the IDF. The march toward progress that she depicts is one of resistance that survives the violence of settler-colonial oppression, but carries forward the memory of this oppression with each generation and resurrection.

This idea of resurrection and remaking also threads together the visual narrative that she creates. The moon is an omnipresent figure throughout, appearing over the fields of Palestine in one image, the pattern of cracked dirt blooming into the threads of a keffiyeh as it approaches the sky, and then in another as the afro of a protester whose image is repeated across the rest of the book on pro-Palestine agit-prop posters.

Similarly, The Specimen’s Apology orbits around questions of trauma, memory, oppression, and how we move beyond it. Through the conflation of their own experiences as a queer member of the Palestinian diaspora with those of Elizabeth, who kills her oppressive captor, Abraham gestures toward a theoretical future in which, through violence, they can

escape… the massacre of [them] -self; ma[k]e all the
necessary wounds to get

but questions at the same time:

isn’t this the most graceless
suicide; to escape not only
the body, but the history
it was born into—.

Across the collection, Abraham charts multiple intersecting personal, historical, familial, and fictional narratives. These weave together and collide, but never quite coalesce into a single thread. The final poem in The Specimen’s Apology, “Post-Script: Against Consolidation,” addresses this collision directly, offering—in some sense—a thesis for the intersection of these stories: “perhaps, since this is a poem about memory, it is discontinuous by necessity; there are / hands, hence there will always be breakage—” But even as the speaker fights against this discontinuity, the narrative fractures apart,

i began this poem___ __THE SYSTEM DOES NOT CONVERGE with blueberries
with muscle memory __THE SYSTEM DOES NOT CONVERGE ___& hands—
___________________________(or maybe i never had control
_____________________________________________over the narrative—),…

until it is entirely consumed by the phrase “THE SYSTEM FAILS TO CONVERGE.”

If consolidation is not only a gathering together of disparate parts into a singular body, but also “the process of stabilization from short to long-term memory,” then perhaps it is not just this final poem, but the entirety of Abraham’s chapbook that resists consolidation. These poems refuse to be reduced or simplified, and contain within them series of personal and cultural wounds which are reopened again and again. A trauma that rests in the perpetual present, never far enough removed to consolidate into the distance of time.

torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk & MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of boy/girl/ghost (TAR Chapbook Series, 2018) & assistant editor of The Shallow Ends. Their work is published/forthcoming in POETRY, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, & The Kenyon Review. She was a finalist for the 2020 Pushcart Prize & is the youngest ever winner of the Poetry Foundation's J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize. More from this author →