Reading Hala Alyan’s stunning collection The Twenty-Ninth Year in one sitting may be an overwhelming experience. The poems delve into memory and present imagery that evokes pain, shame, and sorrow in lyrical metaphors that are surprising and unforgettable. The opening poem, “Truth,” introduces the speaker, whose voice remains constant throughout the collection, and who bravely discloses past struggles with anorexia and alcohol abuse. The poems are not without joy and love, but in digging into the psyche, Alyan shapes a story of a haunting year in settings both geographical and psychological.
In one of the early poems in the book, “Armadillo,” the speaker travels through time and location to where her family has lived, visited, and built memories. Scenes are sewn together with images that may not have sparked interest initially, but through a poetic lens of years and introspection Alyan assigns deep-rooted feelings that emerge from remembered details. The speaker tells us, “I know there was a boat,” and we are provided this metaphor that returns later in the poem, anchoring meaning and allowing us to step back to observe the pieced-together quilt in its entirety. We see the boat that tows both the speaker’s heartache and the “two hearts of the same machine”—the parents who represent the whole world in stories told over generations, or who are witnessed by children still in the process of defining love.
Definitions of love and heartache are hard to pin down in Alyan’s poems, given the inconsistencies of the human heart and the difficulty in dealing with memories of hurt and regret that are as ephemeral as “an armadillo that may or may not have existed.” In other poems, heartache unfolds in blasts of recall—close and physically observant recollections of lovers, parents, a husband, friends, and strangers.
The process of detoxifying the body of alcohol, as well as the pain that remains once the numbness is gone, is the subject of a number of poems in the collection, and feels like a character in the speaker’s story. In “Step One: Admit Powerlessness,” the speaker’s words read like an anti-confession: “I won’t call it rape, / because a tree can’t be killed twice.” She finds “God, / lurking in the X-ray of my abdomen, a single apostrophe / between the bowed ribcages.” She is powerless to define herself or what she’s gone through until an epiphany “explodes like a white tusk in the evening,” elucidating a new conviction where she “believes in a different god.” The four steps of The Twelve-Step Program chosen as titles provide one of the thematic threads in the collection for readers to grasp in the sea of lyrical waves where guilt, shame, and trauma linger.
Another thread in the collection is a series of poems labeled as gospels. The gospel poems help link together disparate memories and shape them into a collection of narratives that inform the life of the speaker, a young woman in her twenty-ninth year, making a kind of sense out of trauma and its aftermath. The first to appear is “Gospel: Texas,” a list of seemingly innocuous memories that reveal a hard transition to life in the American Midwest. It is a list of first encounters with the unknowns of a place and a culture from “First grasshopper” to “First carrot // in snowball.” In “Gospel: Rumi,” the speaker asks, “What / is love if not falconry? Tugging the humble out of something wild.” This unexpected metaphor gives definition to the associations the speaker makes with love and marriage throughout the collection, illustrating how love ties someone to a set of expectations within defined boundaries. The gospel poems bring a truth-telling element to the collection so that when the speaker first writes, “Hunger is hunger,” and then later says “Hunger enters me like another night, the sky a good dark / meat, grilled with stars,” we believe her, even if it is a dream.
Alyan’s collection contains both prose poems and poems that are carefully lineated. In all forms, Alyan’s lyric imagery is striking in a way that is both beautiful and violent. She presents contradictions that abound inside each of us, but in particular inside those of us in situations out of our control.
The poems take place in both the American Midwest and the Middle East, and the settings are brilliantly detailed. In “Oklahoma,” Alyan’s speaker admits, “For a place I hate, I invoke you often.” The struggles she faces in school as an eight-year-old bring her to the conclusions that “Heaven is a / long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school,” and she finds solace in her family during this difficult time. The poem “Aleppo,” in violent contrast, delivers the stark reality of war. The speaker makes an admission early in the poem, saying, “Mornings like this, I wish I never loved anyone,” and tries to make sense of her place in history in response to bombs that “peck the streets into a Braille that we pretend we cannot read.” In each of these poems, place and family lineage play key roles of safety and danger, and throughout this collection, no place is completely safe.
The Twenty-Ninth Year dares to bring uncomfortable truths to its pages, and the result is a collection that probes and plunges into memory for assurances to hold onto. In one poem, the speaker states, “there’s always a dark darker than the dark you know,” and in another, “this world brightens with or without us.” Each line feels like a truth Alyan has extracted from life and set in some kind of stone—either on I-35, Highway 17, or in a grain of desert sand.
Making it to thirty seems unimaginable, yet it happens anyway. The speaker reassures us, “I am happy, landlocked, dry as a gecko.” After “upending all the gas cans of memories,” she admits, “To love the hibiscus, you must first love the monsoon,” and carefully reminds us that life is not always a metaphor. Just as Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie “pulled in her horizon like a great fish net,” after living through tragedy and trauma, Alyan’s speaker calls to her own soul to notice her transfiguration and to see how “some things can only be endured” and “every wound reveals its own repair.”