The Fraught Nature of Belonging: Nathalie Handal’s Life in a Country Album

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In After the Last Sky, Edward Said writes the following about the Palestinian consciousness forged by exile and occupation:

A part of something is for the foreseeable future going to be better than all of it. Fragments over wholes. Restless nomadic activity over the settlements of held territory. Criticism over resignation.

Though award-winning poet Nathalie Handal is of many cultures, in her latest collection, Life in a Country Album, she brings this particular Palestinian sensibility to her poems and to her encounters with her many countries and languages of the text.

Handal’s upbringing spans continents, and she is at home in English, French, and Arabic, just as she is in many countries, from her birthplace of Haiti to her familial homes in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and in the cities of Europe and the United States where she is in constant motion. Life in a Country Album, her sixth collection of poems, chronicles her life between two nations in particular: the United States and France. In multilingual poems, Handal explores speech and its fractures through the lens of belonging and diasporic wandering. The intersections of the two aging empires, the traffic of refugees and immigrants within and between them, and the worlds that thrive despite their colonial histories inhabit and animate these poems.

The book is divided into “albums” and it’s possible to read them as songbooks, or collections of photographs, or both. Many of the longer poems are arranged as a kind of pastiche of voices, strands of songs that frame time and place. Each album is comprised of a series of mementos—I would describe them as mementos of experience— specific to the speaker’s life: recollections of love, desire, estrangement, and belonging. In Handal’s capacious poems, these mementos transcend the personal and open up to the reader, becoming albums of our own lives and losses.

In the first section of the book, “[album français],” Handal opens with the long poem “Les chemins lumière” (in English, “The lighted paths”). The poem alternates between quoted fragments of prose, Handal’s lines of poetry, and the italicized refrain: Are you French? The first fragment is from Alain Mabanckou’s Bleu Blanc Rouge, a novel that offers a searing critique of the lives of Africans in post-colonial France. “He spoke French French. The famous French of Guy de Maupassant… We didn’t speak real French.”

Handal writes:

I slid away
as if I didn’t belong
to its questions,
as if French wasn’t mine,
even if it isn’t the first language
I used to conjugate love.

“Les chemins lumière” begins with a reflection on the early experience of navigating the world in a language that exacts a high price for belonging, a nation in which the speaker “carried a Larousse / de la Conjugaison / all my youth, so I didn’t fall.” The poem builds a city of remembered loves and disappointments, alongside moments of national experience. These intimate paths are woven between fragments of text from news reports, which act as markers for neighborhoods of experience, each capturing an announcement of war or racial tension, and juxtaposing it with the speaker’s journey.

[Moins d’un mois après les attentats du 11 septembre 2001 à New York, des avions américans et britanniques effectuent des bombardments en Afghanistan. Perspective monde, 7 Octobre 2001]

I looked for franglais words for
des invasions, des morts, des massacres—
as if naming might save us

Each fragment announces yet another landscape where the speaker is asked “Are you French?” Throughout the poem, the reader encounters figures of French popular, literary, or political culture, whose own stories—often of immigration or exile, and of a conditional love from the Republic—mirror or complicate the speaker’s story. The shadows cast by these figures, like singer Juliette Gréco and actress Anouk Aimée, layered upon the speaker’s life, enact the experiences of being French, of the fraught nature of belonging, its performance and its disappointments, in a nation wrestling with its legacy of racism and colonialism.

The poems that follow in “[album français]” are poems of loves lost and remembered. In “Shur-e Hayat,” Handal writes:

Maybe years later we discover
we needed evidence
of ourselves in each other

Or maybe we find
all that exists
is what we’ve built inside.

Handal writes the displaced self, the self most at home in liminal spaces, the self always reflecting while in motion. In the poem “Dor,” the speaker meditates on belonging: “Maybe we are violet flowers / and those we long for / love only our unmade hearts.” This anxiety around love’s sustainability in wandering is a theme of many of the poems in the collection.

The second album, “[Album arabe à Paris—Place Des États Unis, Conversations Avec Mahmoud Darwish],” is a slender passageway between worlds. Five poems—each a polished gem—together punch high above their weight class in this collection. Beginning with the title of the album in which they reside, with these poems Handal has carved out a space that gathers many strands of her own self. These are poems of Paris in a square named after the newer empire, the place the speaker also calls home. And she is present there as an Arab, and in conversation with Darwish, Palestine’s poet, whose own exile and travels cast shadows over her own. In “Interior Roads,” a poem in offset couplets, Handal captures liminality thus:

To have an accent behind someone with a heavier accent
behind someone with an even heavier accent

Some find another country
others only a motion in the same hour

like a road that distracts a second
to give it a minute.

In the section entitled “[album mediterranée],” the poems extend beyond France and the intimate world of the speaker and attend to the emotional landscapes of refugees, the displaced of countries near or bordering the Mediterranean. The poems are written in a variety of forms, from couplets mirroring an argument down the page in “Echoes: A Historical Afterward” to the silver flash of “Aleppo”—a poem that captures the horror of impending death in one sharp image through a widening lens—to the tightly woven prose of “Letter from the Levant.” Each poem opens a window into cities and vocabularies of exile. In “Letter from the Levant,” Handal writes:

No stars between our stories. No gleaming meadows. The ruins we never named are endless. The survivors our scars. We have to believe God is the faint resonance inside, that silence will take eternity apart and hang it on death’s small door.

Handal crafts lustrous forms for each poem, designing spaces with an architect’s precision and elegance. The lines of “Letter form the Levant” cluster around the names of cities at the center of the poem, evoking the crowded longings of their exiles. In contrast, the short, broken lines of “The Oranges” convey generational Palestinian grief with breathtaking restraint. This album grieves deeply, but it also leans towards hope.

In the final section, “[album américain],” Handal brings her Palestinian sensibility to the American landscape. With precision and tenderness, she elevates “fragments over wholes,” and crafts poems of elegant “criticism over resignation.” In the poem “& Co.,” she narrates fragments of imagery and conversation from a road trip through South Texas. She writes:

we never learn to apologize properly
to bring a lie to its knees
arrest its breathing

but we promise to conserve
a river of lost translations.

By this time the book has taught the reader to place each of these poems inside the portrait frame of the nation and so Handal’s lines are imbued with the fullness of America’s histories. There are apologies owed for centuries to the people on whose land this nation is constructed, people who are still waiting. There are apologies owed today to those felled; those beseeching, “I can’t breathe”; those crossing a river at unfathomable risk merely in order to live.

The poems of “[album américain]” are like the nation of which they propose to be souvenirs: they collide and telescope, they are full of large machines, they stretch toward outer space and comb the ocean floor. The poems are in motion throughout this album, as in “On the Seven,” when Handal writes: “The train passes. Exile understands motion. And dancing takes sound apart.” This poem is comprised of prose blocks, each like a stop along a train route, peopled by immigrants narrating the soundtracks of their own memories.

The final poem in the section, entitled “American Camino,” bookends “Les chemins lumière” in the “[album francais].” Its chorus is the question, “Who is American?,” and it is a sweeping eight-page journey across the country. On the dashboard, visualize a pantheon of American literature, pop culture, and history bobbing along on the ride. Unlike “Les chemins lumière,” “American Camino” is sprawling and conversational. It does not incorporate excerpts of texts, and relies heavily instead on litanies of names, events, and places, as in the following passage:

a politician born in Honolulu of Kenyan roots, who lived in Indonesia, is a Christian with a Muslim name; a Cuban exile in Miami turned music legend, an Afghan refugee turned entrepreneur, a writer of Middle Eastern roots whose home is New York City.

Who is American?

“American Camino” also suggests a pilgrimage, for prayer or under duress, but a pilgrimage to the self as it is located in a nation of so many unspoken stories. Handal closes the poem with an observation similar to that found in “& Co.”:

like knowing this land is my land, this land is your land, like knowing we can’t begin until mouths open, and sins spill.

In “Orphic,” a poem from “[album mediteranée],” Handal writes:

As a child I believed
God was in the wind
that carried us elsewhere
that departures were returns

Like Orpheus, Handal and her speaker grieve the losses of history, old and new. But her response resists stasis, and so she crafts these songs of cities, of displacements that connect her to the millions of us navigating our own exiles. Hope resurfaces in the smallest moments throughout this beautiful collection, but most powerfully in the final poem, “Eleutheria,” named for the personification of freedom in Greek mythology. The poem begins with an acknowledgment of our limitations: “Though I walk / without chains or fears / I am not the light / in midnight’s dreams,” but builds towards its namesake. In the songbook Handal has given us, these poems cannot promise an end to our wandering, but they do promise that

we will no longer feel
the indifference of the wind

we will reset our wings.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book of poems, Water & Salt, won the 2018 Washington State Book Award. She is the author of two chapbooks, Arab in Newsland, winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize, and Letters from the Interior, finalist for the 2020 Jean Pedrick Award. Her essay “Muhammads in Gaza,” won 2020 Best of the Net. You can learn more about her work at More from this author →