The Sound of Beginning: Birthright by George Abraham

Reviewed By

There are many ways to begin a collection of poems, from startling lyricism to pointed symbolic gestures encompassing a mission statement. George Abraham begins Birthright without any such gesture, beginning instead with a promise: “Let me be / brief: by the end of this, / someone will be cursed.”

These lines open the poem “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM” with a purposeful false start and then set into the poem for a second time:

…Let me start
            again: the night was beautiful but not
romantic. Sure,

there was smoke & moon
            -light. From this angle,
you could almost mistake the city

for american. There were 7, all of us born
            of this country before this country
existed. It was ours…

The poem recounts the speaker’s trip to Jerusalem and a gathering with their friends. Though the narrative is straightforward, the poem addresses subtly a vicious predicament—what to do with the white gaze. At times this appears an unassailable dominance, the attention of the oppressor to the work and their consumption of it. And I, as a white reviewer, contribute to this. The potential for engaging with the white gaze could manifest in a complete disregard, a writing around it, but it can also manifest as a performance for it. Abraham does neither, instead choosing the laborious process of decentralizing the white gaze and dismantling it. For this reason, this book was an uneasy read for me. I found myself challenged with my complicity and the complicated politics America has helped to compound surrounding Israel and Palestine. In “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM,” Abraham eschews the nod to proper nouns’ capitalization by putting a lower-case “a” in “america,” using craft to deemphasize its existence, instead saving the dignity of the capital letter for “God” and “I” and “Boy” and “Arabic.” This is a signal to white readers that despite the atrocities they perpetuate and the violence they enact, they won’t be the main characters in this story. Abraham says this plainly: “…of this country before this country existed. It was ours…” To begin such a project with the reclamation of land and language in these early stanzas sets the tone for both the poem and the collection.

The poem continues on to mourn the loss of a mother’s right to exist safely in her homeland, to consider the surveillance imposed on those living there, and to enact the divine; it ends:

                            …Forgive me.
I’m trying to understand what makes

one’s existence, at a fixed location, a radical
act—divine even—& what makes
the existence of another, near a specific body

of water, a violence. Forgive me. I wrote this
in an american airport,
& its magic escaped me.

There is a wrestling that happens in the book, an asking of what constitutes belonging, what constitutes home:

once, a language failed me & i hadn’t a home
               to claim in my own throat—

in Arabic, the word for tonsil translates to daughters
               of the ears—we are taught

that to have a body is to carry
               its lineage inside of us—

& i’ve tried to make a language where my blood
               was just mine—but my tongue

rejected it. spat it out like a mouthful
               of Arabic—maybe it was defense

mechanism; maybe this is how i cough up blood—
                [ translation: how i cough up History ]

Abraham gives no concrete answers, never claiming to perfectly understand the intricacies of what constitutes a home. The collection posits that the concept of home is a conglomerate of people, place, culture, and chosen affinities; it posits that homes can be in many places at once, scattered and dispersed. These poems present a challenge to the typically imposed strictures of ownership, narrative, and solution. The book distributes itself similarly to how it portrays the Palestinian diaspora, avoiding all Western impositions of structure.

Toward this aim, the collection includes not only poetry but also prose sections to accompany spatial and temporal discontinuities. Memory is also fragmented and belongs to many identities—those that document and recall, those that color with nostalgia, those that preserve, and those that object. The speakers in Birthright occupy homes that inhabit the spaces of religion, community, people, and ideas. There is also a prevalent queering of holiness, a making space within the many homes the speaker occupies for queerness:

the first time a boy craved
me, he said i want what my god refuses

me, his fingers gracing
my young lips; we were home…

i have since known queer
to mean desire my god

In a world which at this moment seems obsessed with dismantling symbols of oppression rather than systems of oppression, Abraham points out that this is a pattern, always occurring as a distraction in lieu of actual systemic change.

                            …PALESTINIANS NEED NOT LOOK AT /

the oppressor calls it
hence FABLE.

Birthright is not an impositional text; it instead unpacks its messages before repacking and repeating them. It is discursive and fractal, hopeful and mourning, composed and furious, purposed and meandering, explicitly condemnatory and subversively illuminating; it occupies many arenas simultaneously. And, it leads me to think now of the limits we place on language and the composition of ideas. Abraham finds these limits with dexterity, showcasing the insufficiencies in how words make meaning and repeatedly pointing toward how much is more than what it seems to be. In one instance, Abraham examines the composition of a nation. In this vein—a country, like any city, is more than its infrastructure, more than its buildings—these things are made up of communities, namely people. A nation is its occupants and those which lay claim to its history. For this reason, I believe Abraham asserts that Palestine exists everywhere its people claim it to—in gymnasiums in Maine, at tables in kitchens, and on shorelines with salt trees.

George Abraham enters into an expounding echo of poets like Mahmoud Darwish (“A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere: in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare.”) and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (“In my language / the word for loss is a wide-open cry / a gaping endless possibility.”). To these voices, Abraham adds:

isn’t living
for your country
just a slower way
to die?

Birthright posits that one’s body and life belongs to more than just a place, to its history and people, while being at the same time separated from each of these things by individuality. Abraham’s debut collection exists as an exploration of queerness in all spaces, as a reclamation of ownership, as an annunciation of belonging, and as a coming-of-age acceptance of one’s self and past:

               there isn’t a name for a countryless people, but at least there’s

this song:
                            Not a single word escapes the sunless burial.
                            There are no trees to catch the restless wind.
                            A mourningless dusk is coming.
                            This being the sound of beginning:

J. David is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist living in Cleveland, Ohio, where they are an MFA candidate in poetry at Cleveland State University. They are the editor-in-chief of Flypaper Lit, art and media editor of BARNHOUSE Journal, and chief poetry critic for the Cleveland Review of Books. Their debut chapbook, Hibernation Highway, was released from Madhouse Press in 2020. A Baldwin House Fellow and member of The Sad Kid's Superhero Collective, their work has appeared in Salt Hill, Passages North, The Journal, and elsewhere. More from this author →