The Lives of Rain by Nathalie Handal

This can be said of much poetry, but here it is: Natalie Handal’s The Lives of Rain is at its best when it is in the elliptical lyric rather than the narrative, expository, polemic mode. It’s at its most resonant when it’s less explicit and more fragmented, as in this “hovering” poem, somewhat reminiscent of W.S. Merwin, called “Dalmatian Coast”:

we speak of weddings
you speak of funerals
we understand each other

who has survived
don’t answer

we tell each other
don’t lean backward
don’t lean forward

The tension between union and loss, the struggle against naivete these are clear, but not clawed over. Admittedly, my bias is that readers should do some work, and writers should neither spoon-feed nor strafe us with information.

Handal can do this beautifully, as there are chunks of stunning lyricism: “have you ever heard/your heart undressing,/seen a stray dog at midnight,/realize he understands this hour/better than we will understand any hour?”; “[I] hunt for the small things/I have lost inside myself”; “There is a country on my tongue/a small world between my heartbeats”. Indeed, “Regrets in Galilee” is nothing short of perfect — dream-like, tender, haunted, confident, all hinging on the swinging between loss and language.

There are also notable exceptions on what some might construe as my “narrative is bad” front (which is not at all what I believe), especially poems like “Caribe in Nueva York” and “Conversation with a Soldier when no one is Around”. In the former, a Caribbean man outlines the sensual differences between his past life in Santo Domingo and his current one in New York; in the latter, a soldier reveals his doubts and his longing for change, with the refrain “When no one is around”. In both of these poems, Handal shows a real strength in approaching social and political issues through personas, through the dramatic monologue rather than the pulpit-pounding.

Still, the drama of sensuality is what really gets me, as in the opening of “Une Suele Nuit a Marrakech”:

The air has lost the scent of jasmine.
Darkened tea fills the sky.
Tonight in Marrakech, only white butterflies
leave stains on shadows.
I watch a young woman brush her hair,
braid her wedding day, watch old men gather
by the lemon trees.

Such acute and reporterly poetics, such parallel drawing are gifts, both to Handal and to her readers.

Some readers — I guess Anglo readers, in particular — might well find it necessary to check the notes section, as there are frequent non-English and non-Western references: Arabic and Balkan folklore, Haitian neighborhoods, Cuban music, Palestinian history, phrases from French, Spanish, and Serbo-Croatian. In short, this is a fiercely global poetry, one that requires (and provides) a wide if not particularly thorough knowledge of this planet’s cultures. Ultimately, I’m not troubled by the at-times-dizzyingly multicultural textures and specifics of the work here, which are nimbly effective, but by the surprising flatness of the language in other places.

However much I marvel at the lyricism I noted earlier, I find myself shrugging almost as often at the phrase making. “Sense and Sensibility, Contemporary American Politics” reads like an atrocious slam poem hell-bent on mere word whirling that obscures what could be the exploration of a really dynamic tension. “Even” seems to be scrounging for momentum with desperate repetitions. The paradoxes “I have forgotten everything/just so that I could never forget” and “waiting to leave to enter” just seem downright trite. Even in some of the more intriguing moments, much of my attention is taken up by how much it reminds me of other poets’ work.

Although Handal’s subject matter — how different forms of exile affect the human race, in particular the Palestinian people — has gravity, tension, energy, her language lives up only half the time, often lacking traction, speed, dexterity. The book opens with an epigraph from Eliot: “There are some things about which nothing can be said and before which we dare not keep silent”. This paradox does seem the core of her work, the spirit of her voice. Handal has genuine talent, and I would be a fool not to assert her concerns as utterly important, more important than your everyday poet; but still, when I’m done with this collection, I find it somehow less than satisfying.