The Sealey Challenge: Bitter English

Ahmad Almallah's BITTER ENGLISH before yellow flowers & a small, battered tree.
Bitter English

Ahmad Almallah’s Bitter English came across my feed last year, in the times before COVID: Almallah came through the Seminary on a book tour, and I meant to go, and had something late at work, and went in the next week to pick up Bitter English.

Bitter English is divided into four sections, and begins with a poem—”Bitter English”—that, bleak and unstinting and frustrated, sets the tone for the poetry to come. It is a push and pull, of worlds, of languages, of heavy grief and exile and bridges and fencing and checkpoints, violence and indignities stacked atop each other without end. (It ends with an echo of “Bitter English”: “Epilogue: Another Tongue Sustains You” explores language and identity and exile, tying together beginning and end and making Bitter English itself a cyclical work.)

Loss runs throughout Bitter English, present on nearly every page: loss of land, of language, of mind and family—Almallah’s mother has Alzheimer’s, a tangle of loss and grief and the mind that runs alongside other losses and grief, showing up sometimes at odd moments, as when, in a poem about the U.S. postal service, Almallah’s daughter claims the Alzheimer’s stamp because it’s Grandma! It’s a strange, sad, beautiful image in a book filled with images both sad and beautiful—and, in this moment of attempts to dismantle the postal system, it hits even harder.

Bitter English is poetry about Palestine, even when it’s here in the U.S., and the violence of sundering and of checkpoints and of harassment runs through its pages, from poems about checkpoints and war and barbed wire to those poems about language and its ties to identity and to self. Almallah’s words dovetail with stories I have been told, by Palestinian coworkers and students: I can imagine the checkpoints they’ve described as I read about the ones he’s traveled; I think of the coworker whose family must cross multiple checkpoints to go a few miles for healthcare—all of it violence, down to the immigration interviews Almallah describes, and the searches, and the random detentions, and the racism, here as well as during travel.

Almallah writes largely in free verse, and here, every word and every blank space and every choice of paragraph and spacing seems to tell stories of isolation and grief and violence: white space becomes thread, or loss, or unspoken grief, working in tandem with the words on the page to create a more full story for the reader.

Bitter English is not easy poetry, but I don’t think it should be: the land it traverses is difficult, built on coloniality and on violence and on loss even as it reaches for a sustaining world of Almallah’s own small family here. It is hard to read, yes, and the empty spaces emphasize isolation, and Almallah’s words exhort us not to look away. It is poetry that deserves to be read slowly, and more than once.

And we should not look away.

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