Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year is a story of violence. Of things broken and reforged, of identities shaped and twined, of selves broken and remade. It is dark and beautiful and haunting, poetry of womanhood and of diaspora, of longing and fear, of love and death and country after country after country, the world made small enough to fit inside a poem.
Alyan is Palestinian American, and her diasporic identity infuses every poem in the collection, some of them despairing, others delicate. Palestine and America haunt almost every poem, the specter of colonial violence always present, even if sometimes just offstage, lurking in the wings. The beauty and horror of the land, and the history it evokes, is on particular display in “The Temperance (XIV) Card,” where Alyan writes: “The dusk is a murder of magenta and indigo / against the black land, as monstrously beautiful / as a rape tree.”
That coloniality of power lurks from Oklahoma and Texas to Palestine and Syria, an ever-present menace. But it’s far from the only menace in The Twenty-Ninth Year, as Alyan explores violence against women and the violence of racism and the ways in which women turn on themselves. Body image and eating disorders race across the pages, sharp, thorny reminders of my own days trying to starve my body into submission. Alcohol, and the difficulty of going dry, is another ache that emerges and subsides, reminding us, even if it isn’t said, that this whiskey or that shot will lead, eventually, to the pain of no-longer-drinking.
In “You’re Not a Girl in a Movie,” Alyan writes, “there’s always a dark darker than the dark you know.” It’s a theme that runs through the entirety of The Twenty-Ninth Year, reminder of the darkness around us and of the darkness we aim at ourselves, yet such is Alyan’s touch that it is not a hopeless collection. A dark one, to be sure: but its touches of love and joy bring hope, and even in its sorrow, it is beautiful. It is lyrical and difficult, and I will read it again.