Micro-Review: Hala Alyan’s HIJRA

Conor Bracken

Apocalyptic, unflinching, flinty yet lush, Hala Alyan’s HIJRA is a gathering of vivid lyrics on flight and exile. As the title suggests (hijra refers to the prophet Muhammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina while being pursued by ultimately unsuccessful assassins), Alyan’s central concern is transition: the crossing of a liminal boundary from familiar—though dangerous—to promised—though alien—lands (Medina had been prepared as a refuge for Muhammed and his followers).

What is perhaps most interesting about this collection is the sustained ambivalence the speaker feels for both termini: home is coated in “luminous dust, / a soil red as zinnias,” a simile whose power lies in its conjunction of the floral and the sanguine, whereas the land of exile (Wisconsin maybe?), a “necklace of grungy cities” and has “a scientific god,” is a place where the exiled say their names “as if someone has cleared [their] mouth[s] of bells.” The best poems in this collection thrum with this tension.

Others have an almost magical realist quality to them, which at its strongest highlights the awful extremity of war (“After we buried our men / no rain fell for twelve moons, / a eulogy of famine”), but at its weakest feels unfocused and strained (“borders like the maps we ate, grit tangled / between our teeth, the years swelling // like one hundred arrows”). When Alyan deploys her habit for the rapturous surreal within clearly elaborated scenarios, her poems keen and sing.