Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press ($16.95)
by Amelia Cook

Eighty years after Spanish poet Federico García Lorca turned his experience of New York into poetic form, Nathalie Handal inverts his journey—she leaves New York to spend some time in Andalucía, Spain. The result, Poet in Andalucía, is a rich collection made up of layers of language, culture, public and personal history.

At first glance, Handal’s poems look familiar; with their free verse, short lines, and tidy strophes they could belong to Mary Oliver. Written in English with the influence of Spanish and Arabic, they feel pleasantly foreign—like poems in translation. Furthermore, this collection proves that poems can be historical documents, as the pages are filled with the names of actual people, places, and things. The references can seem overwhelming, but a twenty-page addendum elucidates the intricacies of Arabic and Spanish words and decodes the many references to specific places and historical figures.

Even the personal is historical for Handal, and the more personal poems in this collection stand out for their sparse honesty and direct connection with the contemporary reader. In “Alhandal y las Murallas de Córdoba,” Handal sees a woman looking at her reflection in a jug of water and concludes, “the past is what we are / looking for.” The enjambment of these lines results in two meanings: we are the past and the past is the thing we seek. Handal effectively conveys her displacement in a way that’s personal, yet encompasses the universal longing of displaced people everywhere.

While there is palpable longing in many of these poems, Handal also infuses her work with hope. “Gypsy with a Song” is complex in a way that’s unintimidating, and readers will recognize many of her references here: Duke Ellington, the Mississippi River, and the Dead Sea. These things and places that seem so divergent make up Handal’s life, making her “a gypsy.” She explains:

I’ve wandered the globe
especially the shadows
I’ve spent life with out a song—
. . .
but tonight
my song is in every campfire
. . .
my song is here
along with some happiness

In addition to her ability to articulate the universal in a simple moment—a campfire, a jug of water—there’s a marvelous completeness in many of Handal’s poems. She doesn’t tie things up with neat little bows, yet the endings have force. Take “Ojalá,” the conclusion of which is startling in content, but confident in form:

his is trying
to understand
what God willing means,

or if that is what we say
to erase the fog on our tongue.

Poet in Andalucía will fascinate readers with its endless journeys through national, literary, and personal identity. It’s an intriguing work that takes a while to understand fully, yet one that can be enjoyed as an afternoon read. That duality—the mix of simple and complicated—helps make this collection a notable addition to contemporary poetry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012