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World Poetry Portfolio #21: Nathalie Handal

Nathalie Handal is an award-winning poet, playwright, and editor. She has lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. She teaches and lectures nationally and internationally, most recently in Africa, at Columbia University and as Picador Guest Professor, Leipzig University, Germany. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, and she has been featured on PBS The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR, as well as The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, Mail & Guardian, The Jordan Times, Atlas, New Quest and Il Piccolo. Her most recent books include: the landmark anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton) and Love and Strange Horses (University of Pittsburgh Press), an Honorable Mention at the San Francisco Book Festival and the New England Book Festival. The New York Times says it is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” Her work has been translated into more than 15 languages, and some of her awards include: Lannan Foundation Fellow, Honored Finalist for the Gift of Freedom Award, Recipient of the AE Ventures Fellowship, Shortlisted for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, Winner of the Menada Literary Award, and Winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles National Book Award. Handal writes the blog-column, The City and The Writer, for Words without Borders magazine.


Life on the Seven


Dancing on Roosevelt Avenue

The tracks shriek. I stop dancing. And in the eight breaths I take (and the four spins of a boy’s yo-yo) before I hear them again, look at the pigeons rule the avenue. Their stain everywhere, like silver paint (except it’s not). The deaf man on 75th asks for a Samosa, says Namaste to the bride shopping for a sari, turns to me: There are secrets hiding between Jackson Diner and the Patel Brothers. Silence is like listening—you have to master its voice. I am not sure what he means but know I shouldn’t ask. There is a country here that finds its dreams in colors, in the names: Padma, Priya, Arundhati. I’m Punjabi, he reminds me twice. He needs to name himself. I do too. The train passes. Exile understands motion. And dancing— it takes sound apart.


Sergei’s Conditions

What is memory? My country was bombed 27 times. My body blown apart 3 times. But Allah told me—believe. Sergei replies, Malic, eat this pie, it’s a Bosnian recipe. Sergei’s Russian, he loved Yugoslavia. I remind him, it doesn’t exist. That name just like crying is forbidden. I think of half my body trapped under a building. A whisper nearby saying, sing Malic sing. It was her. So zena, I told her, I’m under the rubble. You’re free. And you want me to sing. She laughed. It was the type of humor we needed. So I sang: Ako te odvedu, sve ce da se srusi, / Pamti me ko prijatelja, cuvaj me u dusi, / I onda, kad mislis da je prekasno / Za snove, za sve… I wish I played piano, she interrupts, like Balakirev, Rahmaninov, Malic Hadžić. A M30 mortar hits. Like earth falling on metal. Her face all over my body. Now around Steinway Street, Allah walks in the Greek Orthodox churches—Astoria has different ways. I hold on to the one leg someone saved by cutting off the other. I stopped asking why we war. Stopped playing the piano. Jasna plays to me sometimes but I can’t see her fingers. As for Sergei’s conditions—no memory in his restaurant. But chilled vodka—that’s always allowed—Budem zdorovy. Yes, to our health, I say, Hvala.


Tenoch’s Confession

If I speak for the dead, I must surrender to them, he tells me. Must tell you of how they went from Oaxaca to el D.F. without their longings or their small baskets of earth. How they left their donkey, and counted their children to make sure they were all there. I must speak of the edge of the mirror where they saw themselves fall. Saw a god resurrect, discovered that sleep is alive. And  confessed—Tenoch, you have arrived in Queens because we died. But remember, never stop speaking Náhuatl. He takes the chocolate from my hand, xocolātl, the name came from our language. Did you know? I know we accept to be alone because we have seen bird-light, sky-light. We can speak of anger because we are no longer anger. Because the messages from the graves have a way of drifting elsewhere—to what house? to what field? The north wind tells us when we are not preoccupied with knowing.


Steam Engine Dream

He tells me he used to wear a uniform, saved a girl from burning. He confuses 1917 and 1944. His lips tremble as he laughs. He is happy to see me. Calls me Alenka. I can’t tell him I’m not who he thinks. We walk to Monika’s Polish Meat & Deli. I am suddenly part of his life. I help him buy Pączki. He is from Warsaw. We walk down 37th Avenue. Pass the Jewish Center in Jackson Heights. He looks into my eyes: I burnt all of her pictures by the steam engine—I didn’t want to leave any evidence. I dream they never found her. Suddenly sad, he whispers, Shalom, and walks away. I watch him find his world and I remember his words: We are the past tense. We are completely still and we understand the photo now—why we took it. Why we came here. This is what it’s all about—a glass wall where history is not bruised and neither is light, where we unfold maps to find a winter, a summer, an alphabet but not the same river, same voice, same verse, not the same minutes we once counted before our departure.


Brasserie Creole

Boullette sounds like bullet, looks like one too. But we love it. Ti Doudou, she calls me, eat. Then she says: look at the sky, it crosses our heart when we pretend to be far. La nuit, la nuit, she repeats with a Creole accent, reminds me of the city at the bottom of the city I once knew. I was born in Port-Salut. Came at 10. Moun yo voyem ale. Today I am trapped—the ceiling holds me in one position. No one taught us how to miss properly, how to let water fall when we ignore the issues we are uncomfortable with. I braid my hair in the evenings, when I can remember faithfully what it was to belong—before the burying, the things you are sure you have tried to forget, the face you have changed, the guava you no longer eat because it tells you that time cuts what it’s not allowed to have. With the ache of sun and what we have taken too seriously, we realize we should have allowed ourselves to be afraid. There is hell, there is home too, but mostly, there is always a bullet close.


Lee Tan’s Jintian

My father loved Bei Dao—it’s eagle that taught song to swim, he would read out loud. He loved those lines as if it were the only ones the poet ever wrote. It’s eagle that taught song to swim. Echo that chases dream. A dangerous shade. An empty gallery. A broken sentence. A relentless kiss. A fountain smaller then a bed. Death—a painting by a window. Life—a window by a painting. No one punctuates any more. The stairs are weak. The wind, though, never cracks. I run after Bei Dao but he isn’t in Flushing. My father either. But today, I find his voice. In the ruins. In the tea. In the smoke. In what we betray and worship. I find the eagle, the song, the swimming—a language where people never forget one another.


Milky Way

She stands at the tip of the Cola-Cola sign and draws small light like balloons, magic under the tongue, laughter behind the walls, yellow strokes of paint along the avenues, pale hues on shoes, no borders just cold drinks and the water, the water, the water. People usually leave a lot behind to be here, so one thousand fireflies wait to greet them, as do the rain, the sun, and the golden grapes. Now the planet is a giant wing. The New York Times a passport—new words displacing the breeze. Making way for a postman, a roller skater, a writer, a scientist, a painter, on the docks, the boardwalks, the sand. And the kites are small whispers, the whispers small kites along the Milk Way of Long Island City. That’s the name of her installation for PS1. She creates an anthem like the rest of us do when we stop on the seven to find a house, to find sound converging.


Notes: The title refers to the 7-Train in Queens, New York City.  Zena means woman is Bosnian. Serbo-Croatian song: If you are taken, everything will fall apart, Remember me as a friend, guard me in your soul, And even when you think it is too late for dreams, for everything…; Tenoch from Tenochtitlán: The name of Mexico City before the Spanish arrived. Pączki mean doughnuts in Polish. Jintian means today in Chinese.


Tomás Heredia, 8

When I leave Tomás Heredia, 8

I imagine someone

will volunteer to walk past

the thought

evening is having,

and another will pretend

to look for answers,

but who wants to know

what it’s like

to be oneself

all the time?


The prostitutes will stand waiting,

while others watch the city view

from the AC Málaga Hotel,

have a seco at the Larios Hotel

or churros con chocolate at Casa Aranda.


The man across the street

will finally repair the window

that holds sunlight

in the broken edges of the glass

where every hour I observed his face

and with no conclusion

as to why he insisted on sitting

by the only shattered window of his house.


I abandoned my post one afternoon

and spent time with the sounds

on the side streets instead,

and the wall by the kitchen,

now wet—

a huge stain darkening the yellow paint,

damaging the back of a painting

the owner,

Señor Isaac Jiménez Albéniz,

bought in Nerja.


When I leave Tomás Heredia, 8

the shadow will tell me

that they are not lines nor circles,

not movement, not sound,

but small gestures,

reflecting backward on the wall.


On the Way to Jerez de la Frontera

Maybe you are missing

a part of you,

or you are out of questions,

or you are nowhere in sight

and everyone’s looking for you.


Maybe noise

is where pleasure lives,

where a version

of death hides.


Maybe we know nothing

of what surrounds us,

and the sherry we drink—

fino, amontillado, oloros—

fill us with what we can’t desire

for too long.


We need to invent something

about ourselves:

the country we are from,

this striking white color,

this empty shadow,

and the paper burning

inside of it, inside of it

the distance


ash in the back of our eyes.




A long-awaited rain.

I know the name of nothing.

I have no words for what hurts.

I know that the trees around me

can answer what man can’t—

something to do with love unmapping.

Azaquefar, someone tells me in Arabic.

Here, I respond,

we have a common language for patio.



It was our year, and then it was 1936.

I was imprisoned. She escaped.

I saw her two times after that.

She sent me letters and photos.

It’s been 50 years now.

I’m writing her from the same cell—

her child about to get married.

Nothing about accepting this is human.

I’d like to say I feel distant,

but her lips are closer now,

for that’s what happens with time;

you collect stories,

but you are in none of them,

except that afternoon in Cordoba—

red, pink, and yellow flowers circling us,

windows on lips.



She is standing by the geraniums.

Past eleven. Past the small fountain.

She is wearing a green dress.

She asks me if I’ve seen him.

I hesitate, then remind her he’s died.

She leans over and kisses my forehead.

I forgot to tell him she was coming.


Sheets of Dry Wind

We drift above the plain,

the gold sky, the pines, the chopos,

the voice of old flamenco,

there are no barbed-wires here,

no unusable vessels of stars.

There is a fainting arm

that says it all—

something about a heart,

the way it holds the garden close,

like holding on to a temptation,

like Christ being near.


When will water part,

when will the sea sing hunched,

the winter break into raindrops?


Why do we speak of pain?

Perhaps we are thirsty,

perhaps Galilee is la Vega,

and all the olive groves have moved

to Andalucía—

a mouth over another mouth,

a way of saying

this is what’s untouchable,

sheets of dry wind.

You see,

it’s what’s inside of us

that holds the pieces

we can’t reach.

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One Response to World Poetry Portfolio #21: Nathalie Handal

  1. Khadija Anderson May 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

     Gorgeous! Thank you for the prose pieces as well, a treat for the eyes as well as mind.

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