Winner of the 2020 Walt Whitman prize from the Academy of American Poets, this debut poetry collection by a Yemeni American woman asks how mis-translation can be a form of self-knowledge and survival. Almontaser offers a love letter to the country and people of Yemen, a portrait of young Muslim womanhood in New York after 9/11, and an examination of what it means to carry in the body the echoes of what came before.
Poets like Solmaz Sharif and Aria Aber have experimented with incorporating their native languages into their English poems, but Almontaser takes this practice to a new level ... While Almontaser’s hybrid poetics enriches this work immensely, the visual feast of scripts, languages, and cultures generated by these poems yields a reading experience that is at once more political and more personal. Readers will connect with the young woman at the center of this collection, who wears her 'city’s hatred as hijab.'
... performs a paradoxical feat. At 101 pages, it’s a long book; many of the poems are on the long side; and many of the lines are long. Yet there is no clutter or crowding here – only an exuberant fullness, such an abundance of captivating images and turns of phrase that it is hard to take everything in. Almontaser’s verbal richness doesn’t stall or cloy; rather, her bold poems convey the spaciousness afforded by freedom and truth-telling. They keep moving, and we try to keep pace ... Almontaser’s knack for titles suggests the range of her subject matter ... In these confident, capacious, generous poems, which face tragedy without sentimentality or bitterness, there are echoes of poets such as Ishion Hutchinson, Erica Dawson and Emily Skaja (and of the poet whose name graces the award this remarkable book recently won: Walt Whitman), but Almontaser’s poetic voice is very much her own.
At times, the language and the structure seemed to intentionally confuse the reader, though that might’ve been Almontaser’s purpose. By allowing her thoughts to flow freely, she challenges the reader to look beyond traditional writing styles and reiterates the power of the pen by demonstrating that language cannot be restricted. Complexity is in its nature, with multitudes of meanings and interpretations. Essentially, this poetry collection is an ode to the Arabic language, whereby the author divulges what it means to be a Yemeni-American Muslim woman ... It was interesting to see how Almontaser balanced the duality of the narrator’s identity, the push and pull between Yemen and America, through the lens of language ... The collection ends on a confident and self-aware tone, returning to where it began by questioning and navigating the different aspects of identity ... highlights the power of language and the endless worlds contained in its words and discussions of the internal struggles to define identity. From Almontaser’s original style to the usage of two different mediums, Arabic and English, I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic complexity and flexibility that language entails. Almontaser’s love for the Arabic language is apparent in each poem ... brings out the sly, shy, lost fox in all of us, giving us all a chance to embrace every aspect of our identity and being, thus, embodied in language.