The Twenty-Ninth Year

reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“[L]ook / we all become our worst stories / this is mine,” writes the award-winning Palestinian American poet and novelist Hala Alyan in her fourth poetry collection. With a lyricism that is at once precise and expansive, Alyan renders the confusion of youth—the book takes as its title the last milestone year of one’s twenties—in unforgiving but tender detail. “Hunger is hunger. I got drunk one night / and argued with the Pacific. I was twenty. I broke / into the bodies of men like a cartoon burglar. I wasn’t twenty.” Sex and substances appear here hand in hand, twin forces of powerful, chaotic energy that with the clarity of focused recollection are brought to heel, until the act of recounting itself becomes a form of healing, or of prayer. Meditations on addiction and sobriety in particular serve as a touchstone for the collection, offering insight that will resonate with anyone who has struggled with the body’s ancient desires and limitations: “Everyone wants a rock bottom. Some Icarus shit. // But the truth is some holes keep going, yawning, heady, one mistake / becomes three: // there’s always a dark darker than the dark you know.” Looking back, Alyan gazes with fear and longing at the circumstances and consequences of want, excess, and wild geographic and spiritual displacement that, once rampant in a younger self, now represent an opportunity to understand something essential about the people we may be becoming, the strength and love of which we may be capable.

This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2019.