Marwa HelalInvasive species
Nightboat Books, 2019
“Distance,” writes Marwa Helal, “is the story ive always wanted to tell. / so, ill tell it now” (“let’s get this out of the way”). In her debut full-length collection published by the excellent Brooklyn-based Nightboat Books, Helal tells of many distances between leaving and returning, between embassy and airport. It’s a story not told easily or in order; not narrated without frustration and tiredness. Helal asks: “How do I tell a story in this language when I exist in another?” With Invasive species, Helal unflinchingly captures the limitations of language and policy while presenting rich poetic possibilities through many modes of existing.
Helal’s poems utilize legal language, scientific articles, newspaper clippings, dictionary definitions, and encyclopedia entries. They lay out the logic and language of the racist immigration policy she is impacted by and of the state that enacts it, perhaps asking the reader: Do you know what the law actually says? What the policy really is? What processes are demanded? Helal pulls out the receipts—shows you the form codes and federal regulation sections so you can read this alien jargon yourself. In the “Epiepilogue,” for example, she writes about how the state-created terms 'legal' and 'illegal' “both end up with many of the same consequences: soul loss, loss of familial ties, and in some cases, loss of native culture and language. Both terms inherently deny the immigrant’s humanity.”
Helal demonstrates how categorization reinforces erasure and oppressive interests. One memorable scene describes a census worker asking Marwa’s father, a biology professor, why he had checked so many boxes off for race. “Look at my family and tell me what you see,” he tells him after calling his wife and children to the door. “We get mistaken for just about everything around here and not one of us is the same color as the other. So, I checked everything that applied.” The poem skips to Helal writing in “A-R-A-B” ten years later, a category absent from the Obama-era MENA (Middle Eastern and North African). “Still, they do not sense us,” she writes. Later, Helal asserts:
“north africa is not a separate continent. separate from africa. if you buy into this ideology and its byproducts: SWANA [Southwest Asia and North Africa], MENA, the middle east, and whatever else they might want to call this region, then you are partaking in white ideology and its byproduct: all oppressive systems … the middle east is not only missing, it has a serious problem: its complicity in oppressing black and palestinian people … no revolution can succeed without confronting this reality.”
Here, and throughout the collection, the consequences of language are not taken lightly.
These strategies of journalistic rigor work to expose the inadequacies of language, policy, and category. Helal destabilizes the language of authority and the state with her assertion of poetry: her stanzas unravel normative notions of nation, linearity, and legibility. They correct, interrupt, and mock silly colonizers who lack many kinds of knowledge.
These critical limitations are presented alongside expressions of potential and possibility. Some of those possibilities are explored formally: “i am trying to break the mold i have no form,” Helal writes in “of ritual.” The collection succeeds in breaking—and breaks through with fresh forms, including one of her own, the Arabic, demonstrated in “poem to be read from left to right,” which opens Invasive species.
Helal also plays with the overall structure of the book, which consists of three parts: “Invasive species,” “Immigration as a Second Language,” and “i am made to leave i am made to return.” The second part, made up of alphabet poems from “Aged out” to “Zoom in,” ends with an epilogue followed by “Epiepilogue,” which leads to the last section, which is populated with “return notes” and “leaving notes.” Once you think the book is done—you see the pages of acknowledgements and notes—you flip to see Helal still has more poems to show; bonus tracks to play. This elliptical, non-linear structure brilliantly echoes the physical and political migrations and returns recalled and imagined in the poems.
These rich formal explorations are coupled with a range of tones and references. She brainstorms reality show titles like “al azhar’s next top fatwa,” and “survivor: post-deportation edition,” then, Family Feud-style, awards 30 points to the response “Oh, but your English is so good” for the question about where one is “from-from” (“F”). These moments of cheek are as incisive as any other technique deployed. Throughout, Helal sings of and with her chorus: Achebe, Baldwin, Borges, Rumi, Scott-Heron.
Indeed, the book is one of multitudes and in-betweens—I think about what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the Borderlands, what W. E. B. DuBois calls double consciousness (mentioned in “invasive species self-questionnaire”), even about the ways in which queer approaches reject binaries in favor of fluidity and instability.
Part of this possibility is in Helal’s ever-present transparency and generosity. One can see this in the footnote apology to those who ask her for directions in languages she doesn’t speak, after a list of ethnicities she’s mistaken for. Helal writes: “I see how frustrating it is for you when it turns out I don’t speak your language. It frustrates me, too” (“M”). It is also present at a moment at Heathrow Airport, where she is “met by an agent who looks like rumi. turban, / beard, mustache and all” and tells him “i used to be a journalist but now i am a poet.” When he asks what kind of poems, she “give[s] him this look like: we both know / what kind of poems i write … followed by a look at the two of us here / talking poetry” (“heathrow is my favorite”). These two tender moments contrast the instances where recognition is denied by people, policy, or language itself.
Helal’s commitment to plurality and the poet’s ability to dismantle is felt throughout the collection. It is also felt in Helal’s performances, which become an extension of that project of disruption and human-ness—whether in beginning readings at the end of the book (fitting in so many ways) or in encouraging an audience read-aloud of her tribute to DJ Khaled, “you got the keys keys keys” (“still, i appreciate you / for what you undo”). Helal presents solutions and solace in generosity, in multitudes, in naming, and in looking.
How does a political body face violences and erasures? Helal’s strategies include documentation but also insist on imagination and creation. The collection especially considers the unique potential of poetry and dreams. In “dreamwork (after Philip Metres after Sand Opera),” Helal writes, “poems do work journalism can’t and dreams do work only dreams do … journalism is the work of sleeping. poetry is the work of dreaming.” What do you do when the form of poems written in English reinforce the Eurocentric gaze? You create your own forms. What do you do when the language of Homeland Security does not see you or any immigrant fully? You create your own term, “Invasive species.” Helal asks, “who made this taxonomy?” and then insists: “unmake it” (“invasive species self-questionnaire”).
In the Epiepilogue, Helal reflects about the project as a beginning and about the tiredness of leaving, returning, and telling. “Every trope is a trap. Even the one you try to write yourself,” she writes. In “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids,” Helal wants “every word” to “reverse the effect of the slow meting out of system[at]ic violence,” to “let every letter represent a human standing in protest.” Indeed, in the poems of Invasive species—poems of resistance and possibility—they do.