Book Review

In his notes to the book-length poem Sift, Christian Hawkey observes how the project developed from a prompt: to sustain poetic engagement with the contemporary Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali, namely an essay from Benabdelali’s volume On Translation, a volume that Hawkey had begun to translate with Marouane Zakhir. While the process of translation obviously led to the generation of Hawkey’s newest book, it’s also what gives it shape. The eighty-eight-page poem is organized into several smaller movements set off by clusters of various translations of words that have Arabic origins. From the very first cluster that sets the poem in motion, Hawkey inhibits the impulse to create linguistic hierarchies within the clusters through their circular visual presentation, and, more to the point, spelling the English forms of words backwards, thus never fully translating them into the poem’s dominant language.

Originating from the right-to-left reading order of the Arabic language, the linguistic defamiliarization in Hawkey’s use of backwards English has a profound effect on the poem by denying readers a stable relationship to the English language. This instability is ever present as readers follow Hawkey through accounts of domestic routine and minor tribulations. These domestic narratives are constantly interrupted by (or interrupt) descriptions of historical moments, especially moments of colonial violence. At this interstice of domestic routine, historical accounts, and linguistic collision, readers are forced to navigate the razor’s edge of political contingency and the cultural border crossings (re: invasions) inherent in language use for global citizens.

This effect starts with what happens in the word clusters. As I read the cluster that opens the book, for example, I first thought the penultimate word, “larimda,” was from a language I didn’t know. I looked it up on Google Translate and found nothing. It was only after encountering backwards English repeatedly over several sections of the poem that I went back to the beginning and realized that this was “admiral” spelled backwards and that the penultimate words in each cluster—the ones spatially closest to the Arabic iteration—were always a backwards version of the English word from which each section spirals out.

Backwards English is so common in Sift that by roughly a third of the way through the book, I could identify and read these words almost without pausing; however, the technique is used in such close proximity to non-English languages—Spanish, Dutch, and transliterated Arabic to name a few—that by the book’s midsection I was misidentifying non-English words as backwards English and routinely trying to translate backwards English as if it was another language. The difficulty of clearly explaining my experience is part and parcel of the developing sense that I couldn’t simply depend on the stability of language within the poem, especially English. For this native English reader, this felt like a pointed denial of an assumed linguistic ownership over English words, which are, as Hawkey illustrates throughout, so often appropriated from other languages.

Yet Sift’s problematizing of ownership is not limited to the linguistic. Through Hawkey’s reactive historical tracings performed through Wikipedia rabbit-hole monologues on art, fashion, food, and moments where Western colonial actors have asserted ownership, Hawkey decries the (white) historical colonizer’s claim to entitlement with impunity stemming from, in his articulation, “ytness’s pretense / of originlessness” as immanent justification. One example is Coleridge as settler “shooting” the titular albatross, an archetypal settler who kills “whatever / sllif / them with fear.” Later in the same section, he checks his own impulse to default to settler narratives of history when he describes “the logo for paramount pictures. . . ben lomond” as “a mountain in utah / named,” he corrects himself, “NO / re-named / by settler mary wilson mongtomery.” Sometimes, ostensibly apolitical facts are enough to evoke a sense of colonial violence’s encroachment on even mundane realties. Hawkey recounts, for example, the sense of dread in learning that Christopher Columbus’s original job was working at his father’s cheese stand:

                   . . . idk

why i find this mundane fact
so disturbing first
cheese stand
then genocide

Reading so many of these tracings written partially in tantalizingly easy-to-translate backwards English simulates the feeling of accomplishment in achieving a new language proficiency. Because of the constant invocation of historical violence in Sift’s poems, however, that feeling turns into an uncomfortable sense of complicity in the linguistic conquest that has taken place across many of the histories Sift recounts. Given my proximity to Columbus and the conquistadors as a US American of European heritage born and raised in Florida, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as conquistador encountering backwards English speakers in the new world, participating in their linguistic assimilation into proper English merely by continuing to read (re: translate) the book.

Not all interactions in Sift take these feelings of ownership to insidious places, however. Some of the most urgent moments occur as Hawkey interacts with his daughter in loving, funny, and thought-provoking ways that dramatize how his mistrust of ownership guides his orientation in day-to-day life. In the first of these moments, he removes a piece of skin from his daughter’s cuticle and moves to get rid of it, at which point she interjects “no it’s mine papa it’s MINE!!!” wanting to eat it, to which Hawkey, bemused, replies “woah ok / you eat it.” While I laughed out loud as this moment initially, Hawkey soon explicates the very serious implications of ownership in this seemingly mundane interaction: “i give what is hers to her which / is not mine to give.”

He closes this scene by giving a short monologue that reads as complicated but generous advice to a future version of his daughter: “refuse / this world / what it takes / let your bags / empty / balance you   let nothing pass.” More than just a fleeting reaction to a moment of empathetic anxiety, this advice is at the heart of the conflicts Sift performs. There is an impossible duality to every part of Hawkey’s construction. To refuse what the world takes while letting what you have escape, to let emptiness balance you while letting nothing pass, would leave one in a state of destitution, ownership, openness, and refusal. This describes a radical fluidity, and just as it seems impossible to apply this advice to material things like jumpers or iPhones or the physical boundaries of your body, in the current moment it also seems impossible to fully apply this advice to one’s language or life without a refusal to translate or be translated, without a refusal to engage. Even as he asserts “the poem feels. . . so distant,” even “elbanigaminu” as “a way to unbecome what need not have occurred,” Hawkey’s violent threading of violences that point in all directions (physically, chronologically, linguistically) takes readers for a destabilizing ride that pushes them to (at least) attempt to imagine the horizon of colonial conquest as “reversible” and the “villages unburned.”

About the Reviewer

Ryan Bollenbach is a writer and musician living in Houston, Texas. He formerly served as the poetry editor for Black Warrior Review in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the online fiction editor for Gulf Coast and reads for Heavy Feather Review. Other book reviews by Ryan can be found at Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, Big Other, Heavy Feather Review, and Black Warrior Review's website. Reach out on twitter @SilentAsIAm or visit his website.