Book Review: Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal

Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press

The concept of a volume of poetry transporting its reader to a far-off locale is not a new one. Given the constant tropes of how poetry is supposedly an emotional, romantic, art, the idea of remote vistas and escape almost too-easily fits into the realm of the poet’s craft. Expectedly, there are many poor—perhaps even horrible—examples of this approach, however, this is not to say it cannot be done very well, and be fully effective in its transportation of reader to a place miles away. In the case of Nathalie Handal, the place in question is Andalusia, the southern-most geographic region of Spain and what was once the heart of the Islamic Caliphate of Córdoba.

Andalusia really contains a wealth of history and at that, history of many flags, many languages, many colors. Handal could have filled a whole book simply with images and visions of Moorish Spain and left it at that, but instead, she attempts to cover the entire range of Andalusia’s long-running game of politics and personages. Overall, she is very successful, too. She can compose a poem about Toledo’s glory and then one about Jorge Guillén, jumping from century and realm of polity in one graceful swoop. In this, and due to how pithy and informative her poems are—and how constant her voice is regardless of its specific topic—Handal is able to offer a book that nearly reads as much as a travel journal or even historical record as it does a work of poetry. In the instance where I come to her poem “The Thing about Feathers”, not even half-way into the book, I feel like I am in the middle of a truly majestic, swelling, work of fiction. Much of my own scholarship is on Chrétien de Troyes ‘s Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette and somehow, in the middle of Handal’s discourse of Moors and Spanish poets I got the feeling of that great work—the feeling of something designed to be entertaining yet rooted in deep history, of something that has grown larger than life since its creation and sounds nearly oral even when read in silence on the page. Of course, the book I am holding was only published in 2012, but never mind that: what Handal has done is no less than a spectacular triumph as she has knitted up and enveloped centuries worth of history into a slim volume and nonetheless it all reads—consistently—like grand literature.

We are strange when we’re lost,
his father told him.

With these lines, we start into a poem. This is how Handal often begins—straight out the chute, but certainly mid-stream, half-way through the film, far into the maze. That is travel. As seems fitting for a poet “in Andalucía”, we catch up with our poet and not the other way around, and this is as it should be, since Handal’s approach helps convey the very sense of her journey itself.

I have inherited your shadows,
and a thousand crossroads.

This theme of travel is constant, and often comes with a motif of awe, of narrative reaching beyond whatever immediate import it contains as where it rests as lines of a specific poem. Everything in this book feels interconnected. There is an element of García Lorca in Handal’s writing—not surprising, as she mentions him and other Spanish poets throughout the book—still, his spirit floats over the pages just like Handal’s words float over the entire Iberian landscape.

He longs for
the secret forms of god
along the back of his neck

Those quick lines are probably my favorite in this entire book, and picking favorites is a chore not easily undertaken given the bounty of options the poet provides. Aware that she is as much a teacher as a poet in these pages, Handal also includes a helpful set of notes about her travels in Spain and the topics and places she concerns herself with in the poems. Most readers may find they need it: having taken several courses in college in European and Moorish history that covered Andalusia in depth, I thought I would be fine yet here and there Handal would introduce something I’d not really encountered—or at least understood—before. Moreover, she made me desire to open up García Lorca once again and read him anew.

Handal quotes everyone—like a reporter on assignment overseas, she is quick to get a word or two from all those of importance she can interview. Only with Handal, she has the benefit of not limiting her interviews to the living but includes everyone from (literally) dead poets to an Umayyad prince from Moorish times long, long ago. This quoted material bookends the sections of her book and interfaces with her poems, making the effect of the whole somewhere between epic poem and an anthology of travel writing. Quoting others at times indicates an author is either running thin on original work or else trying to locate herself as someone of equal greatness to those she quotes, but Handal applies her quotes to the best of use, building with them a historical and atmospheric timeline of sorts into which she can insert her poems. The whole feeling the reader takes from this experience is one of a real journey, a tangible venture through Spain and the crisp waves of the water, the fine sand, the rocky shores, the savory kitchens, the faded tiles in churches centuries old all come forth with power and poise.

Two rather unrelated but vital elements allow Handal’s poetry to be as strong and robust as it is: for one, she has a well-developed understanding of observation, which is something not all poets today retain in their array of skills. As writers encouraged to look inward and expected to produce works that do not even require in most cases plots or the development of characters as in fiction and drama, poets can become more insular than anyone else working in literature. Not Handal: she takes her tasks of description as seriously as any first-rate journalist would, focusing on all that comes into her path. Secondly, Handal is able to produce clear prose, writing that is contemporary, familiar and direct yet that also is warm and and lyrical, creating the type of romantic, nearly courtly sense of succession— of prolongation of the narrative at hand as something unified. What might have been only travel sketches transcribed into verse are instead very singular, consummate, organic, creations. They stand on their own but also, even better, as a whole in the scope of the book.

This book, and its author, are a treasure. In the course of reviewing books of poetry for four different literary periodicals, I encounter “good” poetry all the time—little of what established publishers send out to reviewers is without merit—however, it’s exceptional to find something as cohesive and engrossing as Poet in Andalucía. I highly recommend it and await Handal’s next journey.


Filed under: Book Review, Mike Walker, Poetics, Prose