Book Review: THE REPUBLICS by Nathalie Handal
Poems by Nathalie Handal
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015
After the Haitian earthquake of 2008, the poet Nathalie Handal revisited the country of her birth and its neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Faced with two vibrant cultures learning how to resituate themselves after this latest tragedy, Handal began to write a series of “flash reportages” based on the people she met and the stories they told. As much a love letter to her homeland as to its residents, The Republics is immediately successful as a collection that humanizes the people of Haiti and the Dominican Republic to her readers elsewhere. Using the weight and lyricism afforded to her by the prose poem form, Handal is able to address these subjects with the urgency and gravity they deserve.
The island of Hispaniola, where so much is screaming crickets and broken motorcars and “Ten Drumbeats from God”—it is in these desperate spaces that Handal finds the people to whom she will give voice throughout the collection. Typically these are people living on the margins of society, such as the black Haitians speaking in “Noir, une lumière.” Even (and today, especially) in the United States we can recognize their particular cry for freedom: “Take everything but my blackness.” Spurned by a society that would rather erase them than face its issue of racism, they beg to be liberated from poverty, tragedy, and inequality while still being recognized for who they are. “They hated our black,” the speaker explains. “What they didn’t understand is that it illuminates their world.” By amplifying the voice of blackness in Haiti, she places the issue of racism starkly before us to be considered both as a Haitian problem and one here in our own backyard. By the poem’s end, readers are forced to face how demoralizing it is to be told, “You are in the wrong land even if the roosters recognize you.”
Despite some poems being written from what seems to be Handal’s viewpoint, nearly the entire collection is devoted to speaking on behalf of others. The series “Salt on the Tongue” introduces us to nine Haitians and their stories. “Amor in la Zona Colonial,” set in the Dominican Republic (and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World), doesn’t give name to its characters. Instead, it visits five bedrooms, perhaps in an apartment building or a hotel, to find unique voices and perspectives on romance. Some of Handal’s most beautiful lines are found here:
The hour changes time into other forms of desire. A woman needs no bra in summer. A kiss after a fuck. A way to depart.
We are a riot waiting to be broken and dispersed. I have no idea what it means to be beautiful but I try to survive what you don’t say.
I couldn’t tell if we were dancing or screaming or maybe it was a way to meditate la pobreza away…
Desire, loneliness, regret, and desperation make frequent returns throughout the collection. In “Milagro’s Recollections,” we meet a mother whose son, Frankie, died unexpectedly at the age of 19. The speaker remembers a time when the woman lived vibrantly before turning to examine her in the present moment. “All I saw was the way life moved faded leaves on her face. The way Frankie stayed handsome forever. She disappeared… But I was told, on some days when she is lucid, she says my name with a faint smile.”
The curse of the remembered dead seems to follow all the people Handal meets throughout The Republics, and each person lives with this burden in his own way. For her part, Handal first has to come to understand the rootlessness of this feeling.
I look at the mother looking at her child eating—why isn’t she smiling? I look at my lover looking at me naked beside him—why isn’t he smiling? I look at the ex-slave growing mangoes, and his daughters drinking water from a well—why aren’t they smiling? I always believed that everything was black and white. But what’s closed inside me isn’t black or white.
Then there are those who run from what’s closed inside them—if only for a moment—such as the Haitians Handal observes celebrating Carnaval. “A parade of wild colors… Masks glittering. Every meter a dream.” Overtaken by beauty and joy, the people admire the “illusion” of the ocean while some cosmic camera pans over the entirety of the country. We’re told, in Haitian and French, that “coal is burning. The crowd is ready.” “Quelle belle nuit,” the partygoers agree. “Carnaval is a country made of secret crimson skies—why know everything.”
And yet, Handal’s voice throughout does ring as rather omniscient. There is no letting up from overwhelming reality; the presence of grief and injustice are never far. But, as she shows us in “La Carta del Capitán,” there are a few moments where we can locate the beauty in devastation. Sometimes, to survive, we must force ourselves to look at blessings as well as pain:
Love, your lips circling my chest, the shape of your mouth on my neck, I know now that distance isn’t a broken letter; it’s a dazzled heart, elegies turning into comets.