Through its title, Jess Rizkallah’s poetry collection The Magic My Body Becomes invites us to a place-in-motion, somewhere between a body and a history. She pulls us in to witness the becoming, participating in an alchemy of language, stories, memory, and family history crafted from her perspective as an Arab-American woman.
Acknowledging the difficulty of disentangling one’s identity from both one’s physical form and one’s family, Rizkallah’s work ties her body to both the past and the future, a bloodline and a wider culture. “poem as my dad,” and “fine then” tackle one aspect of this, both directly confronting men’s expectations of her behavior, her appearance, and her performance of her identity.
It’s a body that yearns to be free, though, and Rizkallah takes and explores that freedom in poems like “the backroads,” a sharp and lovely observation on how she and her sister exist in the world:
...so she’s got no time for white boys no time
for beirut boys no time
for anyone who tells her what to do
she is all eyebrows and incense
she is all ghost of the woman
who stared down the barrel of a gun
when the militia came for her
While many of the poems in this collection involve conversations with her family members (some one-sided, some multi-sided, and some—like the “Ghada says” sequence—functioning as something like signposts staked throughout) Rizkallah is also engaging pop culture, tradition, and current events. There’s “white man says to my brown father,” which unfortunately describes pretty much exactly what you’d expect, but also addresses the conflict inherent in her family’s Christian beliefs. And there’s “sometimes i feel like my own life would never pass the bechdel test,” a thorny poem that braids itself around love and rape culture, in one deft passage also calling out Western feminism for its transgressions:
…hang this on your wall / click share / we can talk
about stories claimed / how they become abdomens
over maps where western feminism runs its fingers
where it stores the Other under its nails / calls it dirt. cleans it out
with the tip of the pen cap to make everything white again
Throughout the collection, Rizkallah returns to the physical and temporal distances, the blasting open and healing shut that have punctuated the journeys of her family’s generations. She distills these major themes to aim a laser-focus at her own body: her hair (“tbh i’ve got more things to say about hair than i have hair”), her womb (“my other mouth”), the “long-lost gap” in her teeth (“when they ask me who i pray to”). Her thighs are gifted preternatural status in “my thighs could kill a man,” where she explores what she’s inherited, that parade of death and violence and phenotypes through generations that have culminated in her living and breathing form. “and it’s muffled, but when i walk i feel my great-grandmother’s prayers/travel like sap through my tendons. The bullet that went through her head/is nestled between two lives i don’t remember, but my thighs do/they’re probably older than i am.”
This collection is both bold and quiet. It is by turns confrontational and introspective, visceral and abstract, funny and then a kick in the head. This is a poet who moves easily between the big picture and the microscopically personal, each poem a structure with aching joints that will hold. Jess Rizkallah is an exciting and necessary voice, taking on the cultural spaces created for and against her, and writing some really beautiful lines in the process. It isn’t the last poem of the collection, but I want to end this review with one of my favorite poems from the book, a quick-hitting “Ghada says” that I think nicely sums up The Magic My Body Becomes:
never forget that softness is strength, unflinching
against the knife and it is also the knife.
The Magic My Body Becomes is the first book in the Etel Adnan Poetry Series, which publishes first or second books of poetry in English by writers of Arab heritage.
Publisher: The University of Arkansas Press