Poetry News

Reading Marwa Helal's Inventive Invasive Species

By Harriet Staff
Marwa Helal

Marwa Helal's first book, Invasive Species (Nightboat Books, 2018), is reviewed by Miller Oberman for Fence Books's Constant Critic. "Helal writes, forcing discomfort. I was amazed at how difficult it was for me to fluidly read the poem from right to left," writes Oberman of the form of the poem Helal has called "The Arabic."

...Just when I think I’ve got it again, I realize I’ve begun to memorize it, and I’m not reading with my eyes. Helal writes in her notes that her aim is for the poem to “vehemently reject you if you try to read it left to right.” This rejection aims to “transfer the feeling of every time the poet has heard an English as Only Language Speaker” say something horribly condescending. Given this note, the poem creates a conflict I can’t seem to get out of: on one hand its frustration is well-founded and more than fair, but on the other hand, the form of the poem opens it up, allows it to be read so slowly that I find I actually read it, stay in it awhile. Reading this way is illuminating: the discomfort of ignorance, the flicker of sound as I learn an Arabic letter shaped like a hook or a slanted capital J sounds like the English word “lamb.”

​Helal worked as a journalist and trained as a nonfiction writer, and these poems, like Claudia Rankine’s, (who is clearly an influence) make me question the difference between poetry and reportage. This is a real project book, rather than the collections of shiny one-offs I’m used to seeing in first books, and it doesn’t have a ton of perfect little lyrics of the type I’d like to quote to hook you—it builds as it goes, and its perspective and emotion feels earned. In the end, it’s this poet’s faith in form that drives me through the book...

Read the full review at Constant Critic.

Originally Published: March 15th, 2019