Maya Abu Al-Hayyat’s ancestry and life are permanently marked by the friction of changeable borders. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, she is currently living in Jerusalem and working in Ramallah. “We live in what others have designed and dreamt. / We live in what the wind has done to a tree / thousands of years ago,” Al-Hayyat writes, and one wonders how much of life is destiny versus self-determination. Interconnections—many of them fraught and vivid—form the core of her artistic sensibility, and the poems in her career-spanning collection, You Can Be the Last Leaf, translated by Fady Joudah, engage with constant uncertainties about place, space, and life itself. Yet the essence of these poems is the innate desire for love and a safe home.
Leading the collection is the poem “My House.” At first glance, I thought briefly of Rumi’s “The Guest House,” that oft-shared, inspirational text that (in Coleman Barks’s translation) exhorts one to invite in “The dark thought, the shame, the malice, / meet them at the door laughing,” and:
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I’ve loved this poem for years—it’s almost my cultural imperative—for how it speaks to metaphysical musings about the self as both comfort and aspiration. Yet weathered as we are by 2022’s brutal news cycles, it seems quaint, almost blindered, to experience our world so philosophically.
Al-Hayyat’s house isn’t an impersonal guest space. In her world, the “dark thought, the shame, the malice” are life-threatening and deeply traumatic. Lyrical and clear-eyed, her house is both of the imagination and firmly planted in a place where “[t]he important thing is to pass those walking / closest to me, leave them behind / before they leave me.” It’s fitting that this poem leads the collection, as manifesto and a sort of ars poetica, in which texts become architecture, furnished with memories of literary guides and lost loves.
In a text, I can build a house
with windows and balconies
that overlook galaxies and stars,
paint it with the writings of Amjad Nasser
who said that for the sake of a solid house
one should distinguish
between imagination and knowledge
even if the house is built on illusion.
The poems that follow run the gamut of human emotions and experiences, but the space in which Al-Hayyat lives—and invites us to inhabit—always uses language to mourn, to glory, to fight, to love, and to remember.
Yet even for one whose fate is entwined with language, there are no guarantees in words. In “A Road For Loss,” Al-Hayyat examines the danger and futility of language as a navigational tool, though ironically, it’s through expression that the poet sheds light:
I don’t dare to speak.
Whatever I speak of happens.
I don’t want to speak.
I’d rather be lost.
This faintly superstitious stanza felt especially resonant to me, having lost someone to violence many decades ago. There are fears I still don’t dare speak aloud, as if some spiteful entity would be prepared to make them reality. My logical mind knows that isn’t the case; my still sore heart doesn’t want to take the risk. Al-Hayyat combats that fear. Even as she avers that she doesn’t want to speak, she does so. Language fails her in other ways: she “suffers a phobia called hope,” that ineffectual offering from those unwilling to acknowledge or commit to ending repetitive calamities. Given current events in the U.S., where hopes and prayers are tossed around as loosely as dandelion puffs in May, this reads as acutely sharp and true:
Each time I hear that word
I recall the disappointments
that were committed in its name:
the children who don’t return,
the ailments that are never cured,
the memory that’s never senile,
all of them hope crushed.
The editorial decision to structure this collection as a reverse chronology of Al-Hayyat’s works is particularly compelling; after reading the final poem (from What She Spoke of Him in 2006) I then worked backward through the collection to “My House” (from The Book of Fear, 2021). This subtly hints at a critical directional experience: Arabic, like my native Persian, is read from right to left, and what Western culture would consider the “last page” of a book is actually the first. By reversing the traditional reading flow, there is a sense of undoing the Western construct, the Western gaze and demand, and respecting the natural motion of Al-Hayyat’s linguistic sensibility.
The economical poem “You Can’t” provides the collection its title, as well as one of its key themes: who survives to tell the tale?
Sooner or later, all leaves fall to the ground.
You can be the last leaf.
You can convince the universe
that you pose no threat
to the tree’s life.
The friction between title and content extends throughout this poem. There’s the implication that with care, one can outlast nature and hang on when all others have fallen, yet there’s also a chilling reminder that the price of doing so might be to tamp down one’s essential nature. Is it worth it to be the last leaf? To survive, to remember history and to share it with generations to come? Yet what of the alternative: does it subsume the self? Is it the poet’s mandate to be the last leaf, the eternal witness? Or is it her curse?
Al-Hayyat pushes at and examines these options without indicating a singular path or action, reminding us that to be alive is to be in motion. Our actions—and outcomes—are only in the moment. How can we prepare? We can’t. How must we survive? Tenaciously. Delicately, slyly, like that last leaf.
In “We Could Die in a Traffic Accident,” Al-Hayyat lists a variety of ways to expire, some mundane, others referring to the dangers of permanent war zones. Published in 2016, it’s breathtaking in its prescience, underscoring the inevitability of death, if not the specific manner:
Or after a long protracted illness that makes others wish us dead.
A flash flood might do it after heavy rain.
A forgotten bomb from a previous war
or a fresh bomb from an ongoing one.
A virus heretofore unknown.
Or a well-known virus that doctors and pharmacists got bored with
and missed its reappearance.
Throughout the collection, there is an ever-present thread of death, as well as what wasn’t given life, a limbo where one is “almost dead, almost alive,” where potentiality is thwarted.
Al-Hayyat also explores our personal and societal mythologies, and one is reminded that most fairy tales are often brutal, that the stories we tell about and to children represent our fears. Protectors are killed off. The future is suspect. As she writes in “Return”:
That’s how myths are made:
drop by drop,
they draw memory out.
You don’t know how bitter
it is to search
a map for a memory
and find a cadaver.
The publication of this collection, which encompasses two decades of work, sparks other contemplations. I don’t wish to imply that an English translation confers validation for any global artist; whether or not this translation existed, Al-Hayyat’s poetry lives in, and alters, the world. But it is nevertheless a cause for celebration to have her work, deepened and sharpened by time and accretion, finally available to a wider audience.
The fact that this is a translation—sensitive, layered and expert, as expected from Fady Joudah, himself a noteworthy poet, who also provides a valuable introduction—underscores the challenges of conveying one’s grief, fears, loves, and hopes in any language. These days, I hesitate to use the word universal: such emotions may be shared among us all, but Al-Hayyat’s experience of those emotions, the context of her life, the shading of her days, is singular. Yet, the collection is open too: readers are invited to peer through the shards of losses and ever-present anxieties, to see the love that is undaunted, to smell the flowers that bloom amid the detritus of destruction, aware that we too are but witnesses.
At the end of “Since They Told Me My Love Won’t Be Coming Back from the War” the speaker admits:
I learned that all of them
won’t be coming back from the war,
and neither will I.
Again, we’re reminded that those who are left behind, the “last leaves,” are also damaged, missing the person they might have been, but for the function and focus of war. No one can return from these internecine conflicts whole.
What is wholeness in such an environment? What is the point of building an identity when violence is around every corner, seeking to dismantle it? And more to the point for a poet: what can language do in the face of such uncontrollable ferocity? As we watch our darkening world, we need our poets to express both beauty and numbing devastation. In another nod to the origin stories we share, Al-Hayyat writes:
I want to return home whole.
I mark the roads with crumbs
to help me come and go
until the birds
eat all my bread.
These poems are the sustaining crumbs that Al-Hayyat has strewn onto the road of our consciousness. Perhaps they will help us find our way home. Perhaps they already are home, the home we construct from the remnants of the dreams that are left to us amid the tumult of our times.
© Mandana Chaffa. All rights reserved.