Esteban Rodríguez on Alen Hamza’s CSU Poetry Center debut collection Twice There Was a Country

Winner of the 2019 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Competition, Alen Hamza’s Twice There Was A Country is a collection that reminds us that regardless of the past or the circumstances we find currently ourselves in, it’s never too late to reconnect with who we are and where we came from.

While Hamza’s identity as a Bosnian refugee grounds the poems in his debut collection, there is no doubt there is a universality that seeks to define how we think of home through a playful, serious, and often surreal lens. The opening poem, “Little by Little,” reveals as much, and previews the experiences to come:

I left, at twelve, the town of poplars.
Pimples lined my forehead,
rifles kept young men awake.

A country of six became six countries
with one product: nationalism.
I crossed the border, an ingrown nail.

I left half my heart cradled
by the razor wire. I will lull it
said the wire, a life form

made exclusively of teeth.

The speaker goes on to say that “surrealism” enters into this life and that eventually he had to “relegate wonder to the landfill.” Although it might seem contradictory since any sense of surrealism could be seen as wondrous, any reassurance and innocence that reality once offered the mind, body, and spirit is no longer accessible. Nationalism, a term all to relevant in today’s topics of conversations, refers to the Bosnian War and the armed conflict, displacement, and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, from 1992-1995. While the war itself isn’t mentioned explicitly, and Rodovan Karadžic, President of Republika Srpska during the war and convicted war criminal, is only mentioned in “Karadžic-Ruined Romance,” there are many references to its aftermath and the long-term effects it had (ironically enough, Karadžic published several volumes of poetry while he was in hiding). In “Double Negative,” the speaker reflects on his parents returning home after sixteen years and what it means to have a new country and language between the present and the past:

On more than one occasion, my father has said:
“There, I do not want to go. Here, I do not want to stay.”

The Bosnian language permits a double negative.
English frowns upon it.
I have not told my father that his life is not possible in his adopted tongue.

The father is stuck between his homeland and his adopted country, and even though the speaker believes his father can continue to make his life in the United States in a meaningful way, the father is nevertheless conflicted. The speaker’s mother has lost her desire to do much of anything, and as the speaker and his brother are “becoming imagined people” to her, he can only wonder what kind of worlds she sees her sons in, which hopefully are less confusing than the one they find themselves in.

Regardless of how certain the speaker is about his parents, there is always a lingering feeling that some part of him is lost and cannot be recovered. In the title poem, the speaker examines his voice and what it means when he hears it played back to him:

I am afraid of my voice.
I record it in the morning to scare myself at night.

In it lives a red pentagram.
In it lives a dead country.

Come together: clack, clack, clack.
Six times clack equals tow eyes black.

Twice dead means resurrection is a visible thread.
I am nevertheless an atheist blessed.

The speaker has lost his voice, both in the literal and figurative senses here, and because it frightens him he uses it in the hopes of not just injecting life into his existence, but in the hopes of reclaiming his voice, of knowing what it is capable of and that he is without a doubt still alive. There is a hint of Charles Simic here, but Hamza is utterly his own, and elsewhere he so skillfully combines the feeling of alienation and loneliness while contemplating the effects of war. In “Eternal Monday,” a title sure enough to relate to everyone who has ever worked, Hamza’s speaker compares that dreaded Monday of work to the reality of having to mature so quickly:

In youth I ran around lovers, lovers
who loved me, but never felt cemented
by love. It was a case of the eternal Monday:
time to kiss was time to go to work,
and the timing couldn’t have been worse—
the beginning of the labor week. Still,
labor I did. War made me learn
a new language. Hooked, I learned another.
In my pocket passports proliferated.
You could say alliteration no longer
pleases the way it once did.

There was a blissfulness that the speaker was surrounded with when younger, but the war displaced him from his language and home, and he can’t help but feel as if he is stuck in some purgatory of blandness akin to what it feels like to start the work week. It’s “eternal,” and not even figurative language has the power to “please” the way it used to. In a way, the speaker is taking a dig at the constant need for productivity and the structure of the modern-day workplace that renders employees into near zombies. But the larger worry Hamza wants to focus on is how conflict denies one the right to happiness and opportunity, even if they are fortunate enough to escape and make a life elsewhere. The feeling of home becomes but a memory, and it continues losing the meaning the older one gets.

2020 is far from over, and although there is a lot of uncertainty that still pervades our daily lives, writing such as Alen Hamza’s provides reassurance that we can unveil the tragedies of the past and begin the often-long process of healing. Hamza reminds us that life is worth every struggle and triumph, and though we may not be able to resurrect the best of the past, we can find a way to create new memories for the future.

Twice There Was a Country, by Alen Hamza. Cleveland, Ohio: CSU Poetry Center, October 2020. 80 pages. $18.00, paper.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of two poetry collections, (Dis)placement (Skull + Wind Press, 2020) and Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019), and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, ShenandoahThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.

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