It’s fitting that these are the very first words we encounter in Abraham’s triumphant debut. They perfectly synthesize the work’s commitment, and questioning of, resilience. George Abraham’s al youm is a work that is first and foremost about survival in all its forms: survival of diaspora and occupation, of the body, of language. It is a profound example of poetry itself as an act of survival and creation. I see this most clearly in poems like “photographs not taken” and “the Olive Tree speaks of deforestation to my body”. They hold memory, rage, hope, all together; both turbulent and tender.
Each poem pulsates with resistance, but they also display immense vulnerability, showing us a writer that is rightfully exhausted from trauma, yet has all the fight in the world still left in him. As a queer diasporic Palestinian and a survivor, Abraham carries a heavy burden, but it is one he faces head-on; each poem unpacking the pain and complexity of the intersections of his trauma. al youm seeks to be a narrative that is as Palestinian as it is personal.
Of course, writing for the Arab community in America is often immensely challenging. For starters, there’s always the tremendously difficult question of language: as Arabs, how can we create work that is for us when we write it in the language of our colonizers? Following the incredible approach of contemporary Arab American poets such Hala Alyan, Safia Elhillo and Marwa Helal, Abraham masterfully takes over the English language, as well as the English poetic tradition, to deliver a profoundly diasporic Arab narrative.
One need not scrutinize Abraham’s writing to conclude that he is a diligent student of the craft; one who has committed himself to studying the colonizer’s rules in order to use them against him. But he is by no means limited to the Western tradition. al youm employs a stunning range of poetic technique. Throughout the work, the reader encounters ancient forms such as the tanka and the ghazal, as well as poems written after contemporary poets such as Fatimah Asghar and Ocean Vuong.
But perhaps the most impressive feature of the work is Abraham’s ability to blend both his spoken word and literary background into one work. Abraham’s poetry career began in slam and he’s managed to take the best of the medium (clarity, urgency, colloquial lyricism) and infuse it into his work on the page. Lines flow rapidly after the other and within this flow you can almost hear Abraham speaking.
Abraham belongs in the coveted ranks of poets whose work must absolutely be both read and heard. To hear Abraham speak, a pleasure I’ve been privileged to experience many times now, is to witness a captivated room; breaths held at every syllable.
This lyricism manifests stunningly on the page. It is impossible to simply read al youm, it is a text that begs to be spoken. Its language roars, but also whispers. There is as much justified rage as there is healing tenderness. This balance is no small feat. The way they structure their text takes complete advantage of the page. Line breaks, crossed lines, inverted poems, all serve Abraham’s astute exploration of the violence of trauma. One of the most ambitious pieces in the work, “Demon Possessed Poet attempts self-Exorcism”, even distorts the size, font and orientation of the text, creating a completely appropriate visual aesthetic to complement the tone of the poem.
Though al youm’s tagline reads: “for yesterday and her inherited traumas,” it is a text that, at its core, works towards building a better future. Abraham, of course, names what the past has done, from Israeli colonialism to personal sexual trauma, but this process is one of active survival and empowerment. Through al youm, Abraham shows us a past seemingly on fire, but in doing so, he also lends us a hand out.