Zaina Alsous’s De-Extinction
The arc of Zaina Alsous’s prizewinning debut collection, A Theory of Birds (2019), does nothing less than insist on an extended trajectory for lyric poetry. From its beginning, Alsous fends off the traditional, relentless inward gaze, which in Anglophone poetry’s self-interrogation often distracts from political realities, in favor of understanding the embodied and literary self as a fragmented part of the surrounding diasporic world. The very first anaphoric, anti-grammatical, and consequential phrases of the collection’s opening poem indicate such a swerve: “Inside the dodo bird is a forest, Inside the forest / a peach analog, Inside the peach analog a woman, Inside / the woman a lake of funerals,” the poem, “Bird Prelude,” begins. Beyond these lines’s inventions, there are subtle, yet powerful, shifts being undertaken—there is not a single state of feeling, but multiple, radiating ones. As the poem deepens into its own interior, we reach the heart of the matter: “Inside the language an / algorithm for de-extinction, Inside the algorithm blued / dynamite to dissolve the colony’s Sun, twinkle twinkle.” With that wink, a little star subverting even her own sonic intensity, we understand that these lines, as well as the remaining poems in the collection, are not playing by the rules; they are skimming, darting, and redirecting them. These poems borrow in manner from the magpie, taking from poetry what they like, resulting in something not dissimilar to the method of the cento, which is the form of the collection’s penultimate poem.
“I didn’t go looking for the bird,” Alsous says. She is not an Audobon of poetry (she deals with him later—his Birds of America is a “book of the dead”), pinning her subject matter to lifeless fixity. Instead, memory, image, feeling, and vision coalesce—are one and the same—throughout these formally various experiments-in-poems, such that potentiality for life is recoverable, regardless of place or time, from what injustices have been exacted by colonial logics, the weaponry of empire. The use of the phrase “de-extinction,” and not un-extinction, is a critical distinction: un-extinction would only bring back to life, whereas poetic de-extinction restores life and undoes the conditions of that extinction, unpeels the tolling of Fannonian violence. Among the many elements to marvel over in Alsous’s work, the many figures and forms that resistance takes, from bird to rhetoric to intertextual dialogue, is chief among them. Another is the rigor with which Alsous holds her lyric mode, shaped also in part by features of narrative and deep engagement with other poets (notably Mahmoud Darwish, Etel Adnan, and Muriel Rukeyser), cultural theorists, Indigenous and Black activists, and historical figures (Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson in particular).
The collection’s three sections, “bird prelude,” “bird naming,” and “after bird,” organize A Theory of Birds’s perfectly-ordered sequence as a liberatory lyric trajectory—the double spoken meaning of “prelude,” even, is both a short form of music, as much as it describes a period before significant action is taken, the unformed energy before the event. The nature of description in the collection is also slippery: it evaluates where typical lyric poems evoke; it becomes evocative when evaluation putatively takes place. When a poem includes a womb, we understand it to be a real womb that cycles, might produce life, and bleeds untranscendentally: “I leave a menstrual stain in the grad student’s bed. / He is not a painter, his bed is not a painting,” the poem “Translator’s Essay” points out. When cab drivers appear, we understand the conversations around identity, of being from a place, to have really occurred, and also to resonate in a poetic mythmaking based very much in lived experience. This is a reorientation, rooted in historical materialism, as much as it is a natural extension of lyric poetry’s possibilities for actual praxis, in keeping with Sylvia Wynter’s notion of “humanness”—or, as Alsous phrases it, “a series of lines, not paradigms.” In such centering of the human, A Theory of Birds inhabits a self-honed sweet spot between lyric expressivity, narrative availability, and experimental vision.
This is perhaps what I find so moving about this collection—that it is unbothered with contemporary poetry’s familiar tensions of exact alignment between speaker and self, whether it aligns with or against opposing stylistic affiliations, instead drawing its foundations from cultural and political theory. Alsous’s poetic challenge is directed at the documentary mode—notably absent in this collection but for nineteenth-century archival excerpts that intersperse its sections—as it usually appears in books with a similar constellation of political, personal, and historical focus. The book’s middle section, “bird naming,” takes on the epistemology of the documentary impulse and its history as it contributes to a consuming, totalizing archive. Alsous frames documentary practice as irredeemably linked to mechanisms of state surveillance, “outbreak of biology statehood,” and “the sibilant machine of SCIENCE,” as in the poem “Ibis,” a kind of anti-treatise on the nature of nature and fact as these categories absurdly reinvent, for the colonizer, what already exists. We see this succinctly in a one-line poem, “Instructions for discovery,” in which “the carcass,” decaying by losing one letter, “is the canvas.” Alsous even rewrites the signal Muriel Rukeyser poem “Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)” as “Species-Being free-write,” understanding the documentary, finally, as a “hermeneutic deserting,” drawing out an obvious discrepancy between Rukeyser’s social station and the experience of being a “daughter of the Palestinian diaspora,” as Alsous identifies.
The collection as a whole instead studies and subverts. It speculates as it shoulders and centers. Its erotics coincide with its critiques. Alsous’s pragmatic, often formal approach, like June Jordan, Wanda Coleman, and Layli Long Soldier, among others, shifts between particular and collective experience. Notably, she makes positive poetic use of actual collectivity, her title playing on the plural nouns for birds, as not just as a guise for the co-opted management of group dynamics, but because it holds together coordinated and plural iterations of selves as they belong together, comingle, refuse wholesale coherence. In A Theory of Birds, theorizing is a practice for living in an interconnected textual community.
Another essential underpinning of this collection is its relationship to the U.S. South—North Carolina, New Orleans, and Homestead Prison near Miami, Florida all make appearances—as Alsous inhabits her position as a Southerner because that is, in fact, where she grew up and still lives. Several poems work through this regional complexity, and the result is a more realistic intervention: here, we have a re-envisioning, rather than a revisionist, version of Southern poetry. Homeward longing, so often a prime marker in the literature of the U.S. South, undergoes a necessary complication in Alsous’s consideration. “To be Southern,” as she writes in the poem “Southern Accent,” “is to carry a pall of secrets, warm sheets / of a bedroom, rose water in black / coffee, blood on the fourth violin / string.” It is also to be ineluctably connected to the region’s layered and specific historical violences within a mythos-saturated atmosphere, a trope in which Alsous contextualizes herself, too, as an Arab in that space:
In “Arabidopsis,” the tension between an imposed outsiderness and states of adjacent belonging comprise a brief origin story that powerfully sketches a series of excesses through the lens of a younger self in a sometimes hostile state:
My first surrender was the need to be understood.
My first failure: domestication, an inheritance of kingdom.
I was too wet in the summer to yield saffron. I was too angry
to mom. Too demographic for rurality. Too middle class
Alsous connects her two places of complicated belonging—the U.S. South and Palestine—while writing herself into the legacy of each. Inflections of violence across locations connect them: the Gaza Strip is notoriously considered the world’s largest “open-air prison”; Alsous recognizes a similar carcerality in her poem “Violence,” located in a recognizably southern space: “What are these statues you cling to? / Why calico, why Spanish moss, why the crickets scream. / In a segregated graveyard, no stone reads / public or private; the local jail is everywhere.” I understand these poems’ direct engagement to be a version of direct action, as with Bhanu Kapil, and, in a different line, the protest poems of Naomi Shihab Nye. A Theory of Birds most often eschews lengthy lyrical description—you won’t find a proliferating clausal expanse in Alsous’s work, no indulgent vision behind which the speaker slips or dazzles—in favor of declaration, and the possibilities and political realities beget through those observations, desires, questions, or recollections in the poems’s present. Even her most abstract language has a kind of practical availability. This is because Alsous is opting for another kind of potentiality in language altogether: “When I say home, I mean origin as a transitive verb. / When I say love, I mean these miracles are work.”
Her poetics are also refreshingly devoid of hand-wringing—for Alsous, “Marx and this poem fail / To fully explain the action of workers watching film alive / Under occupation.” Alsous knows where and when the sites of resistance take their place, what poetry can and doesn’t (yet) do. Organizing itself enters the collection by way of the title in the last poem, “Now Let’s Brainstorm !”, a spectral, speculative accumulation of lines whose levity and vision demonstrate that generative power of the long view: “What to call ourselves / After the empires fall / Obliquity / Afternoon.” The title’s enthusiasm somewhat belies the poem’s lambent use of lineation and space, but it’s not an unwelcome dissonance. It’s a vision borne just as easily out of a recognizably casual conversation as it is a poem. Like the similarly colloquially titled “I have this nightmare about fucking Napoleon,” its ground-level spokenness is a riposte to the archival excerpts embedded in the book’s sequence, which includes European and American political and scientific figures like Charles Darwin, the American Museum of Natural History, Jacques Derrida, Thomas Jefferson and, indeed, part of Napoleon’s “Speech on the Egyptian Campaign, 1798.” The nightmare, “in which the bareness of me is already annotated, / each clavicle hued, irises diagrammed, a petri of saliva / in the morning” is a bioethical and colonial one, built on the practice of gathering scientific evidence in the name of conquest.
The connection between this tension and the U.S. South exists here, too, from when it was the epicenter of imperial expansion, through the inclusion of letter excerpts from Thomas Jefferson. One is from post-revolution 1785, the second from early expansionist 1807, their differences clearly plotting the connection between the relationship between exploitation and knowledge assimilation—“[c]ultivators of the earth make the best citizens”—and, in the case of the Indigenous tribes on the Atlantic seaboard, “we will never lay [the hatchet] down till that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Missisipi.” This same process of genocidal betrayal is shown to have its roots in the colonization of the early U.S. South by Cameron B. Strang in Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500—1850, which begins with an ill-fated quotation from a would-be patron of the nascent, and expanding, U.S. republic under Thomas Jefferson: “Convinced as I am that information relative to the situation of any empire now under your particular charge will be always welcome to you (especially if such place be remote) let such information come from whatever person or through whatsoever channel as it may.” Strang unfolds this gesture of affiliation and appeal as having been written into a context of an ambiguous locus for shifting knowledge structures and political loyalties between competing European and Indigenous states that marked the stages of early nineteenth-century conquest and shows that it was the particular shape of this intellectual history that forms the basis for even our latter-day scientific processes. Alsous is right to connect these examples from Napoleon to Jefferson, here, as the origins of this state as an international power are rooted in the colonization, first through information, of the U.S. South. Knowledge—once it became white, European “knowledge”—of the natural world was a prize that doubled back against those who originally possessed it. Alsous’s contemporary response is to reject that construct completely: “[e]verything they teach about enlightenment leaves / prisoners or my mother out. To answer your question: / I refuse.”
In a recent interview with Jasmine Gibson for The Poetry Project, Alsous clarifies her connection between state surveillance, her recurring birds, and settler colonialism:
Surveilling and caging birds are made into innocuous common past times in the US settler colony but the gentleness of birds, their collectivity, their rituals are seen as stupid or frivolous. Working on this book really reinforced for me that poetics is necessary in readying the mind and spirit for decolonization because we are not just undermining a social conditioning to inequality and injustice, we are up against a Western cosmogony to borrow from Sylvia Wynter. As precise as we can be in our language use in naming our enemies, I also think we need to be as audacious in our poetics, and connect our sound to the sounds of other species. This is something Alexis Pauline Gumbs is doing in her recent work, and I think decolonial ecopoetics is the move.
Alsous’s poetics is politically radical not just nominally, or because of its allegiances or her biography. Her poems are at work chronicling and postulating a reordering of things, or a world dreamed into decolonial being, an abolition in language on the level of affect and feeling. Poetry and its properties—from sound to precision—is a lush mode of political thinking for Alsous, and it serves as both a figure and mode of practical liberation, given punishing, oppressive, or humiliating circumstances, wherein lament is permitted, and resilience can be summoned or renewed. As Mark Nowak says early on in Social Poetics, “[c]reating new spaces and new organizations for new chroniclers and new narrators is one of the fundamental objectives of social poetics,” which neatly situates A Theory of Birds in a tradition of socially-oriented, populist poetry that began in the 1930s. Then, as now, its practitioners wrangle with their contemporary condition as much as they are able to envision a future unburdened by it. “I don’t want to hear any more history, unpin me / from the calamity of democracy when you are ready / to follow a tendency of anonymous feathers,” Alsous proposes with this compelling figure of plurality, adding political resolution to her eponymous motif of birds. With her collection, Alsous generates a framework for a life in poetry, and a poetry of perpetual reimagining—or, as she puts it, “The Sun’s reflection inventing / another Sun.”