Elhillo, Safia. The January Children. Lincoln,NE: U of Nebraska P, 2017. 72 pp. $15.95 (paper).

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As a writer who was born in Cameroon, a place imagined and conceived by Europeans, I continue to reflect on the impact of the encounter between those who named it and those who actually occupy it, and have grown to claim it.

Often, I have imagined them milling around a room in Otto Von Bismarck’s mansion, the Wilhelmstrasse; animated with the clipped chatter of diplomats and translators, a crude antiquated map of Africa spread out in the middle of an imperial sized table crammed with accoutrements of the era: delicate china, two giant elephant tusks, a mounted tiger, rose-filled clay pots, and gold-coated candleholders.

In this silk curtain-draped room hosting these accidental architects of today’s African states, I imagine the subdued whiff of body odor clashing against the aroma of spiced pheasant.

I visualize Belgium’s King Leopold stroking his beard, his eyes darting from delegate to delegate, his face twitching as he licks lips chapped from the cold December weather, then he eyes a massive chunk in the middle of the vast continent. He grins. I see a curious Bismarck studiously watching the French and Portuguese delegates.

I have wondered if Portuguese ambition astonished the English. How did the Ottoman plenipotentiary react to his Christian peers’ bluster about outlawing the very trade in humans that had powered their empires? Did it ever occur to him that the fate of those African states would someday befall his own empire? Did the delegates at any point feel a sense of unease at their own moralistic grandstanding?

I have tried to hear the voices, yet their world remains inaccessible, their language not mine.

Safia Elhillo’s The January Children offers the reader a galaxy of Sudanese voices engaging individual and collective memory in a manner that not only introduces readers to the nuances that animate that ancient land of layered diversity, which lends this collection a collage-like quality that is as sublime in its coherence as it is revelatory in its execution.

If the millennia-old flashpoint that is the Sudan remains indecipherable as both myth and actuality of more recent geo-cultural conflicts (ones whose outcomes have created fragments that are both individual and collective in scope), then The January Children could be read as a poet’s appraisal of the traumas and triumphs that have characterized the Sudan’s journey.

While this collection is dedicated to the “generation born in modern Sudan under British occupation, when children were assigned birth years by height, all given the birth of January 1,” and while in some ways the work lends voice to those whose erasure began at birth, most of the speakers in Elhillo’s poetic matrix are not so much preoccupied with that aspect of its past. After all, in its centuries-long existence, the British presence is a mere speck in an old timeline.

Instead, in the whirlwind of displacement and exile, the voices converge on Abdel Halim Hafez as both symbol of desire and muse.  Through Hafez, the significance of home, in this case Sudan, takes on a spatial turn not grounded on locality, but rather on an expansive appraisal of place that contests geographic considerations. In “why abdelhalim,” (43)  the poet tangos with death while reaffirming life and arbitrating ownership: “he dies before she’s hurt/he dies before/belonging/he belongs to no one country/[same]/he belongs to no one/in this way he never leaves.”

Then again, it is perhaps in tribute to the enduring spirit of religious and cultural renewal, which has characterized the people who have inhabited the area now known as the Sudan, that compels the speaker in the opening poem “asmarani makes prayer” (1) to observe that “verily/everything that is lost will be/given a name & will not come back/but will live forever.”

To accomplish the task of exploring, reclaiming and naming distinct aspects of this geographically fluid Sudan, the poet summons personae that exist in both the center and fringe of that cultural universe that stretches from the banks of Blue Nile to the suburbs of Maryland.  Speakers that emphasize the spatial fluidity of being and identity like the one in “talking with an accent about home” (9) who expresses that in essence “home is/a name,” and in this persona’s case, “Maryland/is my/Sudan.”

It only makes sense that in the expansive borderless universe of Elhillo’s poetic framing, the likes of the speaker in poems such as “second date” (26) evoke images that are concise in their starkness as they are beautiful in their delivery: “a scarf packs up my heavy hair/I wear my brother & a bullet is assigned me at birth/I wear blood/in my mouth where a man’s name/or a language should be.”

Nonetheless, Sudan’s tenuous existence as entity of identity production is heightened when the speaker in the poem “Sudan Today. Nairobi: University of Africa, 1971. Print” (3), in a starkly exquisite tone, notes that “above all/the story of the Sudan/is a record of a fight against/nature.” This “fight against/nature” takes on a deeper meaning in, “self-portrait with the question of race” (25) where the speaker is told “[but your daughter will be fine but keep her out of the sun but do something/with that hair or people will not know she is daughter of arabs].”

What emerges as a recurring subtext in The January Children, which to the poet’s credit is executed with deftness, is the notion that Sudan like other multihued societies is also afflicted with a version of colorism; that demented offshoot of white supremacists thinking that confines darker skinned people to the lowest rung of society’s hierarchy. Meanwhile, the speakers in this collection uncover the tensions inherent Sudan’s hybridity as the nexus between the African and Arab world.

In “watching arab idol with abdelhalim hafez” (24), the speaker first recounts her experience in Egypt—“I open my mouth/a man in a Cairo shop/tells me I look/too clean to be from the Sudan”—but then one stanza below recalls “when ragheb alama says/Sudanese women/are the ugliest in the world/I am afraid/that I believe him.” She goes on to confess how, “when I see halim/in a suit/in a ballroom/with an orchestra/I think of glamor/then look at my own brown hands/at my grandmother.”

Kwame Dawes notes in his foreword that this poet “is negotiating cultures, geographies, and languages, and these definitions define her relationship to the idea of exile and the idea of home,” which doesn’t require the reader to “have command over Arabic” but rather “unveils the possibilities in the linguistic intersections that are part of her aesthetic.” While those possibilities lend the collection a textured quality befitting a work of such breadth and depth, there were moments for this reader that, even with the accompanying glossary, the “linguistic intersection,” which Dawes speaks of occasionally felt like an impediment to an otherwise seamless journey to the past and present of Elhillo’s world.

Poet and teacher David Wojahn in “Not Releasing The Genie: On The Poetry of Stuff vs. The Poetry of Knowledge” (The Writer’s Chronicle, 2014 Summer/Fall) attempts to distinguish between two strains of contemporary poetry he contends with as both a practitioner and teacher of the craft. He argues that while both vehicles value “the strange, the particular, the special fact, but not in merely for the sake of novelty in the manner of circus side shows,” the “the poem of knowledge” is one that “derives from a desire to synthesize—or alchemize—one’s learning and command of craft into a new reality, a new reckoning.”

It is perhaps this understanding that prompts the speaker in the collection’s final poem, “everything I know about abdelhalim hafez,” (57) to reflect “is the man I meet in the songs/the lover I waited/to deserve/only to learn/he is already dead/I am most afraid of having nothing/to bring back/so I never come home.”

Elhillo’s use of Hafez—a unifying pop-cultural figure in the heterogeneous Arab world—as a trope to examine desire and identity seems to ascribe to Wojahn’s view that in times of “imaginative malevolence,” such as the current historical moment, “it is the task of poetry to draw meaningful combinations, not arbitrary ones.”

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KANGSEN FEKA WAKAI is a Cameroon-born, Washington D.C.-based writer.  He has work in upcoming issues of Poet Lore (poetry) and Transition Magazine (narrative essay).