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Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Hala Alyan

Hala Alyan by Elena Mudd

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Alfredo Jaar offers a powerful reflection on the limits of language and the role of creative expression in times of tragedy. A lament for today’s darkness and a call to find the words to confront these tragic hours, the bold new public intervention displays the arresting title of a poem by Adrienne Rich (1929–2012), a figure of inspiration for Jaar since the 1980s, who observed the limits of words in times of unthinkable violence: “no poetry can serve to mitigate such acts, they nullify language itself,” she wrote in 2011. Throughout November 2023, Alfredo Jaar and CIRCA commissioned a series of poetic dialogues, curated by Vittoria de Franchis, from international writers, thinkers and speakers. Giving voice to those who find themselves silenced or without words, the poems hope to achieve Rich’s ambition that creative expression can reconcile conflicting realities.


We are going through a very repressive moment, when nuance is lost and free speech is threatened. But I strongly believe that the spaces of art and culture must remain spaces of freedom. Artists will not be intimidated. In this environment, I have turned to the words of anti-war campaigner and poet Adrienne Rich to reflect both the limits of language and the frustration felt by many that voices for peace and justice cannot sound out as clearly as we wish. And, as part of the CIRCA commission, I am turning to today’s poets, writers, and artists, to support a forum for creative expression where the clear-sighted demands of humanity and empathy can be heard. In these times when politics have failed us miserably, art and culture are our only hope. Art is like the air we breathe, without art, life would be unlivable. Art creates spaces of resistance, spaces of hope.


Revision By Hala Alyan


I don’t mean to hate the sparrows.

“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes’ a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then—silence.”

—Ghassan Kanafani, in a letter to his son Fayez


I don’t mean to hate the sparrows.

I don’t mean to close my eyes and see fire, a flood of concrete,

leaflets the size of grotesque snow.

I don’t mean to rehearse evacuation that isn’t mine:

from the grocery store to the house, from the house to the river,

from the river to the airport. Here are the rules.

There is a road and it’s gone now.

There is a sea and you can’t drink its water.

How far can you carry a toddler? A middle-aged dog?

How far can you go in sixty-five seconds? Eleven?

If you have a favorite flower, now’s the time to redact it.

If you have a mother, now’s the time to move her to the basement.

If you don’t have a basement?

I don’t mean to profit from this poem but I do.

I don’t mean to say I but I do. Here are the rules.

The rules are redacted.

[            ] is [                    ].

[            ] is a red herring.

[            ] is a billboard with 583 names.

Here are the rules.

I had a grandmother once.

She had a memory once.

It spoiled like milk.

On the phone, she’d me ask about my son, if he was fussy,

if he was eating solids yet.

She’d ask if he was living up to his name.

I said yes. I always said yes. I asked for his name and it was [         ].

I dreamt of her saying:

[           ]

[           ]

[           ].

How deep in the earth can you burrow with your four hearts? Here are the rules:

There is no bomb shelter. There is no ship.

You can leave. Why aren’t you leaving?

You can resist. Why aren’t you resisting?

On the phone, my grandmother would call me her heart.

Her soul. Her two God-given eyes.

She’d ask if I wanted to visit Palestine again.

I never brought her back any soil, but she liked one story,

so I’d tell it again, about the man I met at the

bus station, a stranger until he spoke Arabic,

calling me sister and daughter and sister and I told her how

he skipped work and drove me past the

gardens to the highest point and we waved to Beirut.

I waved to her, and later she said she was waving back.

Never mind her balcony faced the wrong direction.

Never mind the sea a terrible blue.

Never mind there never was a son. Here are the rules:

If you say Gaza you must say [             ].

If you say [       ] you must say [       ].

Here are the rules.

If there is a microphone do not sing into it.

If there is a camera do not look it in the eye.

Here are the rules.

You can’t redact a name once it’s been spoken.

If you say [       ] you must say [            ].

If you say Gaza, you must say Gaza.

If you look, you must look until there is no looking left to do.

Here are the rules. Here’s my mother-given name, here’s my small life.

It is no more than any other. Here’s my grandmother, dead for five years.

She’s speaking again. She calls when I’m not expecting.

Keef ibnik, she says. Where is he now? Let me say hello.

What could I say back? He’s good, I tell her.

I pretend to call a child from the other room.

I pretend to hear the sea from here. I wave back. Here are the rules:

We bear what we bear until we can’t anymore.

We invent what we can’t stand grieving.

The sun sets on Gaza. The sun rises on Gaza.

On your [       ].

On your blue pencils.

On your God-given eyes.

He’s good, I tell her. He’s good.

He’s crawling. Mashallah, mashallah.

Together, we praise the sea and the son.

Together, we praise how much he’s grown.



Hand-signed limited edition print by Alfredo Jaar, £120+VAT. Proceeds will be donated to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. Available here.




Hala Alyan is the author of the novel SALT HOUSES, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award and a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize. Her latest novel, “THE ARSONISTS’ CITY, was a finalist for the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize. She is also the author of four award-winning collections of poetry, most recently THE TWENTY-NINTH YEAR. Her work has been published by The New Yorker, The Academy of American Poets, LitHub, The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her family, where she is a clinical psychologist and professor at New York University