In Jess Rizkallah’s 2017 debut poetry collection and winner of the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, The Magic My Body Becomes, Rizkallah often treats her own body as an artifact of her heritage, something that has been passed down to her through the generations of her family. In “Sin el Fil, Lebanon” she writes, “i ask her how many years it would take to visit each grave the past filled to bring me here. she tells me that each day i am here is a flower left at a different stone.” This relationship between the past and the present is a guiding theme throughout many of Rizkallah’s poems. The sacrifice of her ancestors, Arab Christians from Lebanon, is felt throughout the collection as in the opening lines of “’take a left here’: there’s something wrong
with the lungs in my family. they absorb the wind but can never take the shock.” Rizkallah often openly struggles with her place in society as an Arab Christian, her specific Lebanese Maronite background and its recent history in Lebanon’s civil war, marking her family narrative and her perspective of the world. Nine poems entitled “ghada says”, Ghada meaning graceful woman in Arabic, serve as sorts of signposts intermixed into the collection. My favorite “ghada says” and I think a beautifully representative poem of the whole collection is only a brief two lines: “never forget that softness is strength, unflinching against the knife and it is also the knife.”
The entire book is written in a contemporary, casual style that reminds me of how one might quickly write down a poem in the notes application on a smartphone or send a text message to a friend or loved one. Rizkallah rarely capitalizes words and often writes in a style that borders between spoken word and written poetics. One of my favorite poems of the book, “dear al qamar means convent of the moon and it’s all i think about” begins with the couplet, “i wanna marriage aziz ansari / because he says clever things on the internet.” This kind of topical, gripping relatability is what makes much of the book feel so personal to the reader. The same poem goes on just a few lines further, “i want to run away with the moon / but things will get complicated, i’ll still be in love with the mountain / because some part of you loves everyone you’ve ever loved even if you don’t love them anymore.” The way she shifts from the silly yet
relatable feeling of wanting to marry someone for their funny tweets to the hard hitting, universal emotions of longing for past love in the face of present desire makes for an enjoyable and often suddenly moving reading experience. The next lines continue, “i’ll always love the mountain / because it’s seen me naked with the lights on / in a past life we were newsies / getting lost on backstreets / dropping skin cells / before that, neighbors / i’d leave a cup of soup on his doorstep whenever the taragon was extra crisp” She is able to weave in so much emotional memory into one seemingly casual poem that it can be a surprise when one of these lines suddenly hits you as a reader. In one half of a poem, she skillfully shifts from celebrity to love to her body image to her cultural heritage. The line about taragon [sic] invokes nostalgia
through a kind of sense memory that is relatable regardless of your cultural background in terms of food.
The many themes that Rizkallah’s collection touches upon often come into conflict with each other. Her Lebanese Maronite background is frequently in conflict with her intersectional identities as a Christian American woman as in “’poem as my dad’: you can’t just say Fuck Columbus or Fuck the Police / don’t scare me with what they’ll do to you when they / pass over the white of your skin to who your parents are / don’t let them notice your last name.” Feminist themes are constant throughout the collection as well but the ideals of western or “white” feminism often come into conflict or conversation with her own perspective on feminism shaped by her Lebanese background. This is evident in an excerpt from her poem, “sometimes i feel like my own life would never pass the bechdel test” which reads; “me and my sister talk about our futures. how we can only pass Lebanese citizenship to our children if we marry Lebanese men. i once saw a Lebanese man drag his wife from the car by the hair. i
once saw an American man do the same. the only difference was the Lifetime logo in the corner. the roll of the window rising / the flip of the channel switching.”
Jess Rizkallah’s The Magic My Body Becomes is a collection that is at once extraordinary and soft-spoken. She writes in a deft and visceral style that leaves the reader wanting more of her sharp, emotive words. Her skill is in weaving throughout the intensely personal and the grander notions of her own identity. Rizkallah’s voice is essential to the times in which we are living and should be read by anyone with an interest in the beauty and complexity of identity.