In two new poetry collections, Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike’s there’s more and Laila Malik’s archipelago, home is a moving, shifting entity. Umezurike’s first poem opens with the line, “Home is what the tortoise bears on its back.” In her epigraph, Malik provides a definition of an archipelago: “a cluster, collection or chain of islands, or sometimes a sea containing a small number of scattered islands,” and one voice speaks, “I have no home / even a sandbar is better than nothing.”
The idea of home is a recurring motif throughout there’s more. In “The Wind Skulks at my Window,” Umezurike ponders not only what home means, but what a poem about home is: “A poem about home is the mother struggling / with the shell on her back,” one couplet declares. The refrain, “A poem about home is,” acts as an anchor for the entire collection. Poetry and storytelling are the ways “people remember.” Ancestral lineage is a touchstone that is frequently referenced. The speaker recounts a particularly memorable and instructive tale: “your grandmother told you a story how the bridge / between sea and land was home she once stood aside / let an iguana ply his way home.” In “The Sea Is the Bridge,” he harkens back to this story: “The sea. The boat. The moon. The bodies. / There are fishbones in stories we do not share.”
there’s more is full of familiar moments for migrants to a new society, including Umezurike’s lyrical telling of a student’s experience in a classroom during roll call: “The teacher stalls at a name or its sound, / a crease in the fabric of her face.” The implications of this pause deepen at the poem’s end as the difficulty with an unfamiliar name leads to invisibility:
our PE teacher
who brushed past me
to applaud the white girl
who finished the hundred-metre race
second, behind me.
Umezurike’s lyricism shines, especially in poems like “The Park in July” where he writes: “I exhaled a lifetime // of days onto the yellow crowns of dandelions at my feet.” These poems move between past and present and different cultures and worlds, capturing moments from childhood as well as current circumstances, including living through lockdowns and scrolling through Twitter. Umezurike emphasizes that stories are a vital part of our present, rather than time capsules from the past.
Many of the poems in Laila Malik’s archipelago focus on the Arabian Gulf, and here, home is a series of literal and metaphorical islands. The opening lines of the collection’s prologue, “this is how we know the world is ending. // the grandmothers have set down / their dois and there is no succession plan,” echo Umezurike’s lines about the connection between storytelling, history, and the vitality of life. When generational connections – and subsequently the stories we hear from our grandmothers – cease, the world itself ends.
Malik plays with and pushes language in her debut collection. She creates word combinations and strings together evocative lines, as in “acacia honey”: “just humans airswimming / dry-eyed, clumsylimbing // just humans still fingercounting / camels & petrochemicals” – in this instance creating the sensation of swimming, like traditional pearl divers, through the waters around the islands of the Gulf that are now the sites of extensive oil drilling. Oil is a recurring motif. In “the organic properties of sand,” she writes: “in the desert / when sun sets on aurum & crude / we still dream water.” Amid this “weapon of mass destruction” occurring in the place she calls home, there is still that dream.
The desert appears throughout, and is a prominent feature of home. In “just kids going home,” a poem about a disturbing encounter, Malik explores translations of the word “desert” in the different languages spoken in the Gulf:
in english we spell desert with one s because it is made of hunger.
in urdu we call it registan because it is its own republic.
in arabic they call it sahra, even though this is an oasis, even though
ancient waters still stir below.
The use of “we” and “they” is especially noteworthy as Malik pinpoints the distinction between workers who come from surrounding countries but remain aliens and those who are citizens – and this is all differentiated by language.
The question of citizenship and family is explored further in “kafala,” a sponsorship system in the Middle East that monitors foreign workers through their local sponsors. In response to the echoed question “who your sponsor,” the speaker says:
i don’t have a sponsor.
i have one
archipelago closes with an epilogue that looks back to the collection’s opening lines. If the prologue signals the start of the end of the world, the final poem, “irreconciliation” suggests what might happen after. Malik writes: “at first she called this family, then community, then / biting a piece off her tongue and looking both ways before crossing the street / she called it nation.” In these lines, Malik acknowledges the impossibility of reconciling home with nation, and as the collection ends with the repeated phrase “can i,” she turns this question over to us.
In there’s more and archipelago, home is constantly in a state of flux. It exists in a difficult relationship to physical place; the disconnect between generations makes it equally difficult for home to exist in metaphorical spaces. Through their lyricism and beautiful poetics, Umezurike and Malik draw readers into their worlds – and keep us there.