Winner of the 2019 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize
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
This layering of bird, woman, place, technology, and ceremony, which begins this first full-length collection by Zaina Alsous, mirrors the layering of insights that marks the collection as a whole. The poems in A Theory of Birds draw on inherited memory, historical record, critical theory, alternative geographies, and sharp observation. In them, birds—particularly extinct species—become metaphor for the violences perpetrated on othered bodies under the colonial gaze.
Putting ecological preservation in conversation with Arab racial formation, state vernacular with the chatter of birds, Alsous explores how categorization can be a tool for detachment, domination, and erasure. Stretching their wings toward de-erasure, these poems—their subjects and their logics—refuse to stay put within a single category. This is poetry in support of a decolonized mind.
“A Theory of Birds opens with phrases stitched with commas that are both light and startling: a grammar-flux that produces the effect of something falling out of or off the page. Zaina Alsous: ‘I entered through the empty cage, hips first.’ Zaina Alsous: ‘Can the map eat?’ The questions that follow invert their cardinal nouns, reverting to zero each time the next one is asked. I became curious about the nothing-everything of the book itself, the logic of voids and flight. A book that proposes a ‘collaboration with the dead’ but also a paradise of solar pathways and outcomes (intense joy). Alsous offers the reader a ‘previously’ as much as an ‘almost.’ A jar in France, a blonde hair in Fez: foreignness composes fragments in the shape of an ibis, a harp, a broken lantern, pinning them on a sky-red space: the page, which also shakes—shakes so hard that letters lose their place. And what would it be to write anyway? To love anyway? Zaina Alsous: ‘When I say home, I mean origin as a transitive verb. / When I say love, I mean these miracles are work.’”
“Gabriel García Márquez wrote that Christopher Columbus’s Diario, ‘a book that speaks of fabulous plants and mythological lands,’ was the first example of magical literature in the Caribbean. This ‘magic’ is the colonizer’s ability to falsify a history, to rename what has already been discovered, to create taxonomies and eradicate the epistemologies of entire peoples. Zaina Alsous’s A Theory of Birds makes another kind of magic. Alsous writes, ‘While invading the New World, Columbus writes of sirens in / his notebooks, evoking the half-women, half-birds of Jason’s / Argonauts. Every time I look for women, I become more bird.’ Here is the magic of decolonization, the way it reconnects us past the romanticized past of the noble savage, past the Orientalist hybrids of an unimaginative colonial fiction, all the way to a poetics born of solidarity, of struggle, and pushing through the fissures that will eventually break apart empire. ‘Listen, next time, the flowers are naming themselves.’”
—Raquel Salas Rivera