cover image The January Children

The January Children

Safia Elhillo. Univ. of Nebraska, $15.95 trade paper (90p) ISBN 978-0-8032-9598-8

Elhillo contemplates the meaning of home and what it means to belong in a taut debut collection of heartfelt poems that speak to the push-and-pull predicament specific to people who can claim multiple cultural identities, and whose identities reflect multiple geographies. The book is both personal and political, a love letter to Sudan and a memoriam for ghosts of happiness past. For example, in “The Last Time Marvin Gaye Was Heard in the Sudan,” Elhillo takes a snapshot of her parents before they met. The moment is colored by nostalgia, the crackle of untapped potential, as “the night air is the gap in her teeth/ she sings in a lilting english to a slow song.” The dreamlike image of untouchable youth is quickly interrupted when the police arrive at the end of the poem, turning a beautiful uncertainty into a certainty of violence. Linguistic investigation also plays a role, as Elhillo occasionally toys with Arabic vocabulary and translation. Abdelhalim Hafez, a popular Egyptian singer, makes regular appearances, connecting Elhillo to her Sudanese roots and grounding her longing for purpose and a sense of place. Elhillo ponders what she knows about Hafez, and perhaps what she knows about herself: “i am most afraid of having nothing/ to bring back so i never come home.” (Mar.)