The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser review – darting between two worlds

Who is the wild fox of Yemen? I busied myself with a form of foxhunting as I read on through Threa Almontaser’s extraordinary debut collection. She is a Yemeni born in the US and uses her in-between position to the full. Her poems are written with ambidextrous energy, acknowledging New York, gravitating towards Yemen and employing two languages: English and Arabic. One of the most original things about them is the use of transliterated – untranslated – Arabic words. You might need your mobile at hand to Google vocabulary as you read – from fajr (dawn prayer) per gahwa (brew of coffee) per miswak (twig with which to clean your teeth). Each Arabic word acts like a tiny perforation through which, as you translate, light pours. (At times, she offers Arabic script as well.) What is fascinating about the decision not to supply translation is that it turns the English-speaking reader into a foreigner. We become, at several removes, go-betweens as we learn about life in Yemen, its beauty and its suffering.

There is a fox of sacrifice, a dream creature – perhaps an image of Yemen itself, predicted to be, di 2022, the poorest country in the world. But a fox is also a scavenger, not irrelevant in this context. In her opening salvo, Hunting Girliness, she disdains conventional femininity, her stand brought on by violent global events. She declares that, after the twin towers fell, she “wore/ the city’s hatred as hijab”. The economy of the phrase amplifies its shocking effect. There is a sense, pure, in which Almontaser herself is the fox, giving predators the slip in Shaytan Sneaks Bites of My Tuna Sandwich: “I am still afraid to stay out after sundown. They might follow me home/ as an animal.” But it is the fox of language that is wildest of all. In Heritage Emissary, she describes her father reminiscing in Arabic about “catching a wild fox with his cousin”. She observes that Arabic is “the medium through which his body can return home”.

The immersion in words – she never under-writes – is a varied adventure. There is a gorgeous poem, Stained Skin, in which she describes her 12-year-old self dying her left hand with henna and salutes her patient aunts waiting for their decorative art to work, reclining on couches, turning “lanky limbs” into “a mysterious mural”. Issues about belonging remain complicated. Visiting Yemen with her father, Almontaser turns “alien” into a verb to explain how she feels: “I/ alien my way into his country to make it mine.”

Some of the most powerful moments in this book, illustrated with sober black-and-white photos of (one guesses) her parents and her childhood self, explore her relationship with Arabic and its elusiveness. Recognized Language begins: “Where did my old words go, my first words? I found my native speech like a trap/ door, the Arabic softening my fall.” She is determined not to let her mother tongue slip: “I swear I’ll fishnet/ pronouns so fast, swallow adjectives whole… ” Throughout, the language of consumption – devouring, tasting, swallowing whole – contrasts with her account of Yemen and the desperate hunger there.

Hunger Wraps Himself is a harrowing poem. It might include the light respite of imagining Allah giving kids “stomachs solace and shish-kebabs” but it then strikes without warning, moving on to the tale of how she bought a man lamb dumplings: “He returns half, says,/ We don’t eat to be filled. We eat to not go/ Hungry.” In the same poem she declares: “I peel the skin off everything, even the grapes.” As a poet she does this too – a wild fox must survive.

Found napping in your purse means you will bump into your younger self
trekking through a botanical garden, searching for an apology.

A tail plucked and pinned to your hijab means an uncle will beg you to
marry his son, bring him across the ocean where he won’t know hunger.

I can’t stop eating, even the spines – they shred my throat, tongue a raw
copper. I have stopped apologizing with intention. Get myself a triple
cheeseburger, bacon this time. Very American. Because that’s what I am
adesso, giusto? Tripping over familiar shapes on an empty road, dizzy from
the shisha and the pork, thinking headlights look holy from afar. How easy
to make a thing all wrong. Most of my cousins are dying. The littlest leads
me by the hand into a cave streaked with limestone, handprints, a swollen
matriarchy. I find our famished ancestors cooking beside orange tatters. Nel
their circle, a fox, her body ready for the fire.

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