A POET’S PROSE: Islanders by Ammiel Alcalay132 Pages. City Lights Books, San Francisco 2010 Reviewed by David Henderson
Ammiel Alcalay has been closer to war than most contemporary poets. His late father, a painter, spent time in an Italian concentration camp during World War Two. His son, Ammiel, having accrued fluency in several languages along the way, has translated important works on the Israeli wars of occupation of Palestine and the wars between Croatia and the Serbs. He has worked as a mechanic, a small-business manager, and a professor at CUNY. He is also an important activist poet on the New York City literary scene.
His impressive first novel, Islanders, takes place at a distance from war, except for a hint of Vietnam and a snatch of a World War Two concentration camp. It exists in a peaceful homeland within seemingly peaceful surroundings. This landscape of memory recurs in images that dissolve into small scenarios that play against the barrenness of a legendary and highly symbolic portion of North America—the New England coast, as if it were, but ultimately is not, an original place-name. There is an older name to this region, as forgotten as are its original peoples, and the current name denotes an imperial act that by now seems like ancient history. Here, that imperial narrative continues as a touching and often harsh present. The characters are small-town America inhabitants whose ordinary acts within the human orb build a pleasing mosaic.
Some of Alcalay’s earlier collections combined poetry and prose—most notably From the Warring Factions (2002) and Scrapmetal (2007). Islanders appears to be straight prose, yet poetic structure is essential to its departure from the traditional novel, allowing for a wealth of sensory detail that brilliantly delivers this story of the return of a man named Sam to the place of his coming-of-age.
Sam makes connections between what he discovers and what has been in his head all of his life. The unspectacular, ordinary peace exists along with expressions of malaise. He confronts his past in present time.
Sam often meanders along, always near the shore, in his old pickup truck, visiting homes or places to eat or drink, and he wanders along the seashore, as if being transported in segments of a recurring dream. These images—often the same length as a moment of contemplation or a still photo—bring forth sequences that could be filmic yet with jagged dissolves and shifts in tempo.
Sam shifts among the sparse common bonds of the special women and men of his hometown—singular and as group buddies and sometimes extended family—who are here and now and form a cache of images that comprise his experience. He developed from boy to man in this place, the landscape of his return.
Now Sam comprehends the inner workings he began to sense as a boy— sitting in abandoned cars and trucks, playing; watching freight trains roll through town; or standing on the shore watching the fishing boats and then later helping to man them. Sam enjoys the memory of his early jobs: auto mechanic, trucking manager, deckhand on a small ferryboat that took passengers and cars, crates of fresh caught fish, furniture, or whatever needed to be transported across the water—all in a day’s work.
The girls, the women, named and unnamed, become a single force, in many ways one woman. Childhood play and adult cohabitation—all are united by moments preserved in Sam’s mind:
“A long dark hallway led to the boiler room. On both sides of the hall doors opened into small rooms and sometimes she waited for him. He’d have to check them all and then she’d sneak around in the back of him and flip the lights off in the hall and get back in one of the rooms he’d already checked. He could hear her voice and her feet as she’d go through one of the rooms with adjoining doors, flatten herself against a wall and scream as he came through. When he finally got a hold of her they’d wrestle on the cement floor. She was big, not fat, but big and strong, and she’d beat him when they wrestled, lying on top of him in the pitch black, the steam heat hissing from the boiler beneath her breath. . . . He made her follow and by the time she wondered where he’d been he jumped her from behind and they wrestled to the floor again giggling and shrieking.”
The destiny of play and the reality of relationship are clear.
“The cool air on their backs and their walk in the coarse chilled sand seemed vague to him now, a moment in a movie he might have seen as a child. He referred again and again to what seemed his last surviving hold, a vast catalogue of references that she could never know the order of. Randomly, beginning at the end of the beach, working her way to the other end, she wanted to count the rocks jutting out of the water. Or ride a horse down the beach. A way to say what they wanted, whether in cars, or houses, a return to something they thought they might have had . . . sometimes I wake up crying, she said, water hitting the windshield).”
Lost love, in common variations. Sam is emotionally tied to women, present or past—girls or buddies drifted away or dead, and they comprise perhaps the most meaningful of the tales of the near sea, a place built on the livelihood of fishermen, ancient workers, those on the shore or within the extended town, so often looking out to sea or looking back in time or in a special present, perhaps the same as looking within.
And there are the machines of common industry. The parallel lives of workmen, often in a crew, some operating machines that can kill or maim “in winches, dropped trailers, exploding acetylene tanks . . .” Bodies within machines that move, and that transport. Such movement is easily taken for granted, whether driving or flying or sailing, yet it creates a visual: the human body in actual movement, the acceleration to places within the velocity of the mind.
Toward the denouement, the narrative dissolves into stories that depart from the structured skein, introducing new characters. They are the kinds of stories that might become legends, or perhaps simply remain as stories about a period in the life of people connected by varying degrees, tales of what comprises a town of human beings tied to the sea, as if marooned on the mainland.
Islanders is magically concise, a bigger book than it would seem by its actual size. In its choices of details of experience it exhibits a fascinating sensibility that often makes use of keen attack and sly, subtle poetic devices within a seemingly seamless structure. It is a journey to go along on, but not necessarily to understand—any more than Sam can convey it. Yet the workings of this place are so well set within the seemingly casual narrative that they do not overwhelm, but suffuse, using shifting patterns and subtle rhythms of sequence to build from memory, images, and tales a powerful prose and poetic totality.