Exiles of Eden
by LADAN OSMAN
reviewed by VALERIE WALLACE
Coffee House Press, 2019
In Exiles of Eden, Ladan Osman’s eloquent second book of poetry, Eurydice is reimagined, but unlike the myth’s doomed wife of Orpheus, her voice is strong, her life sprung out of and beyond of her husband’s gaze. Somali born and American raised, Osman concerns her poems with the immigrant experience, though not in the way one might expect. Or maybe I should just say, not in the way I expected.
Through formal and experimental verse, she traverses the outlines and through lines of outsider-ness; she takes her reader inside a way of being in the world of that is never fully of it. She creates a place that is part underworld, part otherworld, and doesn’t really let the reader leave. I found this thrilling and disconcerting.
I knew enough of Osman's work to expect to take time with these poems. What I didn’t expect was the absolute transference of melancholy. I thought there would be more narrative, for some reason. Instead, photography (literally, photography), popular music, physics, Greek and Judeo-Christian myth, desire, violence, the sea, and memory inform extraordinary verse that works less as story and more as mature, full, informed insight. And a kind of bafflement. And there is, throughout, a wonderful sly humor. But Osman is also a restless and relentless writer.
Consider these opening lines, from the audacious “NSFW”:
I want us to get off before this computer screen sleeps.
I want to make a video and play it on a loop, let it ruin someone’s
I want to tell you I had a nightmare about Oscar Grant’s murder
before it happened.
I want you to believe me and turn me over and over. Say: This hole?
Here, pairing the killings of innocent black men with words of intimacy and desire, Osman has created a terrible beauty of entwined, and inhabited, longings.
One of the ways Osman achieves her discordant result is through repetition. There is, for example, the terrific poem “Half-Life” that includes the poem’s origin story of wanting to be a ghazal. But the writer can’t fit into the ancient Arabic form and the poem becomes something new entirely. The form that emerges contains memory of a ghazal—repeating lines, a kind of mysticism, allusion to the speaker’s name being called. But the poem that emerges is a new creature, one defined by its displacement from its beginning, and freshly vital.
There is a repetition of another sort which flows through the collection. It is the word “under”, with all its used combinations and versions; I found this to be an especially affecting choice, a kind of sonic pattern, an undulation.
Another variety of repetition happens in this manuscript, one which propels it forward (and perhaps also delightfully backwards?)—but because I don’t want to spoil the experience for the reader, I’ll just vaguebook that discovering its appearance is another one of the pleasures of encountering this collection.
Osman connects the long-term life to the immigrant experience, and in doing so, amplifies our understanding of what it means to be an immigrant who has lived most of her life in a country she was not born in. Exile here is a daily longing, a gift and curse of an outsider eye, an experience that grapples with the word “relative” in all its meanings.
We must grapple too, for example, when in “Practice with Yearning Theorem: Loci” Somalia is referent as a place both in distant memory and as a photograph on a screen. And then this reflection becomes a distance again, as the poem travels with the speaker’s husband to Iraq. A long time passes on the page through image and text after text and image. We are returned near the end to Somalia but only as language, and then the “sunder” a kind of surrender, to English.
In Somali, jab means break, fragment but also defeat or loss. The
meaning is closer to the motion I describe above, the one between
my joints and teeth and valves.
I sunder in a different language. My hope scatters in time. It’s true I’m
an alien here.
I used to say “after all” and mean, “at the end,” or, “finally.”
After all, America has broken my heart. This English is sufficient.
I want to briefly address the book’s title. Exiles from Eden may promise an origin story or persona poems about Adam and Eve; however, one of the pleasures of the book is finding that the title works on more levels. For example, there is the pairing of Eden and Somalia, or Eden as idealized marriage (or home). There are all the people who are exiles, both in the book, and the great human story that one book sits inside of.
Osman’s poems are full of circumstance, of declarations, and of absolutely stunning combinations of phrases. I think these qualities, and her use of long elegant forms, make the dislocation she performs so welcome. For these moments, for this reader, in her language, her home is found.
VALERIE WALLACE is the author of House of McQueen, which was published last year; it won the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry. See more at valeriewallace.net.