In Invasive species, Marwa Helal’s searing politically charged poems touch on our collective humanity and build new pathways for empathy, etching themselves into memory. This work centers on urgent themes in our cultural landscape, creating space for unseen victims of discriminatory foreign (read: immigration) policy: migrants, refugees—the displaced. Helal transfers lived experiences of dislocation and relocation onto the reader by obscuring borders through language.
Marwa Helal has lived, not always by her own choice, both in Egypt and in America, belonging to both countries and to neither: “I have been missing home my entire life,” she writes. In the same way, Helal’s first and often stellar book belongs to many categories, and to none. It contains prose and verse; polemic and introspection; remixed pop lyrics and pellucid memoir; straightforward narration and constellated word games. The volume shows her powers — and her amply justified anger — in most of those forms. ~Stephanie Burt
Candid and confident about its ecosystems of influence, at times wildly omnivorous and polylingual, purposefully pedestrian at others, the lyrical avatar of Invasive species is one whose existential impulse seems to be rabid availability—to the poet’s multitude of peoples and places—negotiated crossways by a slick, uppercutting investment in infiltration rather than naturalization, divergence (not “diversity”), and didacticism as a form of information smuggling. ~Justin Phillip Reed
Physical, psycho-spiritual, and linguistic displacement form a nexus of poetic lines that course through this restless, memoiristic, and deeply felt debut from Helal. The book opens and closes with sections of short, plainspoken poems and blocks of runaway, breathless, form-shifting prose texts. Meanwhile, the core hinges on an abecedarian mini-memoir of Helal’s family emigration from Egypt to the U.S., and her subsequent travels back and forth as she navigates 912.5 days of a dehumanizing and bureaucratic visa process to remain in “A country that fakes left but passes a hard right.” Much of the collection takes place in cars, airports, waiting rooms; in dreams and songs; and in inventively reworked immigration documents. In this latter form, Helal reverses expectations (and syntax) and deflects the unidirectional flow of state authority with a biting sense of humor that jumps from threat to cartoonish mockery to near despair, her only constant a dead-aim of purpose: “these motherfuckers have a green card lottery while refugee babies wash up drowned at sea.” Drawing on influences as disparate as June Jordan, DJ Khaled, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics, Helal finds in poetry something that goes beyond resistance or balm, and might even approach hope. ~Publishers Weekly
This ambitious, groundbreaking book of poetry is the first full-length collection from poet and journalist Helal, who arrived in the U.S. from Egypt as a child and has experienced firsthand the violent policing of migration. Helal’s incisive lyrics cut to the core of persistent issues and explode boundaries between genres, combining sparse new forms with newspaper scans, blank maps, scholarly abstracts, and official correspondence. Centered around a long hybrid section called “Immigration as a Second Language,” Helal’s collection blends verse and prose, memoir and reportage to recount the troubled passage from Egypt, through customs, and back again, a process that requires breathing human beings to define themselves through bureaucracies over and over again. Footnotes and citations complicate the relationship between author, text, and audience, as the book defiantly refuses to categorize itself: “journalism is the work of the sleeping. poetry is the work of the dreaming.” Helal has succeeded in generating poetry that is uniquely African, Arabic, and American. Highly recommended, together with Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come for Us (2018) and Solmaz Sharif’s Look (2016) ~Diego Báez
Anger courses through this urgent new publication from Helal, which makes potently unconventional formal choices — including footnotes and citations, introducing the Arabic right-to-left and left-to-right approach to line-reading — to bolster its exploration of the immigrant and the “other.” ~David Canfield