One of Albert Einstein’s most well-known nonmath assertions is that “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” to which a reader of Hala Alyan’s The Twenty-Ninth Year could easily add—shaping and expressing that knowledge takes some imagination, too.
Alyan follows up her acclaimed 2017 fiction debut, Salt Houses, with a collection of poems that explores the intimate concept of aging through narratives that form a compelling, central admission: that the recklessness of youth and the experiences from which we create personal truth are necessary to the formation of wisdom. And that no definition is as self-taught or as personal as that of wisdom.
The poems assembled in The Twenty-Ninth Year tug “the humble out of something wild” with an elegant and stylish range of forms. Alyan moves through a bevy of ecstatic, formative moments—burgeoning alcoholism, anorexia, abrasive cultural dissonances, her own sexual identity and filial tension, all interwoven by the intensity of experience. In this process of gathering the past at the feet of the present, the emotional dynamic of how “every wound reveals its own repair” is a countenance of wisdom.
To what degree are we the authors of our own biographical fiction? The poem “New Year” raises this conundrum: “There was no / family emergency. There was no migraine . . ./ I made him up. I made it all up.”
To reveal yourself to yourself requires not only a vast amount of subject matter from which to draw but also its myriad sources and the struggle of imagination in composing the past from a position of witness. In “Transcend,” Alyan speaks to the fragments of truth and the labor of their recollection: “There are a hundred videos of the same moment shot from a hundred different angles. I watch every single one.” An arrival at the truth is important, but just as important, Alyan seems to say, is the manner in which we augment truth as we seek it.
The world threatens with hordes of hidden traumas, but our time and experience in these places, and with these events, carries wisdom. Alyan tells us nothing is completely hidden that still carries its story: “[our] bones are 206 instruments. There is a song in each one.”
Rilke’s aged lines from “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a poem rife with the judgment of life’s lashings, are a sincere summation of life, spoken with sincerity: “there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” But after three decades of bright and ecstatic youth, and distilling her own certainty from all of youth’s uncertainty, Alyan bestows: “There is no place you cannot sing.”