Table of Contents



Tom Haviv, A Flag of No Nation, Jewish Currents Press, 2019

Reviewed by Rachel Kaufman

[Review Guidelines]



How does a story break?
     Tom Haviv's A Flag of No Nation begins with a mythology of creation, of eyes ripped out and thrown into the ocean to become islands: "wake forms" (22). It is this work, of wrenching and re-imagining, that this book of history, poetry, and political dreaming enacts. Haviv reveals the capabilities and limitations of storytelling across diaspora as he wrestles with the question: how can poetry serve as an instrument of both dreaming and action? What can we forge "beyond the walls of political imagination?" (10). Haviv demonstrates, through wide-reaching form and a confident poetic voice, how much we must hold and how much we must leave behind in order to approach a new kind of futurity.
     A Flag of No Nation grapples with the stories of Turkish Jews in the twentieth-century, tracing threads of migration, nationalism, and myth-making. Haviv grounds his exploration of political history in oral histories of his family, specifically of his grandmother. Haviv's text, emerging from a grandchild's will to record, lays bare the burden, the covenant, and the hope of the child's and grandchild's duty "to recount, to record, to describe" their ancestors' stories (27). Description serves as balm as much as it serves as distraction from memory, from longings for homeland. Haviv's grappling with the powers and limits of poetry are inscribed on the surface of the poems: poetry is, all at once, a temporary salve and a means to disillusionment, a method towards action, and a means to preserve history and memory. We use language to heal as well as to harm; we use our transmitted stories as a means to preservation and a means to destruction. A Flag of No Nation reveals that we do, and must, hold these powers in the same hand. Laura Levitt writes of the act of holding that objects cannot survive without us. Behind every object is a hand, a cataloging mind, an impulse for preservation. The actions which accompany holding—preservation of story from grandmother to grandchild, preservation of nostalgia from old home to new island—arrives with its fill of responsibility. Who are we accountable to when we transmit our families' stories?
     In the opening section of the book, the island born of wrenched eyes becomes an island of enslavement, of silver children and un-silvered children, of exploitation of the land and of its people. It is in this moment that language fails: "the child-who-wasn't-silver seemed to hear [the words of the silver child, the enslaved worker], but couldn't find the words to respond" (37). Utopia turns to dystopia in only a generation or two, as each generation is hungry for something new (description turned reproduction turned silver). Haviv's book forces all inheritors and keepers of ancestral story to reckon with language's transformation into hunger. Where are the borders between our desire for preservation, for home and shelter and story, and our desire for triumph, for possession and creation at the cost of displacement? A Flag of No Nation reveals that these desires exist startlingly close together.
     The work is filled with moments of sonic wonder, often placed in the same breath as the violence of empire and the thrust of generational colonialism. The children of the blind parents sing of the land, and the poet interjects: "After the shore / of empire / After empire / After the song of empire / After the song of sense / After the song of / After the shore of / After the song of / After the shore of the song / After the shore of the song of the shore of the song" (31). Haviv demonstrates the ways in which beauty and sound can brush up so easily against violence; hope and destruction are ever intertwined. Haviv writes of love as surpassing language: "He had no name. / and he had no name / he and he had no name / had no name, he and he..." (45). Namelessness serves as a certain resolution against possession: "I'm sorry / for the violence / in my voice / I know / you have / it too" (46). The words sit lonely on the white page; Haviv gives us fullness only as he gives us absence.
     This awareness of silence and sound continues in part two of the book, in which Haviv retells his grandmother Yvette Haviv's spoken and written words, adding only line breaks to her tellings. Born in 1928 in Istanbul, Yvette tells her grandson the history of her family in Turkey in the twentieth century, of the Nazi invasion of Greece in 1941, of her participation in the early Zionist movement and her migration to Palestine, and before this, of the sea and the beach and her "eyes closed seeing / colors, eyes / opened eyes / closed" (64). We are given sight through sound, through poetic line and through the voice of a grandson as he occasionally interjects, as he attempts to near the past his grandmother describes. Haviv gives us, through his grandmother's voice, the gift of memories frozen in time. Even as the book unfurls and interrogates the duties, burdens, and joys of transmission, moments in Yvette's stories, relayed with little intervention, arrive in the present untouched and precious, a window into a past world with few survivors. Yvette's words are beautiful poems: "A dream I remember now: / I stand on the shore of a sea, ocean—/ water covering / my feet ... I want to advance, walk / and throw myself in, to swim and swim and / swim as far as possible—the way I used to / lose my body in the / water..." (89). The rhythms of Haviv's poetry and Yvette's poetry echo one another; we are gifted a continuity that is only beauty.
    "How does / a story break?" Haviv asks in the opening to section three, "Ladder | Allegiance" (106). In wrenching poems that break across the page, this section captures the impossibility of the moment of the thrown eye. Every city at another's expense, every creation a result of destruction—the story breaks. Haviv allows us to see his wrestling, and in this bareness, he is able to transmit complexity and evade erasure:

we are here because


they behave this way because


they set fires


our destiny is to


we deserve this place


this is how one survives



when the story you were told

becomes brittle

                                    & breaks / barak / breaks / bracha

                                                    breaks ("IV," 112)


Broken story collapses into history in section four, "An Arrow A Wing": "the Jews in Turkey watched the destruction of Jewish Salonika—many of whom had family there, many of whom were born there...The Nazis would never invade Istanbul" (138). Yvette's husband, Izzy, goes almost fully blind in 1959. Familial history and national history meet each other in broken sight:

To break a story—
must you

believe in a story

too much?
Or not at all?

Is it to know

some memory

follows us
so far
we wonder
will it follow
our children and their children?

Or will it
on the imagined border of
this white
page? (146)

Imagination turns into "studies for an exercise in world creation," as Haviv quotes Sol LeWitt. The final sections of the book, "A Flag of No Nation" and "Hamsa Flag," deliver a flag wrapped in the body and holding a poem. In a series of rectangular poems, the flag is revealed to be made of breath, air, perception: a photograph of Yvette's face, turned sideways, a younger hand held in her older hand; "lift the corners of body. Higher. Under the / banner of darkness, we share new light. We practice" (179). The Hamsa Flag centers around the open palm (Haviv earlier writes that he would place new eyes, if given a second set, in his open palm so that he could open and close them when he wanted). The flag serves as a symbol for a movement that would aspire to "something new. a world to come" (186). Its uses and forms are unanswered; the book ends with questions given to the reader, inviting shared imagination.
     A Flag of No Nation ends, as it begins, with sight and blindness: "the full tenderness of unknowing" meets, through broken vision, "all the loves to be" (195). Haviv has given us a book which refuses to know more than it unknows, which reveals sight as wound and balm in the same breath. With eyes turned to past and future at once, Haviv gives us story broken and whole and asks us to accompany him. A Flag of No Nation wrests language from its place in time and carries it towards an imagined homeland yet to be achieved but brimming with vision.