art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail.

dunya1/Dunya Mikhail, photo via Vimeo/

Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail continues to amaze me. I recently read The War Works Hard, Mikhail’s first poetry collection translated to English (beautifully translated by Elizabeth Winslow). The War Works Hard was also the first translation of poems by a female Iraqi poet published in the United States (it was published in 2005).

The poems in this collection were written between 1985 and 2004, during the two decades of mainly sad and painful moments for Iraq and its people. Years of war working hard. In a poem I was in a hurry, Mikhail writes:

Yesterday I lost a country.

I was in a hurry,

And didn’t notice

When it fell from me

Like a broken branch from a forgetful tree

dunya

Mikhail was born in Iraq in 1965. While working as a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, she faced increasing threats from the authorities and fled first to Jordan and then to the United States in the late 1990s. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing.

When you first look at it, Mikhail’s poetry might seem very simple, but she manages to achieve so much with so little. Her writing is gentle, bare, unadorned, direct. The language is pointed, stark. There’s so much beauty, honesty and love in that – it’s moving, it’s thoughtful and respectful. It’s caring.

In a poem Prisoner, Mikhail writes:

She doesn’t understand

The prisoner’s mother doesn’t understand

Why she should leave him

Just because

“The visit is over”

I am thankful to Dunya Mikhail for continuing to write (Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea was published in 2009, Iraqi Nights in 2014), and to Elizabeth Winslow and Kareem James Abu-Zeid for translating Mikhail’s work and making it available for more readers everywhere.

I hope to read more of Mikhail’s new poetry, but I am also sure I will go back to The War Works Hard many times in the future. I’d go back, even if it was only for this verse:

You planted pomegranates and prisons

round, red and full.

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

Desert Songs Of The Night

In The Country Of Men

After Zionism

The French Intifada

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art of resistance, Iraq

Dunya Mikhail: Tablets.

dymaxion/artwork by the amazing Hayv Kahraman/

The following is a poem Tablets by the great Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. I am posting it together with the great artwork by the Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman. Coming from Iraq, both of these great women have dealt with otherness, with being a refugee, with giving and leaving a part of yourself (forever). See it in their work, acknowledge it, respect it, remember it.

.

She pressed her ear against the shell:
she wanted to hear everything
he never told her.
.
A single inch
separates their two bodies
facing one another
in the picture:
a framed smile
buried beneath the rubble.
.
Whenever you throw stones
into the sea
it sends ripples through me.
.
bagage
.
My heart’s quite small:
that’s why it fills so quickly.
.
Water needs no wars
to mix with water
and fill up spaces.
.
The tree doesn’t ask why it’s not moving
to some other forest
nor any other pointless questions.
.
He watches tv
while she holds a novel.
On the novel’s cover
there’s a man watching tv
and a woman holding a novel.
.
blowing1
.
On the first morning
of the new year
all of us will look up
at the same sun.
.
She raised his head to her chest.
He did not respond:
he was dead.
.
The person who gazed at me for so long,
and whose gaze I returned for just as long . . .    
That man who never once embraced me,
and whom I never once embraced  . . .    
The rain wrecked the colors around him
on that old canvas.
.
He was not with the husbands
who were lost and then found;
he did not come with the prisoners of war,
nor with the kite that took her,
in her dream,
to some other place,
while she stood before the camera
to have her smile
glued into the passport.
.
Hayv-Kahraman-part2-10
.
Dates piled high
beside the road:
your way
of  kissing me.
.
Rapunzel’s hair
reaching down
from the window
to the earth
is how we wait.
.
The shadows
the prisoners left
on the wall
surrounded the jailer
and cast light
on his loneliness.
.
Homeland, I am not your mother,
so why do you weep in my lap like this
every time
something hurts you?
.
Never mind this bird:
it comes every day
and stops at the branch’s edge
to sing for an hour
or two.
That’s all it does:
nothing makes it happier.
.
House keys,
identity cards,
faded pictures among the bones . . .    
All of these are scattered
in a single mass grave.
.
2_1
.
The Arabic language
loves long sentences
and long wars.
It loves never-ending songs
and late nights
and weeping over ruins.
It loves working
for a long life
and a long death.
.
Far away from home — 
that’s all that changed in us.
.
Cinderella left her slipper in Iraq
along with the smell of cardamom
wafting from the teapot,
and that huge flower,
its mouth gaping like death.
.
Instant messages
ignite revolutions.
They spark new lives
waiting for a country to download,
a land that’s little more
than a handful of dust
when faced with these words:
“There are no results that match your search.”
.
The dog’s excitement
as she brings the stick to her owner
is the moment of opening the letter.
.
We cross borders lightly
like clouds.
Nothing carries us,
but as we move on
we carry rain,
and an accent,
and a memory
of another place.
.
How thrilling to appear in his eyes.
She can’t understand what he’s saying:
she’s too busy chewing his voice.
She looks at the mouth she’ll never kiss,
at the shoulder she’ll never cry on,
at the hand she’ll never hold,
and at the ground where their shadows meet.
.
• • •
.
This poem was translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
All of the artwork (paintings and illustrations) is by the amazing Hayv Kahraman – visit her official website for more. For more on the poetry of Dunya Mikhail, visit her official website and the Poetry Foundation.
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