I was in Cúirt the other week to give a reading and to enjoy some of the fare on offer. I read with Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi poet currently based in Michigan. She speaks and writes in three languages: Arabic, English and Aramaic. The Aramaic comes from her Christian background – Aramaic, the language Christ spoke, is the language of the Chaldeans, the Iraqi Christians who pre-date Islam. Mikhail has published five books since the 1980s, and New Directions publishes The War Works Hard , translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow (winner of a 2004 PEN translation Fund Award). Carcanet will publish it in July of this year. As that title implies Mikhail’s chief subject is war. The poems are blunt and satiric and return obsessively to war and its effects, not surprising for a body of work produced between 1985 and 2004.
Born in 1965, at the juncture of the most atrocious campaign the Baath party waged to trounce the smallest pockets of popular resistance, Dunya Mikhail’s imagination was saturated with horror stories of imprisonment, torture, death, disappearances, massacres, and rape; she was surrounded by uprootedness and endless wars.
(Saadi Simawe, Introduction to The War Works Hard)
Again according to Simawe, her work is fresh and innovative in the Arabic literary tradition: '.... in her poems, the Arabic language is liberated from traditional clichés of idiom and of style...' The following lines are from the title poem, written in Baghdad though not published until after the poet emigrated to the US in 1996:
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
between killer and killed...
The poems in The War Works Hard are like this, direct, sardonic, downbeat, stripped of rhetoric or grandiosity. 'War poet' is a hard tag to bear, it tends to excite a fake kind of excited attentivness rather than the genuine attention that all poetry needs. Mikhail is a poet whose subjects happen, because of the sheer pressure of circumstance, to include war and the absence, loss and separation that come from it.
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.
Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky.....
....If anyone stumbles across it,
return it to me, please.
Please return it, sir.
Please return it, madam.
It is my country. . .
I was in a hurry
when I lost it yesterday.
The War Works Hard.Translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow.Introduction by Saadi Simawe. New Directions,2005.
Dunya Mikhai's site