Iraqi Nights

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested in past reviews, rests with poets who seem hell-bent on insulating their art from the community at large, which is why Dunya Mikhail’s work, which work sin so much the opposite manner, is always such a pleasure. It’s enough to get me screaming back into the void.

Mikhail’s previous collection, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, arrived not to push the possibilities of poetry—there’s a prevalent wrongheaded belief that poets have a responsibility to always explore uncharted territory—but to remind readers why we go to poetry in the first place. Comprised of separate approaches, mostly written out of necessity (the section composed in Iraq being considerably more coded), the achievement of that book is that it encompasses disparate styles that communicate the poet’s experience with equal success. Nothing new, just fine writing.

And now we have Iraqi Nights, the latest collection from Mikhail translated into English and published by New Directions (God bless them). Similar to Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, Iraqi Nights is mostly a collection of themed poems, the first being a telling of Ishtar’s capture while shopping for a gift for her lover, Tammuz. These and later poems coupled with sketches of Sumerian tablets weave the theme of the Thousand and One Nights with the realities of Iraqi life:

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.

Here we have Mikhail as modern day Scheherazade, though the stories she tells will not prolong the danger. Spinning tales born of myths and history both ancient and modern, Mikhail presents a harrowing account of a culture in decline, a sacred land turned savage. And, in keeping with past work, she counters these accounts with a picture of absurd life in the U.S.:

“Paper or plastic?”
I’m not sure how to respond.
I wish I’d had such a choice
in more pressing matters
long ago
when I was in a country
that cared less
about our choices
or what kind of bags we used.

These short, clear statement poems should appeal to readers of Wisława Szymborska, another poet who managed to find direct avenues to communicating profundities. It is this direct language that allows for truer innovations and communication. Rather than saddle language with all of the work, the poet scales back linguistic trickery and offers readers a clearer view into her experience. Part of this may be the result of translation. To be sure, readers of international poetry must trust translators to render not only the words but the feel of the poems into English, and I have no doubt that Kareem James Abu-Zeid has done just that; the poems are of varying levels of ambition and size, but a singular voice remains constant, one that encompasses a staggering amount of history and condenses it into uncluttered, haunting work.

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