Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The War Works Hard"

Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi woman poet whose collection, The War Works Hard, should be required reading for anyone looking to get a sense of political poetry today. Most of the poems in this collection were written between 1985 and 2004, and so they cover three wars--the Iran-Iraq War, and both US-Iraq wars, as well as the period of the debilitating sanctions between the two US wars, and she writes with devastating honesty and a sharp wit.

My favorite of the collection is the title poem, largely because it is so painfully sarcastic. Mikhail has a simple metaphor at play--the war does so much for us and yet we give it no credit--but she holds nothing back in her descriptions.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
award 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,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters
And so on.

Part of the reason this, and the other poems that deal with the second Gulf war are so interesting is because they are ambivalent at best about the invasion. Mikhail was obviously no fan of the Hussein regime--she's part of a Christian minority in the country and was so frightened for her life that she fled, first to Jordan and then to the US. And yet, she is critical of the US invasion. Another of her poems, "An Urgent Call," addresses Lynndie England, best known as the soldier in the Abu Ghraib photos.
Hurry up, Lynndie,
go back to America now....
Don't worry,
we will send an email to God
to tell Him
that the barbarians
were the solution.
Don't worry.
Take a sick leave
and release your baby
from your body,
but don't forget
to hide those terrible pictures,
the pictures of you dancing in the mud.
Keep them away
from his or her eyes.
Hide them, please.
You don't want your child to cry out;
The prisoners are naked...

It's not an easy book to read, but it's worth the effort.

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