Monday, July 27, 2009

The War Works Hard [Al Harb Ta Malu Bi Jid], Dunya Mikhail

I've been meaning to read The War Works Hard, but in typical Delirium's Library fashion its place on the "degree of urgency" pile (thanks to Gareth Evans for the phrase, and SF Said for the concept) got shifted around as I went to a jammy new indie bookstore - Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market, where the manager was busy a) selling large numbers of books and b) receiving "welcome to the 'hood" champagne from Moro (as an indie bookseller manquée, I'm not sure which is more incredible) - and got distracted. Still, there's nothing like a bracing read of John Berger's and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, one of my Clerkenwell purchases, to re-engage the mind with seriousness, poetry and war. Berger is one of the great vectors of poetry in translation to English-speaking audiences, especially poetry from Turkey and the Middle East, championing Nazim Hikmet and Mahmoud Darwish among others. In and our faces, he writes that
Poems, regardless of outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
and our faces is a collection of meditations written for New Society and The Village Voice in the early 1980s and published in 1984. Bloomsbury reprinted it in 2005, when the metaphor of poetry on the battlefield had become overwhelmingly urgent.

That urgency is something that Carol Ann Duffy bravely tried to address this weekend with a series of commissioned poems addressing the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, published in the Guardian Review. The article takes its title, "Exit Wounds," from the pithiest and -- to my mind -- best poem in the selection, Paul Muldoon's "Afghanistan":
It's getting dark, but not dark enough to see
An exit wound as an exit strategy.
Maybe it's the couplet's brisk echo of soundbite and spin, of rock lyric and football terrace, that makes it the most successful of the contributions for me. It's a slogan but not a simple one, with an elegance and doubledness that makes it poetry. The changes rung on the dark, and the changes of scale from wound to war, are mordant and compassionate. Its stance is fierce and observant, rather than gushing with the liberal pieties that mar almost every other contribution (with Daljit Nagra's obscene paralleling of the break-up of his marriage and the long-running wars being the nadir). Alan Jenkins' scabrous "Descent" - a pastiche of Dante's Inferno - and Carol Ann Duffy's "Big Ask" (in memory of Adrian Mitchell) both bring a wide and vivid point-of-view, using poetic traditions to structure and amplify their rage and humanity. But Mitchell's voice is sorely missed amongst this crowd, not least for his ability - like Muldoon's - to work (with and against) the voice of media and popular culture. A contribution from Michael Rosen wouldn't have gone amiss: his poem "In Gaza, children" offered a YouTube generation wake-up call earlier this year, and showed him as perhaps the only current British occasion poet with both the soapbox and the style to speak up.

Rosen's committed stance, as a Jewish anti-Zionist, is perhaps what the poets assembled by Duffy lack. They have all been silent, at least publicly, until asked to go on record, and few -- if any -- appear to have a defined position. Given that contemporary British writers (Amis, McEwan) have raised swords as what Ziauddin Sardar brilliantly called the Blitcons, perhaps that's for the best -- but the poems in the Guardian use the lyric mode not to walk the battlefield tending and recording the wounded, but to frame it aesthetically, to build monuments to the writers' own grief. When Clare Shaw writers that "It Could Have Been" her child killed in Iraq, or an Iraqi child who survived in London, her universalising parallel avoids addressing her complicity, as (I presume) a British voter and taxpayer in favour of a frankly McGonogall-esque catalogue of sentimentality. It's hard to write a poem on commission about a subject as overwhelming as a war -- and what Shaw's poem, like Jo Shapcott's, tries to suggest is the insidious and omnipresent quality of these two wars that are being fought at a distance, for unclear goals. Duffy begins her article by reminding the reader that previous generations of war poets fought in wars: the current generation (of Anglo-American poets, anyway) watches war on TV. Her introduction leaves implicit the changing class histories of the military, education and poetry publishing, as well as the radical transformation of global warfare, that have created such a circumstance, and she also fails to raise the question of why these poets have not spoken out before -- and, moreover, about whether she considered seeking out Iraqi or Afghan poets living in the UK to contribute.

It's not that Iraq and Afghanistan have gone unheralded in poetry: there were multiple rapid-response anthologies (mainly from small presses and leftist poets) and Poets Against War continues to publish work online. Their poet of the month is Ibrahim Nasrallah (translated by Rick London and Omnia Amin), a Palestinian poet and journalist. Like Mikhail (whose work I will get to in a minute, promise) Nasrallah is a "war" poet by circumstance, but also by choice, whereas the poets selected by Duffy write as if they have made the difficult and negotiable choice to deign to be implicated in, and confronted by, war, as opposed to revealing, unconditionally, that it is now part of our daily lives. This stance of condescension reminds me of something Eliot Weinberger said in February 2003, when he was speaking to the “Poetry is News” conference organised by Anne Waldman and Ammiel Alcalay:
People who are poets presumably know something abut writing. So why does it never occur to them to write something other than poems? There are approximately 8000 poets registered in the Directory of American Poets—are there even four or five who have written an article against the Bush Administration?… Why must poetry magazines always be graveyards of orderly tombstones of poems?

Like Berger, Weinberger has been a vector -- as translator, essayist, journalist and speaker -- for poetry in translation, and particularly for poets who are intellectually engaged in confronting, challenging and documenting the effects of war. The phrase "war poet" contains a multitude, and Weinberger does not shy from deconstructing the narcissistic pieties of writers such as Carolyn Forché ("Reading El Salvador," Works on Paper). He could be describing most of Duffy's commissions when he writes of Forché's work that it is "written to a formula... addressed in the first person [and]... elegiac, nostalgic, melancholic, filled with references to distant, violent events. The essay ends with an excoriation that marks the very difficult and narrow line walked by any Western liberal poet looking to record the atrocities of war and our own sense of impotence and despair in the face of them:
To presume to "link arms," to declare oneself equal, with those who have endured such torment; to speak to people who will be corpses in the morning and claim that you too are digging deep into your own death - if that means anything at all - and that you have done all you could do: it is more than naïveté or audacity. It is the liberal side of colonialism... For Forché, civil war is an emblem of guilt... She is the kind of political poet produced in the age of the personal crisis.

What, then, is a poet to do? Perform a poetic version of Sacha Baron Cohen's lifestyling disguises in order to find a place from which to speak "authentically" -- because that could seem to be where I'm heading by/towards Dunya Mikhail, to say "Only an Iraqi poet can speak legitimately and convincingly about [ie: for] Iraq." It's not. Some of Mikhail's poems, such as the well-known title poem "The War Works Hard" (read it on, along with two other poems from the book) are alive with ironies and horrors embedded in detailed observation, in a kind of closeness to the subject matter. Mikhail's plangent innocences, her simple declarative style, poses a hard-won clarity: a double-edged blade that cuts reader and poet equally. In other poems, the simplicity feels reductive -- perhaps because the translation (and Elizabeth Winslow's translation is pellucid almost to the point of invisible) cannot convey the delicate and radical work that Mikhail is doing in Arabic, reworking traditions, metaphors, wordplay.

The poems are undated, so it's hard in some cases to tell what the immediate motive or root of an individual poem might be, and therefore to delve into theories as to whether the poetry loses its emphasis after Mikhail leaves Iraq for the US in 1996. But two recent poems suggest that the division isn't that simple: "Inanna" and "An Urgent Call" (addressed to Lynndie England) have a febrile immediacy, an engaged energy, that deals exactly in the territory of watching the war on TV. Inanna, widely worshipped in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), was famously considered the forerunner of Aphrodite as a goddess of love, but she was also a member of the Sumerian war pantheon. In Mikhail's poem, she speaks both love and war, and the strange relationship between the two created by new media that allow the viewer to observe the battlefield without being near enough to cross it, or to bring succour. Watching from afar, Inanna sees her "old neighbors / on the TV / running / from bombs, / sirens / and Abu Al-Tubar [a burglar and murder, nicknamed 'the hatchet man', whose rule of terror in Baghdad occurred in 1973 at the same time as the Kzar coup and threatened the control of the Ba'ath party]."

Inanna watches her "new neighbors / on the sidewalks / running / for their morning exercises." The exact physicality of the comparison works like Muldoon's neat couplet, overlaying two images rendered disparate not by scale but by location and situation. The absurdity is implicit rather than voiced, displaced into the larger absurdity of Inanna's situation "here / thinking of the relationship / between the mouse and the computer": this is the crucial turning point in the poem, from Inanna's stance as observer to her sense of implication, as she starts yelling through the screen at the looters on both sides: "Behave, you sons of the dead!" The relationship between the mouse and the computer is one that I don't think about that often, but Mikhail's Inanna suggests that it's a useful one for thinking about the relationship of the poet to the world. The computer (world) can function without the mouse, even without an operator: it goes on processing, glitching, being remotely commanded, running to programme. But the mouse (poet) may not derive her power from the computer, but certainly derives her purpose.

So poet as navigator, as pointer, as executor of actions. I've been part of some discussions recently about whether "point-and-click" politics and charity are all they are cracked up to be: does signing an online petition imply the same kind of commitment as going on a march or writing a letter? But digital democracy is ripe with potential (something Weinberger exploits by circulating his articles via listservs and email) and also as a model for a new poetics, something Juliana Spahr investigates in thisconnectionofeveryonewithlungs, the finest poem I've read about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Mikhail, Spahr suggests the poet as mouse, directing the reader to this story and that, building an alternative web within the web, always on the move. A click of the mouse may not be a long walk to freedom, but as a model for "war" poetry, its questing intelligence, its ability to highlight, choose, and act has a brilliant balance of observation and agency. It can leads the reader (and poet) into the screen, into communication with the impossibly distant warriors and civilians trapped behind the glass, towards something more considered than a false alliance predicated on "It Could Have Been", something more mobile and immediate than a monument. Mikhail, in her stance as "war" poet and war goddess, is defiantly the mouse that roared.

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