Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dunya Mikhail's war against war

Almost all modern poems about war are some fashion anti-war; while they cannot be faulted for this stance, war poems do not become better, as some poets seem to be believe, in direct proportion to the outrage that they voice about violence, bloodshed and injustice; in fact such poems sometimes voice no more than the author's politics, and thus really amount to a kind of low-grade sniping themselves.


But "The War Works Hard", a poem by the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail in the New Directions anthology of poetry World Beat, strikes me as the real thing. It is written, like many war poems, in an ironical mode, but its precise achievement is its skillful evocation of war as a kind of everpresent secret force or agent, working quietly and serenely, like a powerful leader or tycoon, and keeping long hours in its effort towards achieving its goals. Here it is in Elizabeth Winslow's translation:

The War Works Hard

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places
swings corpses through the air
rolls stretchers to the wounded
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins..
Some are lifeless and glistening
others are pale and still throbbing..
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters
urges families to emigrate
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)..
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
achieves equality
between killer and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

All the moves and gambits of combat, the scattered consequences of battle, the tremors felt in distant places and faraway hearts, the machinery of war support systems, the rhetoric and the propaganda, are traced back not to different sides and to individual players but to War itself, seemingly a force as insistent and powerful as life, in fact the very motor of human history. In fact Mikhail's verbs ("works" "sows", "reaps", "teaches", "paints") work rhetorically to normalise war, make it seem like any other worthwhile human activity. The speaking voice, clear-eyed and forceful, exhibits not the slighest trace of shock, but in doing so it forces us into shock. One could read the poem as being about both a specific war and all modern-day wars. It may be that a later generation judges it to be one of the great poems of our age.

More poems by Mikhail, who fled Iraq in the nineties after harassment by Saddam Hussein's regime and now lives in America, can be found here (note especially "The Prisoner") and here. "The War Works Hard" is also the title poem of a collection of Mikhail's poems brought out last year by New Directions, and named as one of the New York Public Library's 25 notable books of the year.

And as a sort of counterpoint, here are two very good essays by Stephen Romer and Robert Chandler on Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet who in his youth, about a hundred years ago, just before the First World War inaugurated the great killing fields of the twentieth century, found himself wildly excited, even enchanted, by the experience of war ("The sky is starred by the Boche's shells/The marvellous forest where I live is giving a ball/The machine gun plays a tune in three-fourths time ...") but who would later, bruised and jolted, write in a letter to his fiancee: "Imagine to what extent one is deprived in trench life of everything that joins you to the universe. One is simply a breast offering itself to the enemy".

Other posts on poets: Constantine Cavafy, Jorge Luis Borges, Nazim Hikmet, Attila Jozsef, Antonio Machado, and Osip Mandelstam.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

While I agree that an amplified degree of outrage does not necessarily make a poem better, and in fact advertises the poet’s politics, I can’t help feeling that it is a valid response to war.

The point is, when does it turn into poetry? It is hard to look past the horror

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - you've laid out the lines of the debate beautifully there. It is indeed hard to look past the horror and write poetry about it.

swar said...

keeping aside all literary ruminations and speaking from personal experiences, war reveals not only the impersonal world but also different levels of your own person that you never know existed. when you are at the end of a gun and not holding the trigger, you wait - either for death or compromises. if you die, there is nothing left of course. but if you live, the compromises you make become the foundation of your remaining life - either good or bad depending on how you look at it. outrage, irony, satire, philosophy etc that comes out in any war poetry (in the context of a living victim's or an exile's poetry) is a conscious and filtered result of how you have personally dealt with those compromises.

on a different note, do you have any good stuff on G B Stern? she of the 'Rakonitz' chronicles, written before the 2nd world war.

Chandrahas said...

Bem - Those are very good thoughts. As usual it is a pleasure to hear you. "If you live, the compromises you make become the foundation of your remaining life." An example of that might be the work of Primo Levi, whose writing I like very much.

But I have never heard of GB Stern. You write something about her.

Space Bar said...

Just sharing a poem that was in the 100 Poets Against The War anthology. I was especially struck by the way in which people upon whom war is made, write about it.

Waiting for the Marines
Fadel K Jabr
Translated from the Arabic original by the poet

Twelve years have passed
And the Iraqis are turning over
Like skewered fish
On the fire of waiting.

The first year of the sanctions
They said: The Arabs will come
They will come with love, flour, and the rights of kinship.
The year passed with its long seasons
The Arabs never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The second year of the sanctions
They said: The Muslims will come
They will come with rice, goodness, and the predators’ leftovers
The year passed with its long seasons
The Muslims never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The third year of the sanctions
They said: The world will come
They will come with manna, solace, and human rights
The year passed with its long seasons
The world never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The fourth year of the sanctions
They said: The Americans will come
They will come with hope, sugar, and warm feelings
The year passed with its long seasons
The Americans never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The fifth year of the sanctions
They said: The opposition will come
They will come with victories, water, and air
The year passed with its long seasons
The opposition never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The sixth year of the sanctions
They said: We will sell whatever is extra
We will be frugal until relief comes
The year passed with its long seasons
The Iraqis sold all unnecessary things
Relief never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The seventh year of the sanctions
They said: We will give up our semi-necessities
We will be patient until we get support
The year passed with its long seasons
The support never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The eighth year of the sanctions
They said: We will sell some of our organs
We will be strong until the coming of justice
The year passed with its long seasons
Justice never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The ninth year of the sanctions
They said: We will sell some of our children
We will sacrifice until the coming of mercy
The year passed with its long seasons
Mercy never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The tenth year of the sanctions
They said: We will emigrate
To the wide world of Allah
We will entertain ourselves with hope
Until the coming of the gods’ orders
The Iraqis separated east and west
The year passed with its long seasons
The gods’ orders never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The eleventh year of the sanctions
They said: The best thing for us is to die
We will stay settled in our graves
Until the coming of the day of judgement
The year passed with its long seasons
Cancer, tuberculosis, and leukæmia consumed their bodies
The day of judgement never came
And sent no explanation for the delay.

The twelfth year of the sanctions
The Iraqis found nothing to wait for
They said: Now is the time
For the earth’s worms to devour us
They might rescue us from this hell
Where we are turning over like skewered fish.