Dunya Mikhail: A War Poet?

The War Works Hard“Dunya Mikhail is generally known as a war poet” is the first line of an article I came to circuitously. What is a war poet? I thought. Is it like war photographer, war correspondent? War novelist? Dunya Mikhail is Iraqi and a poet, and she writes about war as it has touched her life. She has been a witness to two wars. Does that make her a war poet?

She also writes about love:

Mikhail said she often juxtaposes themes of love and war in her poems, noting the irony of the Arab word for “love,” which when changed by one letter, becomes the word “war.”

First the circuitous route: I was reading a surreal dream-story about the Iraq war, with the heading: “Iraqi teen’s Eagle Scout ceremony part of the ongoing ‘dream’ of living in the US.” It’s the heart-warming, conflicted-feelings tale of a teen who lost his leg in an attack in Iraq and found his home in the US. Yes, the war works hard. And as Dunya Mikhail puts it: here is an American dream of immigrant integration in a country that “bombs with one hand and shelters with the other.” 

From there I came upon Turmoil of war, memories of peace animate work of poet from Baghdad. Dunya Mikhail speaks there of war as a survivor:

“I mean, they say you survive a war, but the war also survives in your memory,” said Mikhail. “It’s the true survivor among us.”

Mikhail fled her country when she discovered her name was on Saddam Hussein’s list of enemies in 1995, after the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf War of 1992. Her first book was “Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea,” combining poems written in Iraq with autobiographical prose she wrote after she arrived in the US.

Divided into two parts, the memoir’s first section was written during the Iraq war and is more poetic, filled with metaphors and symbols, she said.  Hoping to avoid censorship, Mikhail said she used figurative language to embed her criticism of war beneath symbolism and imagery. The second part, which Mikhail wrote after she was exiled, is mostly direct prose and reflects her life in Baghdad and the United States.

The title of the poetry/prose impressionistic memoir announces its genre-blurring intentions:

We have 16 forms of writing, called Bahr,” said Mikhail. “Bahr also means ‘seas.’ That’s why this title, ‘Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea,’ has two meanings: the sea, meaning the society or environment that you are out of now, but also the sea, which is the rule of classical form. But you are out of it. You are not following it.”

In 2001, Mikail was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing and her poetry collection The War Works Hard, published in 2005, won PEN’s Translation Award, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and selected by New York Public Library as one of 25 best books of 2005.

But is she a war poet? It is true that her poetry is where as Sinan Antoon put it, “an angle where two wars intersect.”

And Mikhail sees her life between wars, but her poetry seems to be not about the wars but about how life is caught up and lost between them. She remembers her lost library, hears the story of how the pages were used to wrap sandwiches, and that makes its way into a poem:

Sidewalk vendors wrap falafel
in the pages of our books.

And abandonment and loneliness, a woman rolling a cigarette:

To her, the hand-rolled cigarette
is more wonderous
than the Seven Wonders of the World.
All her relatives have gone abroad.

And between two wars:

eventually we forget
how, in the short lull
between two wars,
we became so old.

And yes, war is hard working:

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

Something to look out for, Mikhail has a manuscript based on “The Arabian Nights.” Again.

“My niece, I was thinking of her,” said Mikhail. “She was kidnapped. We never knew what happened to her, or if she survived or not. Or where she is, or not. So these poems are ‘The Iraqi Nights.'”

Here’s some poetry reading, Including some poems on China.

And also conversation, Writers and Iraq:

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Kareem Risan: Memory of Another City | Arab Hyphen

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