How does poetry grapple with the conflicts and social issues of our time? What can a poem do in the face of rocket-thuds, choking smoke, a child’s pink sandal in a blood-pool on the street? Can it find meaning in THAT? Is poetry perhaps, as Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail put it, not medicine but an X-ray? Can it point to the fractured place in the bone and say “here”?
Sure. There are things a poem can’t do: it can’t grow back limbs. But there are many things a poem can do: build homes for the exiled (familiar fortresses of curved words in which to take refuge), dig furrows to plant hopes of return. And one of the most important things poems can do is to help us remember. To re-member is to re-construct fractured narratives and identities that are dis-membered in conflict. “If the poets don’t remember, no one will remember,” American poet Jane Miller warned us (her students) recently. They help us to distill layers of what sometimes seems like a pile of unintelligible blackness, as in the poem-calligraphy of Afghan artist Ali Baba Aurang (installation title: The Force of Forgetting, 2011):
Like many military veteran artists, I feel an urgency to express, to record in some way, the core of my experience—certain excruciating parts and also the hopeful parts that can be hardest for those disconnected from the conflict to grasp. Since returning from two years deployed in Afghanistan, I’ve been listening for poems that shed light on various aspects of these years of war, partnership, mistakes, and victories. While most of the poetry by Americans on the Afghan conflict has not been written yet, I have come across a few unforgettable pieces. The poem “Lima Charlie” by Laura Carpenter, U.S. Army, wrestles with the sudden emptiness of religious ritual and language when confronted with unthinkable suffering. Her title refers to the radio-jargon way of saying “Loud and Clear” (also the poet’s initials in alphanumeric-speak). There is no way to read it but in its entirety.
Dear god in heaven, or wherever,
Perhaps because my humvee rolls through the valleys of the
shadow of death –
Or perhaps because this land looks so much like the picture bible
of my childhood, I look for you in its swirling sands.
Any of these mounts, it seems, could hold a Jesus
Preaching blessings on all that I am not –
I went to three chaplains with my cloven soul.
The first one gave me medals of your saints,
Michael with his sword,
(they’re fond of that one.)
The second anointed my head with oil,
But couldn’t tell me why my cup runneth over
When all around me your children die for want of drink,
Their thirsty bodies too weak to scream,
Whispering your name.
The third offered holy water to douse me with,
While just outside two babies were sprinkled
From minarets they call out your greatness,
But the explosions drown their prayers, seeming greater still.
Mortars steal children.
Rockets crumble men.
“If any should die before they wake…”
(Well, you know the rest, I’m sure.)
The bombs rain down. Fire from above.
The mines, like geysers. Fire from below.
And in the streets the fires are burning.
We speak of fighting fire with fire,
Of firefights, firepower,
Enemy fire and friendly.
I plead with you for cleansing fire.
The candles burning on a million altars,
Smoldering incense, sage, or sweetgrass
Exhaling over the world.
Couldn’t a monk set himself ablaze or something?
(It seems fitting now.)
Or the one I was taught to call the Prince Of Peace
Could send his spirit down in tongues of flame.
(A dove would work as well, I suppose, the symbolism lost on
The Cherokee and Navajo burn sacred tobacco to find you.
I, for my part, flick my seventeenth cigarette against a bush,
Hoping it may ignite and you might speak.
The brush catches for a moment, crackles, then dissolves into
Like static on a radio:
Agnus Dei, qui tolis Pecata mundi,
Miserere nobis. How copy, over?
Agnus Dei, qui tolis pecata mundi,
Miserere nobis. How copy, Over?
Agnus Dei, qui tolis pecata mundi,
Donna nobis pacem.
The silence on your end thunders in my skull,
Dark, agonizing, honest. The writing and the reading of these poems is difficult and vital. As poet Rachel Zucker commented, “The poem reaches for a force that is more powerful than narrative. The poem tells a story the poet cannot tell.” Although raw, the very writing of them hints at merciful scars beginning to patch the seared skin, because they tell the stories that we, as poets, cannot tell. They help us to re-member.
The work of Afghan poets has also been a deep well of remembrance and inspiration. One poem, called “Recitation” stands out as a haunting companion to Laura Carpenter’s poem. The poet is Shakila Azzizada, whose poems in their original form as well as quality English translation (often including gorgeous audio recordings) you can find at the excellent Poetry Translation Centre. In this poem, the main character is the mother of a girl named Nazaneen, also a term of endearment meaning sweetheart, lovely, or delightful. According to the poet’s notes, the piece alludes to the many girls killed during the civil war in Kabul, 1992-1996. The mourning mother hears the call to prayer, which begins “There is no God but God…”
Shakila Azzizada (translation by Zuzanna Olszewska and Mimi Khalvati)
Her name, Nazaneen, along
with a thousand other caresses,
burns in her mother’s throat
like a flame, a flame.
but it’s a treasure chest
of a thousand hidden endearments.
Laaa ellah! The mullah
has strayed from the path.
A bed of sweet basil is spreading
its scent through the air and
La ella! … his oath stops short.
Her mother’s fingers
are smoothing her tangled curls
back behind her ears,
strand by strand.
Propped on her mother’s knee,
her head and neck, lying limp,
meld in a lap of flowers.
Nazaneen! her mother wails,
throwing her hands up, hitting
her head as, clump by torn-out clump,
white hairs like wheat and barley
sprout between her fingers.
The white sheet slips.
The chest wound, the girlish breasts
laid bare, renew her mother’s anguish.
La ellah! says the mullah.
turns her head.
The scent of camphor
mingles with the mother’s plaints:
Azzizada’s poem would sound blasphemous to some, but it strikes at the heart of corrupt religiosity that seeps into the space of genuine spirituality. She points out the bankruptcy of the Mullah who has “strayed from the path.” His chant is cut off by the rage of her grief.
I think what moves me so about these poems is that they shed all pretense. And it may be that they are closest to finding God who shed the pretense of having found him.