Last November, New Directions issued a new chapbook in their “Poets in the World” series: 15 Iraqi Poets. The slim (60-page) volume was edited and introduced by Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail:
In some ways, 15 makes for a frustrating experience. Just as I’ve settled into Nazik al-Malaika’s voice, and begin raising up the structures of her world around me, I turn the page and am with Abdul Wahab al-Bayati. It’s the pitfalls of any anthology, certainly, although here there is only one poem per author, and some of them very short.
The brief collection begins with Badr Shakir al-Sayyab‘s “Rain Song,” and here we can brook no complaints: Although it is only one poem, and the reader may be left wanting a whole collection of al-Sayyab, it is a poem in which a reader can sit down, close the shutters, and sit for a long time. “Rain Song” is the longest in the collection, and this translation — from Lena Jayyusi and Christopher Middleton — does justice to the poem’s tonal shifts and incantatory power.
Certainly, I would’ve wanted to turn the page and find “Return to Jaykur” or “The River and Death,” but “Rain Song” is enough for an anthology or desert island. “And still the rain pours down.”
Nazik al-Malaika‘s “New Year” (trans. Rebecca Carol Johnson) which follows in the collection, is also a strong example of her work, a romanticism that has been taken into a new place:
If only memory, or hope, or regret
could one day block our country from its path.
If only we feared madness.
If only our lives could be disturbed by travel
or the sadness of impossible love.
If only we could die like other people.
As translator Emily Drumstra has said, “In many ways al-Mala’ika actually fits better with the Arab Romantic poets than she does with the ‘modernists’: she is more concerned with articulating deeply felt emotions and sensations than she is with elaborating new models for cultural regeneration. And yet her concern for Arabic poetic form is also, I would argue, quite political.”
Here as elsewhere, she inserts herself, interrogates the poem, asks questions of the translator.
After al-Malaika’s “New Year” is a short poem by Abdul Waha al-Bayati, “From the Papers of Aisha,” and here editor Dunya Mikhail’s note is important for thickening the reader’s experience of the poem. Here as elsewhere, she inserts herself, interrogates the poem, asks questions of the translator. She writes: “I asked the translator, Bassem Frangieh, if Aisha was dead in the poems, and he replied, ‘Aisha is never dead. She is hope, his hero, his lover, his savior, who is eternally alive.'”
The notes after each of the poems are what holds the collection together; they offer not just biographical information on each of the poets, but personal insights into their lives and why they write. She also describes encounters she’s had with the poets, such as when Yousif al-Sa’igh offered her a sketch inspired by one of her poems.
Outside of a few swaps — Badr Shakir al-Sayyab comes before Nazik al-Malaika, even though she was born first, and Sargon Boulus appears too early — the poems are ordered by the age of the poet, and the enigmatic Mahmoud al-Braikan, an important Iraqi poet who is very little-represented in translation, follows al-Bayati. After these is the controversial Yousif al-Sa’igh, who — although he affiliated himself with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party — still wrote surprising and vulnerable poems, as in his “Dinner,” trans Saadi Simawe:
That is when I see
my sadness enter the kitchen
open the refrigerator door
take out a piece of black meat
and prepare my dinner.
His words take us along, upside-down and sideways, following a Möbius strip around his memories of Baghdad
After al-Sa’igh comes the towering Sargon Boulus (trans. Sinan Antoon), with “Elegy for Sindibad Cinema.” His words take us along, upside-down and sideways, following a Möbius strip around his memories of Baghdad:
where I walk
where my words want to rise like the stairs of a castle
like sounds ascending the lost scale
one note after another
in my friend’s notebook
the oud player who died of his own silence in the desolation
Poems by Saadi Youssef (“Cavafy’s Residence,” trans. Ferial Ghazoul) and Fadhil al-Azzawi (“Spare Time,” trans. Khaled Mattawa) follow. Both of them have a number of works available in English, with Youssef’s recent poetry collected into Nostalgia, My Enemy and translated by Sinan Antoon and Peter Money.
The collection also features work not written in Arabic — a short and somewhat flimsy work by Kurdish poet Sherko Bekas and Ronny Someck’s “Jasmine: Poem on Sandpaper,” translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg. Here again — although I found Someck’s statement that he was “only the pianist” in the Wild West saloon of Israel frustrating — it was also eye-opening to see how he viewed his role as an (Iraqi-)Israeli poet.
The last four poets are the youngest: Taleb Abd al-Aziz (the passionate and mournful “My Brother’s War”), Ra’ad Abdul Qadir (the slender “His Life”), Abdulzahra Zeki (the dual, overlapping “The Guard”), and Siham Jabar (the historically inspired “Like Hypatia in Ancient Times.”).
The easiest questions to ask are: Why didn’t you include (Abdul Kader El Janabi, Sinan Antoon, Sabreen Kadhim, Ahmad Matar, Ghareeb Iskander, Basim al-Ansar, Kajal Ahmad, etc.)? There are many other Iraqi poets, for instance, in the 312-page collection Baghdad: The City in Verse, ed. Reuven Snir, which also came out last year. But Mikhail’s slim chapbook has an intimacy and immediacy that Snir’s thicker and more scholarly feeling collection — which roams over thirteen centuries — lacks.
Certainly, you can find several of these poems online, but the chapbook is worth having both for the poems themselves and for Mikhail’s questions and reflections.