Sunday, August 9, 2020

WITMonth Day 9 | The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail

In brief: Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard  (translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow) is a good book that was one of the more inconsistent works I read this past year. It's tough to say that, especially when I'm excited to read an author and fall in love with her words, but ultimately The War Works Hard felt very much like a collection, for good and for bad. There were some works here that I really loved, there were some works here that I didn't like very much, and there a few that I was thoroughly ambivalent about. Overall, I came away with a mostly positive view of the book, but I won't pretend that I loved it. Instead, I can say that I liked it.

I say this basically every time I need to review a poetry collection, but it's very hard for me to properly "judge" poetry. Poetry is and always will be about how it makes me feel. A good poetry book (or collection) is one that manages to wreck me, one way or the other. Maybe it's because I have to hold my breath to the rhythm of the words or maybe it's because the thoughts and descriptions are so resonant or maybe it's because there's something deeply personal about how emotions are conveyed... It doesn't really matter what the reason is. I'm not usually the sort of reader who lingers on specific phrases or quotes (in poetry or in fiction, for that matter), which really means that either the writing techniques/gimmicks have to be extraordinary to get my attention (see: Inger Christensen's crystal clear alphabet) or the text has to hum with an emotional understanding that lingers beyond the last page (see: Mary Oliver, Tanella Boni, Sulochana Manandhar).

The War Works Hard doesn't quite fulfill either fully, but it also doesn't really disregard it either. Part of the problem, I think, is that it collects poems from three different collections, but in backwards order (i.e. the first poems in the collection are the newest, the last are the oldest). The style and tone shifts in Mikhail's writing end up feeling like they degrade or fold in on themselves, rather than grow. And it's especially odd given the seismic political shifts that take place in the gaps between the original publications. "The War Works Hard" collection was originally written in 2004 (this translation overall was published in 2005), with the previous poems mostly written in the 1990s. Mikhail is an Iraqi writer whose writing is wholly rooted in Iraq's turbulent history between 1990 and 2004. War appears not only in the modern, US-influenced context of 2003, it also appears in her very oldest poems. It's not the only theme in this collection, but it's prevalent enough that the backwards order feels like it misses the point of how much of a constant this really is.

And relevantly, I'm left with my own confused questions. As always, I have to wonder about the politics of translation: Are Mikhail's political/war-related poems more likely to be translated because it fits a "Western" narrative of an Iraqi asylum-seeking poet, or is this her focus of choice? Am I unfairly reading a political context into poems that are actually just about childhood, or is this subtext that I'm supposed to understand? What biases are rooted into how the book is marketed and presented (rather than what the poems themselves offer) and how does this affect my interpretation of the text?

Mikhail's poetry draws circles around themes of death and life (sometimes literally!), with some of the best poems capturing a single instant in a sharp and memorable way. Mikhail's observations about children and old age are particularly nice, especially in shorter poems, though these also often lead back to conclusions about war or violence more explicitly. There is life, of course, and the way many poems end up reframing themselves to focus on children's voices is especially reminiscent of this, but I was still left with the feeling that the book overall focuses on the death side of the coin more than life. Is this my own projection?

This is what I mean by The War Works Hard as inconsistent. Poetry collections are almost always inconsistent in terms of liking some poems more than others, that part is fine, but the problem here was that the whole flow of the book felt a little weird. Like I said at the beginning - this is a good book overall. It's definitely made me want to read more of Mikhail's writing (though probably in a more strictly structured context, if I'm being honest). But I also didn't like the book as a whole in the way I expected to and I'm curious to know how each original poetry book holds up relative to this collection mashup.

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