Dunya Mikhail’s The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005) is the first contemporary Iraqi woman poet translated from Arabic into English. Her poetry is brilliant.
She is an Iraqi Christian whose first two languages are Aramaic and Arabic, and she learned English during her long exile in the United States. Mikhail began publishing in the 1980s and has published five book of poetry. After Mikhail published her second book Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (1995) in Baghdad, she suffered harassment from the dictatorship and fled into exile in the United States.
Mikhail writes in The War Works Hard about war, dictatorship, and exile of a forty-year war. In the Introduction Saadi Simawe, who edited in English Iraqi Poetry Today, said, “… [T]to many Iraqis, the American war against Iraq actually started in February 8, 1963 when the Baath junta, aided by U.S. intelligence from Kuwait, too over Baghdad. During the first two days of battle, more than 30,000 Iraqis who fiercely resisted the fascist coup were massacred.” Mikhail was born two years later after the coup in 1965 and attended college in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. The poems from the two earlier books Psalms from Absence and Almost Music reprinted in this volume come out of Mikhail’s experiences during the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War of 1991, and the period of U.S. sanctions against Iraq.
The poems from Psalms from Absence, Mikhail’s earliest book, are highly metaphorical renderings of her experiences with war and dictatorship where the metaphors eluded the Iraqi censors. In these earliest poems the poet has a child’s voice describing “the red puddle/under a child’s feet” in “Transformation of the Child and the War,” the ruins of war in “The Chaldean’s Ruins,” a nun leaving her convent where the church bells are dead in “The Nun,” and the dictatorship where “He plays general. She plays people./They declare war” in “Pronouns.”
The child’s voice matures into a young woman’s voice in the next volume Almost Music whose world is even darker and claustrophobic. The poet says “I sit on top of death/like a pile of smoke/and cry” in “An Orange.” The poet is imprisoned with her sisters as pomegranate seeds” whose “losses increase each day.” The voice is afraid “we will rot before anyone thinks of us.” The titles tell the story of living inside the dictatorship: “A Tombstone” or “The Departure of Friends.”
In the poems written after the fall of Saddam Hussein in The War Works Hard Mikhail’s poet voice is less allusive and much more direct in confronting the wars. Her voice becomes powerful in the poem “Inanna” speaking as the ancient Sumerian Goddess claiming her city, searching on the Internet for the graves, ordering “you sons of the dead! Stop fighting/over my clothes and gold!” In “Urgent Call” she calls the American soldier Lynndie England ordering her to immediately go home.
In some of the poems Mikhail sounds like one of the Trojan women from Euripides great play The Trojan Women: the mother in “the Prisoner” waiting at the prison’s entrance to see her son and who doesn’t understand why he’s imprisoned; the women in “Bag of Bones” at the mass grave site having the good luck to find “his bones./The skull is also in the bag/the bag in the hand/like all other bags/in all other hands. His bones, like thousands of bones/in the mass graveyard …”
Mikhail is great and sorrowful like Eurpides so get her book and read her book.