Review: Poetic Collaboration in Iraq and Palestine

This is the proof of a review that was recently published in Stand 14.2 (2016) in Leeds:

Van Winkle, Ryan and Lauren Pyott, eds. This Room is Waiting: Poems from Iraq and the United Kingdom. Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-908754-49-3. 128pp.

Bell, Henry and Sarah Irving, eds. Forewords by Liz Lochead and Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry. Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-908754-56-1. 272pp.

This Room is Waiting is a haunting, delicate anthology of poems from Iraq and the United Kingdom. Given events in Iraq over the last decade, we might be forgiven for expecting a collection dominated by anger or sloganeering. But this is a book of surprises: of beautiful small things, of everyday habits, of day-to-day relationships. Although there is an undertone of mourning, this does not lead to any unity of form or content. Fragile hymns jostle alongside gentle whispers and screams of anguish. All of the poems, in their variety, offer much-needed ‘acts of friendship and solidarity’. This is not only about sharing experiences through writing and reading across borders, but is at the heart of how the poems themselves were made. The collection was put together by pairs of poets, working with ‘bridge translations’. Four British poets travelled to the Kurdish mountain village of Shaqlawa and worked with four Iraqi poets, the aim being to produce new works in Arabic, Kurdish and English. Each poet spoke little or none of the other’s language, and the final poems are therefore new ‘versions’ rather than ‘translations’ of the originals.

The results of these collaborations are sometimes startling. Krystelle Bamford’s beautiful ‘version’ of Sabreen Kadhim’s ‘Water my Heart with a Jonquil’, for instance, is a poem ostensibly about chastising an absent lover, but it takes on dreadful new connotations in the face of death. This context refreshes lines like, ‘My heart is skinned raw’ and makes us read them anew. This poem, like many in the collection, delights in the sensual, invoking a kind of secular sacredness in the physicality of the human body and ordinary objects. John Glenday’s version of Zaher Mousa’s ‘The Iraqi Elements’ (73-75), witnesses the birth of Water, Air, Fire and Earth. Through disarmingly simple lexicon and syntax, this poem creates physical scenes of living death, in which ‘children are little chunks of the good bread, dunked in muddy kerbside puddles:/ Life will gobble them up.’ (75). The fine thread that holds all of these poems together, however, is perhaps their cry for peace: for normality to be normality, for children to be children, for ‘this thing the flower of peace, of silence/ of leave us fucking be’ (25).

Like This Room is Waiting, Henry Bell and Sarah Irving’s edited anthology, A Bird is Not a Stone, also came out of a collaborative project which brought together poets across borders, languages and cultures. Underlying the anthology is the belief that, even in translation, ‘something deep will always communicate’ (viii). The book presents a range of poetry from contemporary Palestinian writers in Arabic, translated into English, Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic by some of Scotland’s leading contemporary poets and translators, including Alasdair Gray,  Jen Hadfield, Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Liz Lochead and James Robertson. Few of the Palestinian poets, which include Zuhair Abu Sahib, Majid Abu Ghoush, Samih Mohsen and Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, have been translated into English before. The poet Murad Sudan, distinguished director of The House of Poetry in Ramallah explains that, even when the work of Palestinian poets is translated into English it is ‘always by academics and generally to be quoted as part of polemical, theoretical or literary essays and in obscure publications’ (vii). This anthology offers an important corrective to this trend, presenting poems that are complex and unsettling, which stand as aesthetic objects in their own right. This said, the book is valuable not only for its poetic range, but also for the voices it contains, and the stand that such a collection inevitably takes. As the ‘Foreword’ explains, ‘the State of Israel denies human rights to Palestinians. Denies that they are human beings at all’ (vi). This is followed by the questions, ‘how does poetry deal with such a reality? What else but poetry has the beauty, truth and courage to try’ (vii). This is no academic matter: the houses of two of the contributors have been destroyed by Israeli shells in Gaza since the publication of the anthology.

Unsurprisingly then, given the importance of the political principle in Palestinian art, the distortions of the political situation on everyday life are prominent in this book. Like the Iraqi poets in This Room Is Waiting, these Palestinian poets are tracking down normality. But there is nothing ordinary about the poems. Even when titles seem familiar, as with Majid Abu Ghoush’s ‘Returning’, ‘Detention’ and ‘Occupation’, the extraordinary poems quickly disturb any expectations we might have. ‘Detention’, for instance, unfolds in a series of incredibly constrained tercets, opening with, ‘In my mind/ the sea is wider/ bluer’ (148). Almost impossibly brief, the lines are detained but the ideas are certainly not, expanding far beyond the lines: ‘the roads are longer/ they flow like water’ towards the last lines of the poem and ‘the Universe/ from which// you are ready/ to be plucked/ as am I’ (150).  In ‘Occupation’, rose petals are ‘all tarnished with foul dust/ from the poisoned world’, whilst rose petals are stitched together for a shroud in Zuhair Abu Shaib’s ‘Martyr’, the man who has ‘become an emerald flame’ (10). Rania Irshaid’s fantastic long poem, ‘Dance on a naked voice’ (153)  is a series of fragmented images, voices and echoes, whilst Maya Abu Al-Hayyat’s ‘Children’ has the speaker checking the hands of her children and pinching them ‘to make them cry and squirm with life’ (198). In poem after poem, unsettling and formally innovative lines unfold under the strangely familiar war rhetoric of the titles. It is certainly true that this anthology, like This Room is Waiting, takes a stand. Nevertheless, these poems refuse to be reduced to ‘politics’, for it is in the intricacy of their craft that their power lies.



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