Weekend Poem: The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail

A recent news report about the latest Iraqi crisis described how the ISIS Sunni militants have destroyed even more tombs and statures of cultural icons because, according to their particular brand of Islamic beliefs, all such veneration is considered idolatrous. Of course, many Iraqi poets, writers and philosophers have suffered much censure and persecution throughout their lives. But that they should be so desecrated and destroyed even after they are long gone says more about the enduring power of their works and the fears that they are still capable of evoking in religious fundamentalists.

Our poet today, Dunya Mikhail, was declared an enemy of the state during the Saddam Hussein regime and had to leave her homeland for America. Her poetry is overtly political and anti-war. Yet, her unique perspectives and insights have an unsentimental and immediate poignancy — touching but in the way of nails digging deep into the protective walls that we put up against daily news reports of such brutalities.

In 2001, Mikhail was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. In 2004, the English translation, by Elizabeth Winslow, of ‘The War Works Hard‘ won the PEN Translation Fund Award. And, in 2006, the same book of poems was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, where the judges’ citation read as follows:

We know that Dunya Mikhail was raised in Saddam’s Iraq and sent into exile to follow the news of its devastation from afar. So the very first line of The War Works Hard comes as a surprise: ‘What good luck!’ The second line crystallizes both the contemporary reality and Mikhail’s sensibility: ‘She has found his bones.’ In her poems, war is a monstrous fact of ordinary life, and her particular skill is the invention of unadorned images that capture the often unexpected human responses. Brecht wrote, ‘We’d all be human if we could,’ and Mikhail, despite all the contrary evidence, shows that we can, and sometimes are. These are political poems without political rhetoric, Arabic poems without Arabic poetical flourishes, an exile’s letter with neither nostalgia nor self-pity, an excavation of the ruins of her homeland where the Sumerian goddess Inana is followed on the next page by the little American devil Lynndie England. In Elizabeth Winslow’s perfect translations, poetry takes on its ancient function of restoring meaning to the language. Here is the war in Iraq in English without a single lie.

Speaking of how censorship has affected her writing in an interview with New Directions, Mikhail said:

In Iraq, there was a department of censorship with actual employees whose job was to watch ‘public morals’ and decide what you should read and write. Every writer needed approval first before publishing. That’s why I used a lot of metaphors and layers of meanings. This was probably good for my poetry but, still, you do not want to use such figures of speech just to hide meanings. Here, in America, a word does not usually cost a poet her life. However, speech is sometimes limited to what is acceptable according to public norms. So, in Iraq, text precedes censorship. In America, censorship precedes the text.

Her first poem. ‘I Was In a Hurry‘, was written nearly a year after having arrived in the US. It is about the loss of her country. Yet, she does not find poetry to be a medicine or antidote, as she says in this NPR interview:

I still feel that poetry is not medicine — it’s an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it. We all feel alienated because of this continuous violence in the world. We feel alone, but we feel also together. So we resort to poetry as a possibility for survival. However, to say I survived is not so final as to say, for example, I’m alive. We wake up to find that the war survived with us.

Let us now turn to this poem. It is among her most famous ones and for good reason. It is an ironical work and filled with stark war images that give an overall picture of the industriousness of war, rather than its traditional heroism or both large and small scale tragedy. We’ve featured war poems here before (The Amen Stone; Come to the Stone..), but this one, as you will see, stands apart in its use of positive and virtuous words to describe war, such as “magnificent”, “eager”, “efficient”, “inspires”, “provides”, “achieves” and so on. That such words are in complete contrast to the actual effects and implications being described only serve to highlight the utter uselessness and perniciousness of war to all who find themselves involved in it, directly or indirectly.

The poem’s speaker is, clearly, someone who has lived through such wars and seen first-hand the frenzied activity that it generates and the lasting chaos and havoc it leaves in its wake. Every image the poem evokes, from the war sirens to the grave diggers, seems like the relentless brushstroke of a crazed artist who keeps making his so-called masterpiece worse and worse till we can no longer recognize what it is meant to be. Such, then, is war, too, which starts out with fine, aspirational ideologies that men must defend with their lives and goes on to become such a convoluted mess because no one knows how to bring it to an end — not the grieving mothers, or the questioning children, or the fanatical clergymen, or the tyrannical politicians, or the glorified generals, or the exiled poets, or the waiting lovers, or the lost orphans, or the inundated coffin makers and grave diggers. And, though these people from all walks of life face even more daily tasks than they could have ever imagined, they have no choice but to go on, to draw on all their inner reserves as the war machine propels them forward, for stopping can only mean one thing: losing all hope and letting the juggernaut destroy them too.

The speaker ends the poem as satirically as she started it, observing that, given the entire activity-filled world that war is responsible for, it is still not considered praiseworthy. And, as we come up for air after the wave upon wave of excoriating images that have been thrust upon us in these few lines, the only thought that remains is something another poet, William Carlos Williams, famously said about war and poetry:

It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

It doesn’t take a poem like this to impress upon us the futility of war. It does, sometimes, take just such a poem to wake us up to our own apathy towards ongoing wars that we have never experienced personally, carnage that we only know of sparingly from the media, and tragically-lost brave souls that we never had the honor of meeting. For religions and ideologies dating back centuries to continue to tear our planet apart like this is hard work indeed.

The War Works Hard

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places
swings corpses through the air
rolls stretchers to the wounded
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins…
Some are lifeless and glistening
others are pale and still throbbing…
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters
urges families to emigrate
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)…
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets
it contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs
provides food for flies
adds pages to the history books
achieves equality
between killer and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

~ Dunya Mikhail and Elizabeth Winslow, ‘The War Works Hard

 A Few Links:

Dunya Mikhail’s Website (check out the reviews and interviews pages)

A Few of Dunya Mikhail’s Poems in English Translation

Readings at UC Berkeley, CA, ‘Lunch Poems’ Series

Dunya Mikhail Reading at ’92Y Readings’

A Selection of Iraqi Poems

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