Flowers of Flame: The Unheard Voices of Iraq
by Dan Veach
Reviewed by John Bradley
Ever since we hung this calendar,
Has been oozing blood.
These days are a necklace,
Each one pierced through the middle.
How can you expect us to write
For coming generations?
This question, posed by Ali Al-Imarah in this much-needed anthology of contemporary Iraqi poets, haunts every page. Flowers of Flame does manage to speak, however, and it does so not only for Iraqis. It also addresses Americans, here in the land of 24-hour cable news, blogs, texts, and tweets, where despite our barrage of information we rarely hear from those in the nation we've been occupying for six years.
Given the turmoil in Iraq, it's not surprising that one of the themes that runs through this anthology is disruption: "Trachoma scars the vision of the heart, / Disrupting our connections, / As we trot between the whip and the reward / Toward a bastard splendor," observes Salman Dawood Mohammed. The writers speak not only of the physical ruptures of war, but the psychological and spiritual disruptions as well. "How can a poem be possible, / with so much shrapnel in your chest?" writes Sabah Khattab. Despite this "shrapnel," there's an honesty and eloquence in these poems -- one that can transform, as in Salam Dawai's stunning poem "When He Exploded," "wounds" into "unbelievable fruits."
Before healing, though, anger and anguish demand to be heard. "Bags of Bones," by Dunya Mikhail, from her overlooked collection The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005), discusses the good fortune of a mother who is blessed with a gift from her son. What luck, she says,
To give your mother back,
On the occasion of death,
The handful of bones
She offered you
On the occasion of birth?
Mikhail's searing sarcasm exposes the true cost of war. Yet while poems of anguish justifiably dominate this collection, the editors have also included love poems. Typical of this genre, Ahmed Asheikh's "From Her Book, One More Time" revels in lush imagery: "When / Her two doves are shivering in my fingers / And her cup is full of my wine..." The language brings to mind the Song of Solomon, where sexuality and spirituality become intertwined. By including love poems, the editors allow us to glimpse the richness of Iraqi poetry.
The anthology does have one glaring problem, though: of the thirty-five poets included, only four are women. Granted, this may reflect the gender bias in Iraqi culture, but it still leaves out some "unheard voices" the subtitle promises. Yet Flowers of Flame does allow us to hear Iraqi voices long left out of our discussions on the war and the occupation. How rare it is, for example, to encounter what exile has done to those millions of Iraqis forced to flee their homeland, as Adnan Al-Sayegh relates so poignantly in his poem "Iraq":
Iraq that is going away
With every step its exiles take...
Iraq that shivers
Whenever a shadow passes.
I see a gun's muzzle before me,
Or an abyss.
Iraq that we miss:
Half of its history, songs and perfume
And the other half is tyrants.
That a poem can evoke an emotional dilemma in nine lines is a small miracle. The poem shows us how the flight of its people diminishes Iraq, how those who stay behind must live in fear. And we see the choice each exile must face: to return and risk the gun, or to live in safety without the sustenance of one's culture. Each choice offers a dead end; the last two lines, while Al-Sayegh's personal view of Iraq, ring with truth.
Poetry, of course, does not communicate in the fact-based manner of history or political commentary, yet Americans might well begin to understand the Iraqi people by listening to their poets. "There is no way, neither forward nor backward," Sabah Khattab observes, but fortunately the poems in Flowers of Flame offer a flickering light.