Dunya Mikhail: 'The War Works Hard'

Dunya Mikhail

hide captionDunya Mikhail, who now lives in the United States, wrote her first poems as a teenager in Baghdad.

Courtesy New Directions

Dunya Mikhail Poems from 'The War Works Hard'

War is a recurring theme for poet Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi exile who fled her country after being placed on Saddam Hussein's enemies list. She wrote her first poems as a teenager in Baghdad, just as the slaughter of the Iran-Iraq War began. Subsequent wars offered more to write about.

One of Mikhail's collections is called The War Works Hard. It's also the name of a poem with an ironic take on the meaning and consequence of war.

[It] 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.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

Mikhail, who now lives in the United States, wrote that poem in response to the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

"When I think of war, for me, it's by default a ... lose-lose case," the poet tells Renee Montagne. "I believe there's no winner in the war because, you know, the killed one dies physically and the killer dies morally. So they are both dead."

Mikhail wrote the poem "Bag of Bones" about the current Iraq war.

What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.

For Mikhail, writing about war is not necessarily a way to heal wounds, she says.

"On the contrary, it keeps [them] open forever," Mikhail adds. "Poems are like X-rays. It makes you see the wound and understand it."

Excerpt: 'The War Works Hard'

Cover Image: 'The War Works Hard'

The War Works Hard

by Dunya Mikhail

Paperback, 79 pages

List Price: $13.95

 

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.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

 

Bag of Bones

What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.
His bones, like thousands of bones
in the mass graveyard,
his skull, not like any other skull.
Two eyes or holes
with which he listened to music
that told his own story,
a nose
that never knew clean air,
a mouth, open like a chasm,
was not like that when he kissed her
there, quietly,
not in this place
noisy with skulls and bones and dust
dug up with questions:
What does it mean to die all this death
in a place where the darkness plays all this silence?
What does it mean to meet your loved ones now
with all of these hollow places?
To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?
To depart without death or birth certificates
because the dictator does not give receipts
when he takes your life?
The dictator has a heart, too,
a balloon that never pops.
He has a skull, too, a huge one
not like any other skull.
It solved by itself a math problem
That multiplied the one death by millions
to equal homeland
The dictator is the director of a great tragedy.
He has an audience, too,
an audience that claps
until the bones begin to rattle—
the bones in bags,
the full bag finally in her hand,
unlike her disappointed neighbor
who has not yet found her own.

 

I Was In A Hurry

Yesterday I lost a country.
I was in a hurry,
and didn't notice when it fell from me
like a broken branch from a forgetful tree.
Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky,
or engraved on a rock
like a gaping wound,
or wrapped
in the blankets of emigrants,
or canceled
like a losing lottery ticket,
or helplessly forgotten
in Purgatory,
or rushing forward without a goal
like the questions of children,
or rising with the smoke of war,
or rolling in a helmet on the sand,
or stolen in Ali Baba's jar,
or disguised in the uniform of a policeman
who stirred up the prisoners
and fled,
or squatting in the mind of a woman
who tries to smile,
or scattered
like the dreams
of new immigrants in America.
If anyone stumbles across it,
return it to me please.
Please return it, sir.
Please return it, madam.
It is my country...
I was in a hurry
when I lost it yesterday.

From The War Works Hard, published 2005 by New Directions. Copyright © 2005 by Dunya Mikhail. Translation copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Winslow. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

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The War Works Hard
The War Works Hard

by Dunya Mikhail, Elizabeth Winslow and Saadi Simawe

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