RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
"The War Works Hard" - that's the title of a collection of poems by exiled Iraqi writer Dunya Mikhail. The title is ironic, jokey. Picture a war that rolls up its sleeves every morning and sets about the job of killing.
But then Dunya Mikhail never had time for flowery verses. She wrote her first poems as a teenager in Baghdad just as the slaughter of the Iran-Iraq war began. And it was her poetry that earned her a place on Saddam Hussein's list of enemies of the state, a list that forced her to flee Iraq a few years after the Gulf War.
To conclude our series War and Literature, Dunya Mikhail joined us from the studios of Detroit Public Radio, near where she now lives with her husband and daughter. She read for us the final verses of "The War Works Hard."
Ms. DUNYA MIKHAIL (Writer, "The War Works Hard"): 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.
MONTAGNE: Huh. During what war did you write that?
Ms. MIKHAIL: I mean, I wrote it - it's true that I wrote it in response to the first Gulf War of '91. But when I think of war, for me it's by default, same case, a lose-lose case. I believe there is no winner in the war because, you know, the killed one dies physically and the killer dies morally, so they are both dead.
MONTAGNE: You have a poem written about the current war in Iraq that you did write here in America. It's called "Bag of Bones" and it starts with the line: What good luck!
And if one read now further you think, oh, it's a child who's found a shiny new quarter on the ground. But then the next lines are: She's found his bones. The skull is also in the bag.
That, of course, about Saddam's mass graves. Would you read just the last few lines of "Bag of Bones"?
Ms. MIKHAIL: Okay, sure.
The dictator does not give receipts when he takes your life. The dictator must have a heart and a skull too, a huge one, unlike any other. His skull alone has figured all this out, how to multiply one death by millions to equal the country. He is the director of this tragedy. And as his audience applauds, it shakes the bones, the bones in the bags. The full bag finally in her hand, unlike her neighbor who still goes on looking for her bag of bones.
MONTAGNE: How hard is it to write about the country that you came from when it's at war, when you're so far away?
Ms. MIKHAIL: Writing poetry about the war, for me, it's like the norm, not exception, because as you mentioned, I open my eyes to both war and poetry and I've been writing about that. And the reason maybe is that that's my way to turn that tragic event into an aesthetical one, if we can say that. Not that I think it heals any wound; it's on the contrary. It offers - it keeps it open forever. Still, I think we need poetry though in this tsunamical, in this age of wars.
MONTAGNE: Tsunamical as in tsunami?
Ms. MIKHAIL: Yeah. What happens in Iraq is, for me, it's like tsunami, just like in slower motion maybe.
MONTAGNE: When you say that writing poetry, quite the opposite of offering healing, in fact it keeps the wounds open, what do you mean by that? Because I do think a lot of people would think the act of writing is a cathartic for the writer.
Ms. MIKHAIL: No, for me, I mean, poems are like x-rays. It makes you see the wound and understand it. It's like also the key that you open the door behind, which you can see all the ruins that happened then. It's hard to say it is healing. I don't think so.
MONTAGNE: Do you consider yourself a poet in exile or an immigrant or - how do you see yourself now in relation to Iraq?
Ms. MIKHAIL: Hmm. You know, Renee, this is a very good question but a very also hard one. By the way, I just got my citizenship - American citizenship - last month, that's also exciting.
Ms. MIKHAIL: Thank you. That was really exciting. It was emotional. In the beginning I was trying to find my space, kind of confused and, you know, I had tearful eyes in the first two years, especially with listening to - thinking of Baghdad, remembering Baghdad, you know, listening to Iraqi songs a lot. But then, after a couple of years, I returned to writing. I started back to writing poetry and it's poetry what makes me feel it's my home. Even if I'm, let's say on an airplane over cities I know, I don't know, I write and I feel at home.
MONTAGNE: Huh. Now you have a daughter. And she has not known war directly as you have. And you have a poem about her that still touches on war.
Ms. MIKHAIL: Yeah, I mean, if you like I can - it's a long poem but I can read the last part of it.
Ms. MIKHAIL: Her name is Larsa, named after an ancient Iraqi city. Larsa meaning goddess of sun.
You wave your hand so I know you are mixing rivers, lakes and continents with a teaspoon or a straw. You carry the Euphrates and the Atlantic together to school. Mix colors and temperatures so all sides reconcile because you are beautiful, Larsa. And like snowballs tumbling to stillness, nations stop fighting for a moment because you are beautiful, Larsa. You open your arms, so I know exactly how much I love you. I love you from here to Baghdad and I love you more than all words. And I love you higher than the smoke in the city. And I love you louder than the sound of explosions. And I love you deeper than a wound exchanged between Iraqis and Americans next to an explosive shell. And I love you sweeter than (unintelligible) lily and I love you wider than fears that brims over the edges in times of war. I love you bigger than the planet Earth is to a little chick. From here to Baghdad, back and forth, I love you.
MONTAGNE: Oh, that's beautiful.
Ms. MIKHAIL: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Dunya Mikhail, thank you for joining us.
Ms. MIKHAIL: Oh, thank you for having me, Renee.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Dunya Mikhail's collection of poetry is called "The War Works Hard." Listen to writers from Northern Ireland, Somalia and Sierra Leone in our series War and Literature. They're all at npr.org.