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The American Poetry Review, Laurence Lieberman

The American Poetry Review, Laurence Lieberman

“The Laggard Bird,” by Dunya Mikhail
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:“The Laggard Bird,” by Dunya Mikhail   A note on Dunya Mikhail Baghdad native Dunya Mikhail is the author of four collections of poetry in Arabic. Her one book in English The War Works Hard (New York: New Directions, 2005) was chosen for the PEN Translation Fund Award, shortlisted by the Griffin Poetry Prize, and picked by the New York Public Library as one of the 25 Best Books of 2005. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. Mikhail currently lives in Michigan and works as an Arabic resource coordinator for Dearborn public schools.   Any reader of the most compelling war poetry of our epoch may readily discern a marked shift in perspective between the best verse dealing with the World Wars or Vietnam and Dunya Mikhail’s major lyrics grappling with the succession of wars in Iraq to which she has borne personal witness, ranging from the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) to the current war. Dating back to her earliest anti-war writings—four poetry volumes plus the seminal Diary Of A Wave Outside The Sea, a “lyrical multi-genre text”—her most salient message has been unwavering. There are no winners. Both sides, in whatever war, lose big. There are no true heroes, true martyrs. Only losers. She virtually never takes sides, except against the wars. Hence the remarkable power and effortless fluency of her new book’s riveting title poem, “The War Works Hard.” The poem’s constant deft irony builds upon a litany of winners. War’s lucky beneficiaries. They all ring hollow, of course. But 198 ~ Lieberman her tone is hypnotic. Unswerving. With amazing comic ebullience , she sets forth the series of victors, the war’s chain of blest heirs:  The war continues working, day and night. It contributes to the industry of artificial limbs, 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 fantasia hurtles along with swift unstoppable momentum . Her pared-down style and narrow columnar form is an apt vehicle for the all-devouring scourge of the protagonist. The work is a parable that so skillfully mirrors our exact historic moment, today, we can easily forget that the anti-hero at the poem’s center is not a living corporeal entity. The succession of realistic pictures and emblems challenges the shaky divide between actuality and myth:  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 . . .  “The War Works Hard” may be an instant classic. The poem’s forward thrust gives it a frenetic energy and pacing that seem Clairvoyant with Hunger ~ 199 more prototypic of works of cinema than any other literature . The monster so tirelessly at work oddly resembles the inflated tadpole-like creature that cartwheels its destructive zigzag pathway through a modern city in the recent exhilarating Korean “horror” film The Host. Unlike the comparable iconic Godzilla, and similar movie giant demons of decades past, this larger-than-life creature is modestly outsize, so the closely detailed specificity of its demonic exploits feels up close and personal, rather than distantly towering. If the Godzillas vaguely symbolize the limitless capacious threat of nuclear war and its attendant paranoia, the fleshily gymnastic tadpole mutant of The Host is more measured and close to the bone of today’s guerrilla tactics of “insurgents” and suicide bombers. Likewise, the savage protagonist of Dunya Mikhail’s classic war poem is shot through with familiar traits of sinister humankind. It proceeds as if it has a mind of its own, a. superior intelligence, even a twisted facsimile of mortal selfhood. Perhaps it would be equally instructive to contrast this verse showpiece with James Dickey’s controversial poem “The Firebombing,” a major opus dating from a couple of war generations back, in which the complacent self-absorbed pilot dropper of napalm is totally out-of-touch, palpably, with his victims below, whereas Mikhail’s anti-hero is perfectly in touch. Her moment-to-moment cinematic tactility of images labors to combine the intimacy of “punctures and blisters” of bodies torn apart by land mines with the broad…

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