Translated from the Arabic by Mona Kareem
Ugly Duckling Presse
A review of a book of poetry is largely an opinion. Hopefully, it is an informed opinion by someone who (at least) has a smattering of knowledge about the Art. And, when it comes to reviewing poetry by an author whose work was originally written in a language vastly different from the reviewer, said reviewer needs to do a little research on the culture and literature of the author’s region. This reviewer made that effort. Unfortunately, my scholarly efforts only made the tiniest scratches in the surface of a complex and centuries deep literary tradition. But even this poorly informed American can grasp the universality and wide appeal of Except for This Unseen Thread by Ra’ad Abdulqadir.
Ra’ad Abdulqadir was an Iraqi journalist, editor, and poet who lived from 1953 to 2003. He enjoyed a brief period of recognition during his lifetime, then his reputation faded. But his work has regained attention in recent years. He is considered a prose poet, though this collection’s poems are structured more like free verse pieces than paragraph-shaped prose poems familiar to American readers. When looking at the original Arabic texts I can see that the translator, Mona Kareem, stuck to the format used by the poet.
Reading poetry written during the 1940s through the 1960s from Iraq and other Arab countries was confusing for this reviewer. It is complex, full of abstraction and flowery language, rarely grounded in the everyday world. Sometimes it is nationalistic, sounding like propaganda for the State. During the reigns of Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and then Saddam Hussein nearly all writing, art, and news reporting was heavily censored in Iraq. While repression abounded and war raged (the Iran-Iraq war, the First Gulf War, other lesser conflicts) the artistic community was stifled. Authors who spoke out in protest were exiled, imprisoned, or executed. But Ra’ad wrote and quietly published his poems, sometimes doing all the printing and binding himself. And, instead of being directly political, his work looks at the small things of daily life – objects and people and places – and through these observations outlines the shadows of horror and destruction of those times.
This book is divided into six sections. Each section is somewhat thematic, although the themes are not always boldly apparent. The fourth poem in the first section is called A Past Life, and while it is somewhat ambiguous about whose life it deals with, it is also clearly a metaphor as it begins –
Slow replays of a dream
The vulture flying over old empires
The roar of a lion
like grass growing
Though abstract, the poem – just over one hundred words long – carries a sense of the confusion and timeless despair that accumulates in years of uncertainty, hardship, and violence. This is one of the most abstract poems in the collection, even as it uses common things to build its mood and direction – perfume, grass growing, a Persian lily, an ear, a window, a sparrow, and in the final two lines money/ or banners.
It is difficult to pull illustrative lines from these poems because they are so carefully built. In a poem called A Dog’s Head the opening six lines are essential to the next four, and those four to the final seven. This small poem constructs a story of two (or more) generations. And then ends with this almost mystical vision:
the butterflies flutter alone
in their thousands
over the dog’s head
on the boat
carrying the sun
to the cemetery
In a section titled Falcon with Sun Overhead, we find four poems, each one built on the foundation of the last. The Falcon could be a symbol for the poet, first as observer and then gradually transitioning to a place more deeply connected to his “audience.” While using this rather exotic bird the poet draws on the strength of common words – sun, pyramid, shadow, rock, water – to create a vision of place and time. Then tucked in, near the end of the second poem, are these four lines –
he looked terrified
when the painter left
with the four gunmen
before completing his wings
The “he” in the passage is the Falcon. Bringing those surprising gunmen into this rather fanciful poem connects the whole section to another level of real meaning. Though jarring, there is enough subtlety to make these four poems flow naturally with an almost organic feel.
One of the longest poems in the collection is We Did Not Lie to You, Spring Flower. A poem of lamentation and loss, it uses rhythmic repetition and direct references to wars and sanctions as a chanting litany of sadness.
We risked our souls
we did not leave home for exile
because exile is in our tongue
we are exiled at home
you are the flower of battlefronts
you are a flower taking the shape of a tank
As I read through these poems, again and again, I kept thinking of modern American poets who write or wrote about their experiences in wartime. While many of these poets suffered great loss, endured, and participated in, horrific acts of violence, and came away with mental and physical scars, none of them lived their whole lifetimes under oppressive uncertainty, the fear of sudden and widespread carnage, and a constant tallying of tragic deaths and disappearances of family members and friends. Ra’ad Abdulqadir had such a life, and he wrote about it all with eloquence and deep wisdom. This collection is one that will be an essential part of any library dedicated to understanding the people and events that have consumed the Arab world, and the world as a whole, for so many years. I recommend it for its timeliness, its poetic beauty, and its ability to enlighten as it touches the reader’s heart.
James Bourey is the author of The Distance Between Us from Cold River Press.