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 –