Flowers of Flame
The Unheard Voices
Michigan State University Press
This startlingly fresh
poems gathered here, which range from the grim to the ecstatic, stand as a
crucial reminder that the country of Iraq cannot be reduced to a place of
terrorism, for it is populated by real people, some of them poets with real
—Billy Collins, Poet
Laureate of the United States, 2001-2003
Introduction by Dan Veach
Despite years of war and tsunamis of
sound bites, this will be the first
opportunity many readers will have to meet Iraqis as real human
beings, speaking heart to heart. In these pages you will hear the unheard
voices of Iraq: men and women, Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds.
These poems were collected, as the war raged all around them, by
Iraqis living and working in Baghdad. This is their message to the world,
one that transcends all the barriers dividing present-day Iraq. It is a mes-
sage that needs to be heard by all sides in the current conflict.
Iraq's poets have suffered imprisonment, exile, and death for the
truths they have dared to tell. Poetry is not a luxury in Iraq, but a vital
part of the struggle for the nation's future. This is poetry that is feared
by tyrants and would-be tyrants.
How do they do it? How is it even possible to write poetry in present-
day Iraq? One poet asks himself, "How can you extract poems and shrap-
nel from your chest at the very same time?" The answers that you'll find
here will amaze you—a
"perfect storm" of international headline news,
profound humanity, and genuinely great art.
You'll find joy here as well as struggle. Arabic poetry has a long and
rich tradition of ecstatic love, whimsical humor, and philosophic insight.
Remarkably, charm and lightness of touch abound. Even the war invites
you to a picnic-from which you will not return untouched.
These poems form a continuous "conversation;' each one speaking
to and illuminating those around it. The subjects taken up in turn are war,
love, the daily life of the people, and the inner life of the artist. An
emergency room physician in Baghdad, someone who has surely seen
the worst of the current conflict, recently read this collection in English.
When he told us that these poems had brought him to tears, I knew that
we had captured at least a little of the truth about Iraq.
BAGS OF BONES
by Dunya Mikhail translated by Sadek Mohammed
At last she has found his bones.
His skull is also in the bag.
The bag in her hand
Is just like all the other bags
In other shivering hands.
His bones look like thousands of bones
In the mass graveyard.
But his skull is unlike
Any other skull.
Two eyes, two holes—
He saw too much through them.
Two holes for ears
To let the music in.
The story of this skull
Is his alone.
That is just an empty gap,
A mouth open
Like an abyss—
It was not like this
When he kissed her
Far from this place
With its clatter of skulls, bones, and dust.
This place where all our questions are exhumed:
What does it mean to die all this death
In a place where darkness plays
The instrument of silence?
What does it mean to meet
Your loved ones now
With all these holes?
To give your mother back,
On the occasion of death,
The handful of bones
She offered you
On the occasion of birth?
What does it mean that you depart
Without a death certificate?
The dictator does not give a receipt
When he takes your life.
The dictator must have a heart,
Perhaps a balloon that never bursts.
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 in her hand at last.
Her luck, at least a little better
Than her neighbor, who, alas
Still goes on looking
For her bag
WE ARE NOT DEAD
by Munthir Abdul-Hur translated by Sadek Mohammed
for Kadhim Kaitan
To no avail the doves cooing—
Our delights are cellars
And our time is ash.
We go, every sunset, to the river
Carrying the coffins of our days
Polishing our teardrops
And shrouding our fears.
We are not dead.
We still have the tearful embrace
We compose our features,
Bandage our calendars,
Under a spider's tent,
We still have the right
To conquer the city with kisses.
We return to our hospitals
Lighting lamps of regret
And reciting our elegies.
Our lifetimes are paper boats
Pushed to the waves by the hand of a trifling child
Where, fold after fold,
The sea takes our dreams
And wraps them in weeping.
Our lifetimes are withered leaves
That launched an attack on the sun
And fell in flames.
The fire now licks at our names,
Sewn together with splinters.
WHEN HE EXPLODED
by Salam Dawai translated by Soheil Najm
When he exploded
So he collected his fragments
And disappeared, ashamed.
Grew into enchanted trees.
Whenever the wind shook their branches
Unbelievable fruits fell down.
A COUNTRY OUT OF WORK
by Adil Abdullah translated by Soheil Najm
Everybody here is out of work:
The workers in the factories and the officers in the offices,
All of them are out of work!
Those going early to the fields
And coming back tired at noon
Are also out of work.
The students and the teachers,
Whom the government pays handsomely
To master joblessness, are out of work.
The army and the police,
The children and the adults,
The women in the houses,
The imams in the mosques—all
of them are
Out of work!
So long as there are strangers
Spreading darkness in our land,
Its children have no job but one—
The job of kindling sunrise from the ash
Of our extinguished sun.
by Lateef Helmet translated by Soheil Najm
The teacher asked the
To draw whatever they wanted.
The son of the principal drew
A new Chevrolet.
The son of the developer drew
A complex of markets and hotels.
The son of the party member drew
An armored car.
And the daughter of the school deliveryman
Drew a piece of bread.
by Mahmud Al-Kabi
In the noisy restaurant's
a little passer-by appeared,
his face all pale.
He was only there for two moments,
and dropped two beads of rain
on the cold, hard glass.
He thrust two hungry glances among the dishes,
and rubbed a small and dirty nose
on the chilly glass. The people's eyes
stared back at him, and he disappeared.
But the shape of his face
remained on the noisy restaurant's glass,
like a brand stamped on the fog.
FLOUR BELOW ZERO (edited)
by Kareem Shugaidil translated by Sadek Mohammed
No sun in our plates
No oil poured by the moon
No cloud we may stealthily
Milk from the sky.
Here is your share
Of ostrich feathers
And here is my share of cigarettes.
How much is left of the family's share?
Yesterday, flour ran out.
Before that, the sugar ran out.
No tea, no water, no air.
Eat the ration coupon then
And when you are full
Go out to the street.
Beware of the dolphins
And the whizzing ghosts!
Beware of insects!
Beware of the sun!
Take your full share of the street. . . .
The street has run out!
Come back to your mothers' breasts then
Or to their wombs.
Take your share of darkness.
But the milk has run out.
Then go to the river,
Lie on your backs:
The moon will be a ball
Between your hands
And the sun will be a basket
Have you run out of your feathers?
Have I run out of cigarettes?
Our lives, have they run out?...
Buy this book
to read the end of the poem.
is an editor of Gilgamesh, Iraq's cultural journal in English.
He is a professor of literature and translation in Baghdad.
an editor of Gilgamesh, is an
internationally known poet and translator living in Baghdad.
is the founder and editor of the international
peotry journal Atlanta Review.
Michigan State University