Review by Chris Butters
(Available at CCMarimbo, PO Box 933,Berkeley, CA 94701,or at CCmarimbo.com, $15)
As powerful forces clamor for yet another U. S. military intervention in Iraq, it should be pointed out the recent events are the harvest of the previous U.S. military intervention there, and the situation cannot be fixed by more of the same. Perhaps it is a good time to turn to our progressive working class poets – specifically, Julia Stein’s recent poetry book about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars What Were They Like? -- for illumination.
“Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?”
-- Denise Levertov
These lines of poetry, written after the US Pentagon carpet bombing of Vietnam by the poet Denise Levertov, are the basis for the title and theme of this powerful new collection by poet Julia Stein regarding the recent US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What were they like? This books portrays through a series of poetry portraits (some through the use of monologue, some through the use of third person) the impact of the US military intervention upon at least some of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. We meet farmers, shopkeepers, school teachers, booksellers, poets and professional women seeking to live their lives despite the terrorism of US bombings – bombings ironically waged in the name of fighting terrorism. We see these characters struggle to get by, despite the growth of right wing Islamic fundamentalism -- a right wing fundamentalism in many respects strengthened, not weakened, by the US military intervention.
Stein’s poetry is very different stylistically from Levertov’s. Stein’s language is not a transformative language, of swirling metaphors and similes. Instead the connections are to be found in the relationships between people in the poems, rather than in the language itself. Furthermore, various ghosts and furies haunt the characters unwilling or unable to make these connections, giving “What Were They Like?” the character of a good novel.
We meet five year old Doha Suheil, who becomes the victim of a cruise missile. We meet Lynndie England, for whom Iraqis are characters in a video game, just like the pilots who drop the Cruise missile on Doha Suheil. We meet “The Woman Who Disappears Bit By Bit”, who must seek refuge in Syria because women are no longer allowed to work or walk without a burka in the “new” Baghdad. We meet soldier Joe Darby, who must flee his Pennsylvania hometown for a witness protection program because he blew the whistle on the CIA- US Army abuse of prisoners at Abu Graib.
For the people in “What Were They Like?” the US occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan does not bring the “freedom”, “democracy” and “security” from terrorism (let alone the removal of the fabled “weapons of mass destruction”) that was promised. Their lives in these pages are haunted by the “collateral damage “ of deaths from cruise missiles, profiling by US troops of Arabs as terrorists, and the “shock and awe” of the destruction of their cherished way of life.
Furthermore, the removal of the Hussein regime in Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan only enables right-wing Islamic fundamentalists and warlords to move into the power vacuum.
In “Before the War”, Stein provides a word picture of life in Baghdad before the US occupation. The stillness in the poem is all the more eery because we know what happens next.
“Some Baghdadis are digging wells for when
the water pipes break and stockpiling rice and
dates. Not at the clothing shop in old Baghdad.
The boss Issam Taka, who gets tea for his visitors,
tells about studying in Wales and touring the U.S.
He says Iraq women are working and walking
around the city. Iraqis don’t like bin Laden.
Admin Baldi is pressing women’s dresses under
fluorescent lights and listening. After work he is
walking past the cafes where men are laughing,
playing backgammon, and smoking water pipes.
Folk songs wafting in the wind. He can be found
watching the motorboats ferry people
back and forth across the river.”
Furthermore, Iraq before the war is not portrayed as the Islamic theocracy and its citizens the mass supporters of El Queda many Americans were led to believe, based on portrayals in the big business media.
Here are lines from the poem “Do I Look Like a Sumerian Goddess?” Stein appeals to the US Congress – only half-humorously invoking the ancient Sumerian goddess Ningal – to stop the destruction of Baghdad.
“Goddess Ningal, give me voice.
I’m just an ordinary American citizen.
Give me an airline ticket to Washington DC where I can
cry to Congress.
Baghdad, the gift of the gods,
the mother of the Arabs,
the caliphs’ city with the House of Wisdom,
the city whose libraries go back 1400 years,
the city whose great physicians studied the eye, cured its disease,
the city whose teachers preserved ancient Greek writers for the world,
the city whose scholars invented the card catalogue, invented algebra
measured the spheres,
now she has been bombarded by
the missiles that rained down upon her.
Where once businessmen had factories with workers sewing and pouring
now buildings turn to rubble.
Where once stood the finest doctors, the ill emerged healed restored
now bodies piled up on the roadside.
Where once Baghdad had the best universities the finest scholars
now bodies piled up in mass graves.
Baghdad cries over all the bodies of her people.
“The heart of the wasted city is crying, flutes of lamentation play.”
Like Ningal asked the gods
I ask Congress to stop the destruction of this city.”
Stein portrays the ensuing carnage and collateral damage, whether it be the indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods, or the profiling of Arabs as terrorists.
“At Al – Musantansinya College Hospital in Baghdad
the first patient brought in; five year old Doha Suheil
with shrapnel in her legs and her spine.
Now she had a frown on, her legs in gauze,
a drip feed attached to her nose,
as she tried to move her left side.
Her mother bends over her,
strengthens her right leg. A cruise missile left her
paralyzed on half of her body.”
One reviewer, while praising the power of the book’s political message, argues that the poem, relying on the shock of its last line, points to the “dangers” of political poetry, substituting “flat statements” for “poetic” language. (What about the danger of writing love poetry? Nature poetry? Poetry about baseball?)
But at a time when Americans are largely ignorant of the collateral damage of their tax dollars, Stein’s strategy is to present the forbidden image without metaphor or adornment so that we (and the other characters in her book?) look into the eyes of the paralyzed child.
Journalism? Or poetry? The poet and critic P.J. Laska has defined poetry as "neither fact nor fiction. It is a frontier of repressed force where human shadows seeking substance forage for truth." I would argue what is lacking in “poetic” language in these poems is offset by the power of the truth which Stein has foraged. It is poetry, and necessary poetry at that.
It should be pointed out that victims of this war are not just the Iraqis and Afghans. U.S. soldiers participating in the war are also victims. If originally signing on to fight “terrorism” after the 9/11 attack, they are haunted and brutalized by their actual role in the US occupation, even if they are not sure what they should or can do about it.
In “An American Soldier Awakes From his Dream”, an American soldier’s
childhood dream of being an American soldier “came true as he drove in Iraq a huge truck/that hit a mine.” Lying in Walter Reed Hospital, his leg amputated below the knee, “waking from the dream,” he exemplifies the debate and divided consciousness within many U.S. soldiers.
“He told his parents he wanted to return
to his unit in Iraq, and this was a good war
helping the Iraqis, to get their freedom, and
that his cousin thinking of joining the army
was crazy, and his cousin shouldn’t go.”
Unable to make the connections, especially the connections which would enable the participants to struggle to change the policies of the war machine, many are haunted by ghosts and furies.
In “Sleep Well, Baby Boy,” Sergeant Rand commits suicide when sent home after being pursued by ghosts who take shape during his second tour in the killing zone of Iraq. The ghosts represent to him the Iraqis he has killed in the occupation.
Even that war criminal president George Bush, commander in chief of the policies which led to the torture at Abu Graib, is pursued by a “ghost” of his own making
“We keep them safe with heavy armored cars,
attack helicopters overhead. We’re good guys
leaving Iraqis pickups, vans, SUVs parked
white trailers their troops can live in.
Now I’m afraid the damn Swiss will arrest me for their
stupid ideas of torture, so I stay home.”
(From “My Name Is George Bush”)
A central feature of the book is a series of portraits of the soldiers who participate in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Graib CIA prison. Like the those who program the Cruise missiles to drop bombs on five year olds like Doha Suheil, Lynddie England and Sabrina Hartman see the Iraqis not as people but as characters in a video game.
Stein places their collaboration in the context of the politics and culture of the US war machine: the CIA, the president, and the military brass who “who didn’t think twice and looked away.”
In “The Furies”, as much a theater piece as a poem, Stein the poet “wakes up the furies”. The furies visit a post- prison Lynndie England, alone and increasingly embittered by her newfound infamy as the “face of the Iraq War.”
“Now you can’t go anywhere people recognize you.
You dyed your hair people recognized you.
You wore sunglasses and a hat people recognized you.
There’s nowhere to run.
You’re the Face of the Iraq War.”
Scapegoated by the military higher ups, nowhere left to hide, Stein makes clear that the only way out for England is reconciliation with the Iraqis she abused and tortured, and at long last “to learn their names.”
“The people whose names you never knew in Abu Graib.
They can’t get jobs in Iraq like you.
They have sons like you.
They’re afraid for their sons will be kidnapped like you.
They’re afraid someone will shoot them every day in Iraq like you.
They have nowhere to run to like you.
Will they ever cease being cartoon characters to you?
What are their names?”
As in all of Stein’s books, there is a special emphasis and attention to the lives of women. We meet Malalai Joya, who joins the gallery of other memorable Stein female strugglers from her previous books. (Stein is the author of four other poetry books with working class themes, as well as the anthology “Walking Through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Factory Fire Poetry”, also from CCMarimbo. )
After growing up in a refugee camp during her “first war” (the Afghanistan-Soviet Union war); teaching young girls to read in an underground school in Afghanistan during her “second war”; and surviving the American bombings (“The American bombs decorated the land/ the Taliban fled the village/ the warlords rose into the capitol on trucks”) in her third war; Stein then describes the struggle of her “fourth war”.
“In her fourth war she stood up to denounce
the warlords at the Loya Jirga.
They howled, shrieked, threw bottles at her.
A mob surround her house to rape and lynch her, but
she had already fled underground.
Her dreams still blossomed into school for girls
in blue uniforms and white scarves.
Like her father she’s a rebel fighting on
in her burka moving from safe house to safe house
trapped between the Americans dropping bombs from the sky and
the Taliban on the ground with their guns.
Her parents named her Malalai.
Like the first Malalai she carries the flag daily into battle.
She named herself Joya.
Like the imprisoned poet Joya she uses words as her weapons.
smuggles them out to the world.
Malalai Joya will never surrender.
If she should die, remember
she asks if you will carry on her work after the death?
Then you are welcome to visit her grave.
You must pour water on it
and shout three times.
She wants to hear your voice.”
Some of my favorite poems in this book are poems where Stein seeks to inhabit the female furies she writes about. In “Inanna” her voice takes on the rhythms of ancient Sumerian poetry as she presents a contemporary version of the Sumerian goddess of the same name.
“You know her.
She stands before the courthouses in her blindfold
holding scales in one hand,
a sword in the other.
She knows how it feels to be raped.
To wake up from a deep sleep under the shade of an Euphrates poplar
10,000 years ago
her genitals torn bleeding onto her skirt.”
As goddesses in myths who have been wronged are prone to do, Inanna looses three plagues upon the world as part of an effort to find her rapist. Unsuccessful, she cries to her father the god Enki that her rape must be avenged and she will only return to her shrine when he sends her the rapist. Enki orders her to “stop being the goddess of vengeance” and “ sets her outside against the sky/as far as earth like a huge rainbow”.
The closing lines describe Inanna’s contemporary mission. They are no doubt directed against both the US military machine and the right wing Islamic fundamentalists. But they could well speak to all the wrongs awaiting the scale and sword of justice for the Iraqi and Afghan people.
“Back in her shrine she wrote the first legal code,
stands in front of the first courthouse she built.
She has lived, from ancient Sumer to modern Iraq,
knows how to distinguish the criminal from the just
faster than any Supreme Court.
She knows how to detect truth from falsehood
in any TV broadcast.
Now she has Internet in her shrine.
She’s good at Google searches.
She is Inanna Ishtar Ma’at Themis Lady Justice.
At night she rips off her blindfold,
takes off from the porches of a million courthouses,
flies around heaven around earth,
faster and more powerful than Cruise missiles,
more accurate than any Drone missiles.
Look for her against the night sky.”
The US war in Iraq has been widely proven to be a war for oil and superprofits by US banks and corporations. The withdrawal of US troops (though military bases in the region still remain) has since left Iraq in shambles, destroying much of its infrastructure (although not Iraq’s oil refineries, which have now been privatized, the result of the US occupation). America continues to stagger under the weight of its military spending. As Stein’s book makes clear, the ghosts and furies she portrays and invokes in this book will continue to haunt both Iraq and the US landscapes for many years to come.
The final poems in this book are about the spirit and resilience of the Iraq people in the face of such catastrophe. “Still the Date Palms Grow” and “Grape Juice You Can’t Forget” are wonderful poems testifying to the spirit of the Iraqi people to survive and resist oppression, whether invasions by the Mongols, the Turks, the British, or the recent US occupation.
These poems remind me of the poetry of another poet, who also celebrated a people’s spirit and resistance to their oppressors. Langston Hughes in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” speaks about the struggles and will to survive of African-Americans in the course of their history. His poem “Let America Be America Again” speaks of the struggles of all the oppressed in America, as well as the tradition of progressive working class struggles for peace, jobs, equality and justice.
Such American progressive working class traditions may not be as old as the ancient Sumerians traditions in Stein’s poetry, but it is organic to our country, just as the date palms and grape leaves are in Iraq. They are rooted in the labor movement’s struggle for the eight hour day, and the right to form unions. But they are also rooted in the struggle against racism, war and injustice in all its forms. Its motto is “We Are Naught, But We Shall Be All”. It is this progressive working class tradition that was instrumental in the movement to end to the Vietnam war, as well as the war in Iraq.
And It is a full bodied tradition that has historically embodied not just political struggle, but poetry, music and people’s culture. Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Edwin Rolfe, John Beecher, Muriel Rukeyser, Karen Brodine, Jack Hirschman, Amiri Baraka, Sam Cornish and Martin Espada are the names of some of its better known poetry practitioners, although there are many others who worked and are working outside the radar of the big business media. Without such working class culture our spirits cannot be galvanized and renewed in the fierce political struggles to come.
Julia Stein’s “What Were They Like”, like Levertov’s poem two generations before, provides another poetic link in this historic chain.
from DEAR JOE
“Please come home soon from Iraq.
We’ll go to New York to see Whitman’s ghost,
jostle with him through the crowds up Broadway
to go hang out on at his favorite saloon.
go take a ferry boat ride with him to Brooklyn,
follow him when he takes his manuscript to the local print shop
to be printed,
spend a lazy day with him loafing on the grass.
Please come home soon from Afghanistan.
We’ll spend some time with Langston Hughes’s ghost in Harlem,
eat with him at the table when company comes,
listen to him speak of rivers,
then go with him to the club on Lenox Avenue,
listen to the Negro play the weary blues.
Please come back soon from Germany.
We’ll take a long raft ride down the Mississippi,
wave goodbye to people on the shore,
avoid the steamboats and the grifters,
actually make it this time to Illinois a FREE state,
trek off to a new town for a free people,
Please come home from Korea.
We will all live in Jefferson’s village,
go every week to the meeting in the town hall,
Just remember now we in the village love you,
where we miss you,
where we’re waiting for you,
where we’re praying for you to come home soon.”