For my critical theory class, we read Dunya Mikhail‘s THE WAR WORKS HARD, a collection of poems by the Iraqi poet. Specifically in this post, I talk about the poems “The Cup,” “The Theory of Absence” and “Transformations of the Child and the Moon.”
I think what she’s doing here with form is the most intriguing thing for me. It’s like the saying that goes “There are rules but the best writers always break them.” She’s certainly gained notoriety doing something people like here.
I would say Mikhail’s war poetry is certainly concerning the homefront and that she denies the need for a specific form and abandons the ‘rules’ (if there are any) for form. As the introduction of my book notes, she weaves together the poetic and the folkloric as a means of metaphorical discernment or understanding for what she’s been there.
In “The Cup,” we don’t quite at first get that the speaker is using a ouija board, but once we understand, the speaker begins to trust us with the rules that she sets up. For example, at the beginning of the poem, she says “the cup moved to the right for YES” we know from previous lines that all caps is the dialogue from the spirit itself. We’re also told there that the cup moves to the right. Later in the poem, when the spirit answers yes, the poem will just say “she cup moved to the right” or left for YES and NO. The reader intuits the rules naturally because they’re set up at the beginning of the poem. This is a perfect example of how she’s using form here to create a new place — a place where ouija boards actually work, which isn’t necessarily altogether unfamiliar given that we know what a ouija board is even though it is never called that in the poem. Nonetheless, it is the subliminal communication between reader and speaker in the poem that creates an underlying connection there through observation and then intuition in “The Cup.”
In “The Theory of Absence,” the speaker is using a predetermined setup of proofs in math or logic to prove the absence of a beloved. There’s a hypothesis, a desired result, and a proof to get from the hypothesis to the result. There are, of course, huge logical leaps and this is no logically sound equation, but the conceit works. And it’s poetic. There’s something very visceral in poetry about using something familiar–like a ouija board or a proof– and then modifying it just slightly so that it becomes useful for the poet to do what s/he wants. It doesn’t particularly bother me that we have different rules for ouija boards or proofs in these poems — I actually enjoy discovering the rules each time and I think that’s what she does best in these form choices, she’s subtly subverting our expectation and it feels like creation or connection — like an inside joke we have with the poet and even in third-person, there’s something that can do which vastly diminishes the distance between speaker and reader.
Finally, just one last poem, I think she does a marvelous job too in “Transformations of the Child and the Moon” of using the device of an image and having these small stanzas about the frozen frame to still express an action. These are images, they are frozen, and yet the verbs she uses (though past tense and therefore fixed in a timely preterit past) are action verbs — “the child went to the river” and “the child sank” all in the same poem as if there was a passage of time within the image itself, even given the image’s fixedness. Like this tiny little frozen image was more than that — a human is more than a frozen frame.