New Welsh Review
Inhale / Exile
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Abeer Ameer’s vigorous poetry collection Inhale/Exile is an epic and a storybook in one. Epic, because the single poems are pieces of a whole body, storybook, because each poem is a story in its own right and can be read as such. Nevertheless, the epic characteristics stand out, in that the collection features the history of a war-torn area with all its heroes and villains. This area is Iraq.
Ameer’s first brilliant stroke is to bring the ancient storyteller Aesop into rivalry with her own nameless narrator. With that, the poet steps back and gives the stage over to a woman with a heavy heart, around whom the children gather to hear bed-time stories. The narrator’s almost incoherent tale of a lost bulbul and its mournful mother is a reflection of her own grief. As she is recounting the tale:
Her eyes wander to that space,
empty since his fourth birthday.
Her hand with a cigarette, balancing ‘a tower of ash’, is the allegorical reflection of a world that has actually ceased to exist, that is about to collapse any second. The children’s attention is drawn to this image rather than the tale of the bulbul. The amber beads of the rosary in her other hand, which the narrator moves one by one, symbolise the stories that are about to be told in this volume.
The following two poems maintain the epic tone. They introduce the setting of conflict and accentuate the creative process of writing and the meaning of books. ‘Baghdad 1258 CE’ is where:
Blood and ink
meet again at the Tigris.
That day blood poured
turning it red
until the next day
when it turned black from ink of books.
In ‘Four Poets in a Bookshop’, Saddam’s portrait is already present, but it is an archetype of a tyrant, not the actual Saddam we know from recent history. The poets have to hide: ‘they hide under the cloak of Arabic Lexicon’. This is an excellent move, hinting at language and its powers in times of fear, for the poets ‘share with one breath meanings that turn the Master’s key’. The eerie atmosphere in the bookshop lends this poem an adventurous tone. Saddam’s informants have the aura of timeless villains. Past and present merge at this point.
The events that unfold begin to show a timeline, though not a strict one. From here onwards, the poems mainly portrait characters, distinguished by either their professions or other attributes. ‘The Student’ is by nature ‘a thrill-seeker and swagger like James Dean’ until he writes an essay about the coup of 1963. Saved by his teacher, who doesn’t inform on him, he flees to Britain.
In the next poem, ‘The Prisoner’, the narrator refers to faith and doubt in a free man who becomes a political prisoner among others, and finds his ‘God’ in a state of spiritual defeat:
Some weep, some are strong, some wail
and some pray there is a god.
But in the dungeon,
with blood-caked clothes,
poppy eyes, a toothless smile,
he bears witness
in his opium heart
There is God.
It becomes gradually clear that in each subsequent poem, Ameer is loosely interweaving already introduced characters and situations with new ones. In this sense, ‘The Teacher’ is a thread drawn from the previous poem, ‘The Student’:
Parkinson’s triad slows his movements,
holds his pill-rolling fingers, his arms,
in cogwheel rigidity. A tremor moves his head.
He once saved a life
by a movement of his head:
a nod to his student
on the for execution list
to usher the fugitive
out of the window.
In the poems that follow, Ameer begins to occasionally introduce medical jargon into her poetics to illustrate the illness of this society, for example the struggles of ‘the Army Doctor’ who ponders over the absurdity of his profession under Saddam’s rule:
Another reluctant soldier.
A right leg injured
swollen and necrotic
as the doctor’s own heart.
Amputation of a green-black limb
to save a life
They’ll do anything for release.
Ameer’s powerful imagery and characters gain sharper contours as we continue, such as the dynamic photographic transformation from negative to positive. The heroes are those who hold on to a positive image of humanity in their simple way. There is ‘The Postman’ who risks everything and reports to his superior that he could not deliver the government’s summons because ‘the house was empty again’. The house belongs to the father of five doctors. Two of his sons have fled the country:
unless they had already died
in which case the lesser punishment
for not informing the state immediately.
A brilliant surreal hero is ‘The Diver’ who loves the rivers and oceans and can hold his breath for a long time. Holding his breath is his way of hoping for peace in spite of all the atrocities he witnesses:
Today he holds his breath
in his hands, feels the skin-to-skin connection
as he finds another body. This time with no head.
He loosens it from Tigris tangles.
Baghdad 2007 has been difficult.
The diver will probably find the family,
or head, downstream somewhere.
The villains are Saddam and those who work for him, his secret service, his Mukhabarat. Between the villains and the heroes are the marginal figures, the opportunists, The Bystander:
Also known as collateral damage.
The usual story of his type:
minding his own business
People speak of them in many tongues
and warn of the preceding hum
in eternal stand-by.
But the resilience of the heroes, their romantic vision of humanism, the risks they take with their own lives, make this poetry collection a work that consoles.
At the one third point of this collection, Ameer’s use of established forms makes way for original experimental ones, which take this collection to another level.
‘Lost Heads at Firdous Square, Baghdad, 9thApril 2003’ is a three-column poem illustrating three points of view on the toppling of Saddam’s statue. ‘Detail’ depicts the unbearable images of the suicide attack at the shopping mall in Karrada on 3 July, 2016, through redaction.
‘Price Tag’ is a villanelle in which the repetition of a phrase uttered by Madeleine Albright in relation to the sanctions of 1996 and the subsequent death of children intends to crystalise the bitter irony of war:
She didn’t twitch, deny or confirm it
That half a million children had died.
But the price, we think, the price is worth it.
One of the highlights here is ‘Photographer in Halabja, 17thMarch 1988’. Recalling Saddam’s mustard gas attack on the Kurdish people, this poem gives voice to a photograph that became as monumental as Picasso’s Guernica:
In front of steps
the figure of a man rests
wearing Kurdish turban and baggy pants,
a large sash wrapped around his waist,
face down in the dirt,
holding a baby in his arms.
Muted earthy tones around a pink blanket,
a white glowing face, chin-up to the sky.
I assume Ameer could distance herself from her homeland’s historic horrors by creating a narrator. For her tone is free from reproach and anger. In a recent interview, Ameer told Sheenagh Pugh that she came to poetry through the backdoor of dentistry, which is her trade. She completed a master’s degree in Conscious Sedation which involved the treatment of anxious patients by using a sedative language. Applied to this collection: ‘this pinch might feel uncomfortable’ for some readers. It is a book to satisfy poetry lovers who not only enjoy the enigmatic side of this art, but also prefer to look at history on a dust road where they can linger because reality isn’t passing at the speed of light.
Shara Atashi is an author and translator based in Aberystwyth. She is the daughter of the Iranian poet Manuchehr Atashi. Shara left Iran with her mother after the 1978 revolution and completed high school and university in Frankfurt, Germany. After years of legal work in Berlin and The Hague she relocated to London and settled down as a translator. Shara came to Wales in 2019 to focus on her literary work and has been awarded a place by Literature Wales to develop and represent their campaign against racism. Part of this writer development is a mentorship by Michael Rosen. The online platform Writers Mosaic has featured her as a regular contributor and published her most recent pieces, the memoir essay ‘Large Glass’, and her review of the Afghan film Osama. She is currently completing her joint project, Tomb at Bushehr, with the poet and linguist Mary Burdett-Jones; it is a bilingual poetry collection of her father’s poetry in English and Welsh.