The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by Anne Harding Woodworth on Kajal Ahmad

Handful of Salt by Kajal Ahmad. The Word Works, 2016.

When It Rains . . .

I am a cloud, I pour
  down love and poetry.


When you read Kajal Ahmad’s book, Handful of Salt, in its English translation from the Kurdish, you look through glass, through windows into interiors and out into exteriors, as well as through mirrors that reflect a beloved Kurdistan, a beloved self, and most of all the beloved art of expressing experience through poetry.


Yes, there are compelling and angry passages about terrorism; about male supremacy; about beheading and stoning; about Saddam Hussein and his genocidal Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, 1986-1989; about the Peshmerga; about Nugra Salman Prison where prisoners’ bodies were fed to dogs. There are references to stories, myths and folklore: Scheherazade, Layla and Quaiss, Adam and Eve, the birth of Jesus. The very title of the book refers to Kurdish folk wisdom that says: put salt into the shoes of a guest who has overstayed a visit. There are references to classical and contemporary Kurdish poets. And there is the natural world, too, especially the heavens, clouds from which rain pours down. All of this is beautifully woven together, poem after poem, until the reader is completely absorbed into Kurdistan, and thereby into the mind of the poet.


In the poem, “No,” Ahmad writes:


            Women and Kurdistan:

            how similar we are, how

            strange. I can’t separate

            myself from Kurdistan:

            we’re soil and soil, fire and fire,

            water and water


Just as Ahmad cannot release herself from Kurdistan, she cannot separate herself from poetry. It is this “ars poetica” aspect of the collection that carries her story of today’s Kurds beyond the historical, at times ugly and frightening, into the sublime. Poetry, which in these verses is almost organic in texture, is and has been since childhood, her comfort. For Ahmad, poetry might just as well be her own heart, pumping blood and keeping her alive. Or more, it might just as well be another human being, a lover, a neighbor.


            Playing hide-and-seek

            with fate, poetry kisses

            my lips and brings me

            down to earth.


And again thinking about childhood:


Now, as then, shyness grips me

            when a poem writes me,

            when I write a poem.


A street in the evening must be “like the quiet of a poem’s house.”


There is a Kurdish tradition that when a single strand of hair falls across your face, you must kiss it and place it on your eyes, which will then see a loved one. Instead, the poet plucks such a strand of hair out and presses this part of herself in a book. “I don’t want/any darling apart/from pen, page, line.”


In “27 Years of Suicide,” a rebellious speaker (“Those days I bound my breasts/and hid my hair under a grey cap”), says:


Catastrophe, war, the sin

is not mine. That poetry gives

me wings is not a crime. I am

devoted to the moon, which offers

the words, keeps me alive.


It is always a danger to assume the “I” of a poem is the poet herself. However, in these poems it is safe to say that Ahmad’s voice speaks loud and clear. “I want to say, ‘My poetry mimics my life.’” In “More Tender Than Mariam,” she addresses Kurdish women, poets, and mothers.


                                  . . . Without reason

            I speak. It’s never clear to me

            whether I talk for you, about

            the earth, or about myself.


She talks about all of these things, and so much more. That’s why translator Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse writes: “[Ahmad’s] syntax coils in on itself like rope.” Here is just such a coil from the poem “Our Holocaust”:


When they took them, everything

faded: revolution, manners, life,

beauty. Epic poems slumped

That history: bright sugar dissolving

in the toxic dark. The rose

surrendered, became a thistle.

The nation that forgets its Anfal

is beheaded.


Handful of Salt was translated by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, Mewan Nahro Said Sofi, Darya Abdul-Karim Ali Najm, and Barbara Goldberg. It is the kind of translation that has turned one language into another and created a compelling piece of literature in its own right. Ahmad’s rich vocabulary, her imagery, and thought have crossed over into an English that’s speaks fluently for justice and peace. The Glossary and Notes are helpful in enhancing an understanding of these beautiful lines of verse.

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