When It Rains . . .
I am a cloud, I pour
down love and poetry.
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.
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.
with fate, poetry kisses
my lips and brings me
down to earth.
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.
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
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.
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of five books of
poetry, most recently, Unattached Male (Poetry Salzburg, 2014).