Dunya Mikhail’s Poem, ‘Bags of Bones’

Pictured is Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on the hunt for the poetry beyond America’s shores. Part of that is an obvious aesthetic choice: I want to experience poetry from non-Americans. I want to experience art in general from non-Americans. Relegating myself to one geographic region for art, even a place as diverse and expansive as America, is to do my soul a disservice. But also part of it is that, quite frankly, as an American, there are experiences in the world I know nothing about. For example, I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with bombs. I don’t mean that figuratively. Imagine an entire childhood defined by war, or at least, war always running in the background as you try to live some semblance of a “normal life.” I can’t imagine it because it’s so far beyond my understanding. And yet.

Today’s poem helps get to some understanding. It comes from Iraqi-American poet, Dunya Mikhail, in a poem entitled, “Bags of Bones.” The poem is from her 2005 collection The War Works Hard, translations from Elizabeth Winslow and Dan Veach, and published by New Directions in New York. Gah, that collection title alone knocks me down.

Mikhail was born in Baghdad and received her bachelor’s from the University of Baghdad, according to the Poetry Foundation.

She was a translator and a journalist for the Baghdad Observer, and — I’m getting chills as I read and type this — she was placed on Saddam Hussein’s enemies list. My goodness. If you’re not familiar, Hussein was the dictator of Iraq from 1979 until 2003. Estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 Iraqis were killed by Saddam in gulags by secret police. That’s not counting the death toll from the war with Iran in the 1980s. So the fact that Mikhail was on Saddam’s list was not to be taken lightly.

I can’t think of someone I admire more — and again I’m getting chills — than someone who writes and tells truth in the face of such harassment, threat of violence and even death. To the point where she had to flee Iraq in 1996, and eventually became an American citizen. In 2011, she was awarded the United Nations’ Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing.

“Here, in America, a word does not usually cost a poet her life. However, speech is sometimes limited to what is acceptable according to public norms. So, in Iraq, text precedes censorship. In America, censorship precedes the text,” Mikhail said.

What a courageous woman. So, with all of that context in mind, here’s an excerpt of the poem:

What does it mean to die all this death
in a place where the darkness plays all this silence?
What does it mean to meet your loved ones now
With all of these hollow places?
To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?

The poem starts, “What good luck!” which is a bit of dark humor, in a way. Because, in a way, it is good luck to at least find the body of the dead you’re searching for. That’s a form of closure, at least. But the image of holding a bag of your loved one’s bones in a bag, and the rattling. And the bones recovered from a mass grave of bones. The indignity and tragedy of that. The fact that a “mass grave” necessarily becomes just a statistic rather than a singular horror.

While both intimate in the discovery of the bones, the poem is also broad in what it hints at: a “nose that never knew clean air.” Sort of what I was mentioning as it regards growing up in a country perpetually at war and/or being bombed by Americans. But there’s further indignity because it’s not only a life not able to be well-lived, but again, the death itself is treated as but one more cause for the “homeland.” Everything is in service to the “homeland,” which really means the huge skull of the dictator.

The poem isn’t merely an indictment of Saddam, the dictator, albeit Mikhail would have cause to, but also of the “audience that claps.” Because it’s not as if dictators rise to power and maintain power by brute force alone. All dictators the world over have had their boosters, enablers and supporters. Saddam was no different.

“Until the bones begin to rattle,” that is. What a poignant line. At some point, even those types find the support of the dictator untenable.

And at the end, the poem comes full circle from the dark humor of, “What good luck!” to her disappointed neighbor who has “not yet found her own” bag of bones.

War is hell, and war in the service of dictators who conflate the protection of the homeland as the protection of themselves is more hellish still. Mikhail’s poem captures both the intimate ramifications of that as well as the broader sweep with subtle indictments of both dictator and enabler.

All too often in America when we wage war on other countries, you can turn on a cliche cable news panel, and there will be six white Americans discussing the war, its justifications, its consequences and so on. Voices you rarely ever hear, even nowadays, much less back in 2003 at the height of the American invasion of Iraq, were the voices of Iraqis, those most affected by the war and by Saddam. That’s a tragedy in and of itself.

I look forward to reading more of Mikhail’s work.

What did you think of this poem?

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