Choman Hardi: Review of ‘Considering the Women’

In the Recent Reading section of my website I observed that Choman Hardi’s “unsparing exploration of the plight and flight of the Iraqi-Kurdish people in the 1980s is poetry of witness of a high order. This is a body of work which is unique and deserves as much notice as we can give it”. I also blogged about her second collection, Considering the Women, where I drew comparisons between her poem ‘Gas Attack’ and Wilfred Owen’s well-known anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. My thoughts were in part a spin-off from a review I was asked to do of the book (alongside collections by Tony Hoagland and Jan Wagner). That review has been published in Poetry London. But Hardi’s book has just appeared on the Forward Prize Best Collection Shortlist and the post that now follows is the discussion of the whole book from my original review. The “delicate deliberations” alluded to in the opening line refer to Jan Wagner’s work – in which I discussed his explorations of the self, definitions and re-definitions of it, through our honest encounter with the world.

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The kind of horrific experiences and seismic changes to human lives that Choman Hardi writes about make some of these more delicate deliberations seem inappropriate luxuries. Hardi does not write much about herself yet the locus of her life is critical to the work. Born in Sulaimani, she lived in Iraqi-Kurdistan and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993.  She has since researched women survivors of Saddam’s chemical warfare against the Kurds in the late 1980s and has recently moved back to Sulaimani. Her first book (in English) Life for Us (Bloodaxe, 2004) was remarkable for its evocations of a childhood shattered by war, persecution and exile. Her new collection also contains timely poems about exile, warfare, ethnic cleansing, but goes on to reflect on the pull back to the homeland.

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Hardi writes devastatingly about the Iraqi state’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds, drawing directly on her research in the central ‘Anfal’ sequence. ‘Gas Attack’ offers a mother’s account of “a chalky-yellow powder” settling on exposed skin, her own and her son’s. The boy dies, groaning “like a calf”, the mother still blinded, unable to see him or “say goodbye”. Hardi’s language is always sufficient to the task – plain, direct, rising to the occasional metaphor, natural enough to suggest a witnessing voice. In ‘Dibs Camp, the Women’s Prison’, another mother who has already lost husband and daughter, holds her son in her arms as he dies suckling on a green slipper because he has asked for a cucumber and “is beyond // knowing the difference”. ‘The Angry Survivor’ introduces a different perspective as yet another mother rails against the intrusion of journalists, officials, activists who want to probe her story, or as she puts it, “pick my wounds”.

The position of the researcher is a vexed one openly considered in this collection. The ‘Anfal’ sequence is begun by the researcher’s voice, earnest, naïve and well-meaning. It concludes with ‘Researcher’s Blues’ in which she is now haunted permanently by the women’s voices so that “all I can do is / pour with grief which has no beginning and no end”. Such hyperbolic language is carefully measured to the devastating subject but the impact of such traumatic events on a non-participant is perhaps better dealt with elsewhere in the collection in more autobiographical pieces. In ‘My English Years’ the narrator sketches the story of a mixed marriage in decline. One of the points of contention is her research which leaves her feeling “dispossessed”. The husband tires of what he sees as her obsession with “victimhood”, then he also grows “fed up with me” (‘Our Different Worlds’).

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The irony of a poem like ‘Before You Leave’ – flinging out imperatives demanding that language, landscape, neighbours, parents must not be forgotten in exile – is that it is precisely these things that are never really abandoned. ‘Blackout’ records a more ordinary scene, a woman lying on a flat roof on a hot summer night. As the electricity is cut, her husband stumbles around in the dark below in yet another of those “ruptures” that seem to be the condition

 

[of] life going wrong –

a house disappearing after a bomb,

a loved one not waking up from sleep,

villages being erased from a map

 

That such occasionally generalized images stand for a universality validated by lived and carefully researched experience means Hardi’s readers may lower their critical defences. It’s brave and right of her to reflect her own life’s travails in these poems as it is always the individual’s experience that is trampled by state power and any re-statement of its importance is a political act.

Bathing in the Olt #7

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments:  #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5 / #6

Bathing in the Olt

7.

The past behind its drawn curtains

the train to Slatina

their loved ones emerged from the glittering water

*

their property stood on a hill of red soil, a few hundred feet distant but facing the river Olt

they were making for the other bank

they had no thought for the tragedy that had already

*

this was Violetta now in love with Virgil

though she would have been happy to be rescued

to irresistible longing

to swim where the currents allowed

two nights of absence . . . to her that was evidence enough

urgent matters would force delay

*

Violetta seemed to have handled the short separation well enough

Violetta suddenly disappearing from sight

Violetta took her revenge

Violetta was a powerful swimmer

Virgil Trancu and his family lived close by in the neighbouring village

*

waiting for the scandal to break at any moment

waiting for what he felt sure would happen

warm sand under leafy osiers in the breath of a day drawing to a close

was meant simply to entice him

was out of danger

was wrong and she suddenly burst into tears

*

yawning, carefully, she un-

zipped her “maillot” and lay indifferently, beautiful and seductive

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Bathing in the Olt #6

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4 / #5

Bathing in the Olt

6.

Reasons for panic at Milcoveni as the heated imagination of his girlfriend

she bent briefly forward as if liable to fall

she had a simple plan

she had made it the night before and she would carry it out

she seemed to be begging for help and attention which she did not truly need

*

skirting the strongest currents of the river, he managed to reach the other bank

slave to her own impressionable nature

so hard to counter. Cautiously, he tried to spare her any pain

so it was that the two couples often met

*

soil erosion caused by the powerful and frequent flooding of the waters of the

mighty Olt

some high society woman in Craiova

something of a coward and Benedict a mere beginner

struck out decisively for the side where the current seemed most powerful

*

taken aback and then enchanted by this new music

the “maillots” were brought out and Violetta’s was especially fine

*

the delay seemed to make sense no longer

the fear lovers experience when the one they love is not beside them

the grace and elegance of the two girls contrasted sharply with the ravines and the

river bed, hollowed out by the destructive fury

*

the material evidence . . . He found the two “maillots”

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(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #5

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3 / #4

Bathing in the Olt

5.

Near the bank the river was quiet

neither love nor life in the old, white house in Milcoveni

*

no direct path so they had to make a detour to reach the water

no inkling that anything was amiss

no trace of Benedict

not at all hard to convince. And he surrendered

not taken in by his gesture; it merely fuelled her suspicions

*

nothing seemed to threaten their happiness

now they had lost almost everything

*

on the opposite bank something strange was happening

one solitary gesture: one of renunciation

perfectly covering her body it emphasized her beautiful figure

pretending fatigue and weakness

quickly went under without trace

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(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #2 and #3

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installment: #1

Bathing in the Olt

2.

Dawning on Benedict

*

deeply

delightful entertainment during the long, hot summer days, bathing in the Olt

*

did not shout

did not threaten, did not say a word

drowning in the whirlpool of the Olt

.

3.

Elegant, young, attractive

even Benedict seemed to have lost his confidence

forests of osiers, of dense, hollow willow trees and huge sand bars that gave the impression of tremendous disturbance in the landscape

for her these were dreadful moments

*

given the opportunity to sneak back she swiftly dressed herself

*

going to bed that night they abandoned themselves to passionate embraces

he would not be able to keep the promise he had made when he’d left his girlfriend, Violetta

her eternal threat never left his mind

her misfortune was not something Violetta thought greatly about

hidden under the shaggy willow trees on the fine, dry sand, beneath the melancholy rays of twilight

his athletic body and complete absence of hair

his body found where the current had brought it to the river bank

his was unexpected

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(Next installment posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #1

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Bathing in the Olt

1.

A modest apartment

a swimsuit which on a famous beach last year in high season caused quite a stir

a well-lit house on a quiet street of the Capital

all part of the performance

*

an absence that had been longer than expected but through no fault of his own

as all miserable people

as they tried to hide

as you might after a funeral, having stood for hours, the welter of powerful emotion

at that very moment Violetta exacting her revenge

*

aware of his girlfriend’s fierce jealousy

Benedict had been adamant

both reproach and bitter disappointment

bringing the conversation skilfully round to bathing

cheat on me – on the very same day you cheat on me – I’ll cheat on you

*

children were taking cows to the pasture

*

close by he saw their naked bodies vanishing among the shade of the willow trees

crushed by the incident, imagining her happiness in ruins, her soul flared

arcade-card-french-woman-in-head-scarf-and-wooly-bathing-suit-sitting-on-beach-leaning-on-one-arm-1920s

(#2 posted tomorrow)

Bathing in the Olt #4

Introduction to the abecedary form of this sequence: click here.

Previous installments: #1 / #2 and #3

Bathing in the Olt

4.

I am miserable. I am very miserable . . .

I knew you would want to save me

if it was achieved without much effort on her part

*

important business would keep Benedict in Craiova for two more days

in contrast she appeared flawless

in his every action he could leave no room for any suspicion

in the horse-drawn carriage on the way they talked little

in vain she pleaded to accompany him

*

just some beautiful hotel waitress

*

keenly looking for the dining car waiting to catch sight of

left at home alone, spawned a host of suspicions

lovingly aroused by desire, the thought that she belonged to him

*

Milcoveni to take tea, served according to the rules of a fine house

more than once Mr. and Mrs. Virgil Trancu had been invited to join them bathing in the Olt

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(Next installment posted tomorrow)