Book Review - Flowers of Flame reveals Iraqi life during wartime

Americans seldom expend much hype, or even attention, on poetry. But in some parts of the world, poets command national significance. The anthology Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq proves that poets can even be important enough to kill.

??One of the book’s contributors, Abn Al-Hassan Al-Shatr, disappeared in 1981 and is believed to have been executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime for political reasons. Flowers of Flame includes his “Brine on the Wings of Seagulls.” Knowing Al-Shatr’s likely fate adds enormous authority to the poem’s imagery of freedom and loss against the backdrop of a slave uprising.??Few volumes of verse involve such high stakes as Flowers of Flame, the first collection of Iraqi poetry since the war and occupation. Edited by the Atlanta Review’s Dan Veach, along with Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm and Haider Al-Kabi, the book features contributions from 35 writers, four of whom are women. Many wrote under unimaginably difficult conditions in Iraq, others while living in exile. On April 8, Callanwolde Conservatory celebrates the book with a poetry reading with recitations from the book by such local luminaries as Kodac Harrison, Melody Moezzi, Ginger Murchison, Stephen Bluestone, Ruth Windham and Veach.??According to Veach, many of the poems were written in response to the United States’ 2003 invasion. Abdul Razaq Al-Rubaiee penned “Tomorrow the War Will Have a Picnic” on the eve of the U.S. “Shock and Awe” campaign. The poem powerfully imagines the war as an implacable guest whose whims bring devastation, and features wonderful figurative language: “Empty the salty streams from the faucets of your eyes.”??Many of the anthology’s first poems evoke the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein, with justified indignation. Dunya Mikhail’s “Bags of Bones” uses short, spare lines to describe a woman’s search at a mass grave and has an accumulating power, beginning with a bitterly ironic exclamation, “What luck!/At last she has found his bones.” Al-Rubaiee’s “The Statue” evokes the kind of propaganda that painted Hussein as a savior for all Iraqis, from Communists to imams to brides. The verse culminates with the famous, oft-televised image of Hussein’s statue being pulled over, marking the collapse of a heroic image built up over decades.  ??Even an editor’s footnote can offer a pithy detail. When poet/editor Najm refers to Hussein’s “picture” in “Seven Attempts to Portray Mr. President,” a note points out the omnipresence of the dictator’s portrait: “Iraqis used to say that the population of Iraq was 34 million: 17 million Iraqis and 17 million Saddams.”??If Flowers of Flame’s poets overtly target the United States as a nation or an occupying force, they’re too discrete for me to notice. Instead, some poems hold America implicitly responsible for the country’s tumult. Kareem Shugaidil’s “Flour Below Zero” offers a surreal portrayal of widespread deprivation and shortages, in which everything can run out — “even nothing can run out” — and “mothers have been stolen from their own tears.” In some poems, the justifiable anger occasionally sounds like editorializing, including Adil Abdullah’s “The Prey.”??There are poems in Flowers of Flame that avoid history or politics, which may not be that surprising given the possibility of lethal reprisals under Saddam. The anthology includes plenty of lyrical, bittersweet verse about relationships that include both subtle and overt sensuality. The volume’s wartime context inevitably brings ominous interpretations that may not be the poet’s intention. Reem Qais Kubba’s “A Drop” discusses a former love who may be simply gone, but could also be a casualty of war.??Despite its borderline-lurid title, Ali Abdulameer’s “The Hanging Gardens of Death” spans so much Iraqi history and geography that it qualifies as a kind of lamenting anthem. If it drew on an American poetic tradition, it would resemble the poetry of Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg. Yet some of Flowers of Flame’s most memorable works are the short ones that feel like prayers or invocations of the muse. In their brevity, the poems demand the reader attend every word, as if each were a dying breath.
Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq Edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider Al-Kabi, and Dan Veach. Michigan State University Press. 96 pp. $14.95.