JANUARY 8, 2020
IN JORGE LUIS BORGES’S very short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the imperial cartographers perfect their art. As they hone their practice, the maps become larger and larger to accommodate more detail. Finally, “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” There is a joke here: a perfect map is a futile map. A map requires exclusion to be of use. A narrative is a useful map, a way through that retains a settled — even relentless — relationship to what it discards. The reliable narrator brings forward what is necessary, with no emotional remainder.
The unreliable narrator has an unsettled relationship to what has been left behind. She charts a useless map, offering no promise to lead us from here to there such that, upon arrival, here and there are magically inverted as though where we end up is where we’ve been headed all along. In her brilliant debut poetry collection, Hard Damage, Aria Aber writes, “I understood what it meant to have an unreliable narrator as a mother.” Afghan refugees living in Germany — like Aber’s own parents — the parents in Hard Damage are shaped by what they’ve lost, as well as by the brilliance of their creation in the face of that loss.
Hard Damage — which elaborates a constellation of beauty and terror between Afghanistan, Germany, and the United States — is vexed by the meanings of bringing across. That is to say: Though written and published in English, Hard Damage is a book of translation. The translator, according to Paul Ricoeur, is “doubly sanctioned by a vow of faithfulness and a suspicion of betrayal.” Faithfulness and betrayal are not only the translator’s practice. They are also the daughter’s. The speaker in Hard Damage cannot mother in the sense of biological reproduction, and she is evidence that reproduction is a false name for mothering. The child is not the parent’s copy.
Mary Ruefle, “Short Lecture on Translation”:
I asked my friend the translator, What was the first known act of translation in the history of mankind? His answer was, Probably something into or out of Egyptian. I thought about this for a while and ventured a certainty, No, I said, it was when a mother heard her baby babble or cry, and had to decide in an instant what it meant.
New to the world, the child enlists the parent as her first translator. In a new country, the parent’s first translator is often their child. This is an act of kinship that is also an act of estrangement. “Our mothers become our first ‘Other,’” Aber writes, the Os opening like twinned mouths, the sound of “Other” — nearly wholly held in “mother” — echoing the parent even in the act of naming the child’s distance.
Sometimes the child and parent are illegible to each other. Sometimes this is the goal and the grief. How knotty betrayal and faith become in contexts of forced migration. For the child of a refugee, the desire to return can be its own kind of betrayal, its own kind of faith. “When I tell / one aunt I’d like to go back / she screams it is not yours to want,” Aber writes. When someone risked their life to give you other than what they had, the wish to return — in body or in memory — to the “home” that expelled them can read like betrayal.
Yet, as Walter Benjamin cautions, reproduction is only translation’s goal if we understand language to be purely utilitarian. Language brought across bears traces of its journey. Exile reforms the I. The myth of self-possession buckles, revealing contingent encounters, charting longings, opening out onto impossible distances. “I am not mine,” Mahmoud Darwish, the great poet of exile, writes. Forced migration amplifies these crossings, but all language that passes over the body’s borders witnesses Darwish’s statement. “Language,” Gayatri Spivak notes, “is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” I always carries you, they, we, her. I, inextricable from its boundaries, transgressed. I: the self, wanting.
Last year, in the wake of Lucie Brock-Broido’s death, friends and students gathered to read their beloved’s work. Then the lights dimmed, and the poet’s voice came over the sound system, introducing her own poem. “Fuck ‘the speaker,’” Brock-Broido announced. “It is I.” That is the only thing I remember of that evening — the “fuck” shot through with the pleasure of casting off the ambivalence of artifice to reveal the self as self; the integrity of a self earned through language work; and the glorious risk of handing that self over so that it might be remade through encounter.
Brock-Broido’s I comes back to me as I’m reading Hard Damage. I’m not talking about “the confessional” — a label too often applied to insist on the wild interiority of white women — nor about the racist sociological that refuses writers of color that interiority. Aber’s is, rather, so often the wanting I — neither cleaved from biography nor clipped to it. “We are what we are taught, / yes, but also what we / hope for,” Aber writes, and where the speaker articulates her longing in language, I register a clarity sometimes called, I think, truth. “Let me not turn away. Whatever is purity — let me not be pure,” she counters Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived through a war and found unblemished transcendence in a bowl of fruit. And to her mother’s brother, disappeared after he was taken in for questioning, the speaker says: “Somewhere, I am sure of it, we will meet again. / We must. Or else no word of this has worth.” I hear this I most resoundingly when the speaker questions. In questions, even where the I does not call its own name, it casts itself into what it wonders — sufficiently driven by the motor of its desire to risk, to invite, the unforeseen encounter. Catherine Barnett writes: “More than any other speech act, a question creates an other.” In this sense, where “the other” is the I’s spine, the question marks the self’s most honest expression. “What even is sustenance?” Aber writes in “Unmotioning.” In “Reading Rilke in Berlin”: “But what is exile / exactly.” In “Stone”: “[W]hat did it mean / to be an Afghan and a woman?” In these moments, I hear it most: I mean this.
In the context of power’s distortions of language, Aber’s shimmering precision is an ethical project. The generative clarity of uncertainty rages against the deadening taxonomy of empire. Solmaz Sharif writes,
The maiming and obliteration of language preempts and attempts to excuse the maiming and obliteration of bodies. Poets, as the caretakers of language, if by no other contested purpose of poetry — to humanize, to emote, to demand a “total reaction” as Muriel Rukeyser puts it — are called upon to respond, to defend their medium.
Indeed, Aber disarticulates language from power’s coercions. “Interrogation Chamber,” the 11th and final section of “Operation Cyclone” — a remarkable and devastating poem named after the CIA’s program to arm and fund the mujahideen — begins with the documentation of erasure: “Before they buried him without cerement, / or ceremony, we assume he didn’t admit / a name.” Against the brutality of the they and the complicity of the we, the intimate ones emerge. “One misses his slippers, their / shambling / sound in the hallway”; “[o]ne recalls who gave him baths / in childhood […]” The we goes about assuming, mining the prison guard’s beautiful handwriting for the tenderness its own consolation requires. To “admit” a name — meaning at once, contradictorily, “to confess” as well as “to absorb” — positions the body as porous to language, with uncertain relationship to inside and outside. Turning the language of the bureaucracy of torture against itself, Aber, in a single gesture, archives the violence and recuperates a freedom of mobility denied to the imprisoned man the poem describes. Finally, though, the most intimate relation, the killed man’s mother, turns away from both the forthright violence of the they and the sensory restoration of the ones: “[I]n her yard // an offering of a hundred falcons / without beaks, their nervous brown wings / begging of her the hard language / she refused to speak.” The mother, too, refuses to admit a name. To name the inarticulable loss would be to contain it, to offer it back to the social space that killed her son.
And yet isn’t language the book’s work? In “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” Anne Carson describes this dilemma between speech and silence:
Most of us, given a choice between chaos and naming, between catastrophe and cliché, would choose naming. Most of us see this as a zero sum game — as if there were no third place to be: something without a name is commonly thought not to exist. And here is where we can discern the benevolence of translation. Translation is a practice, a strategy, or what Hölderlin calls “a salutary gymnastics of the mind,” that does seem to give us a third place to be. In the presence of a word that stops itself, in that silence, one has the feeling that something has passed us and kept going, that some possibility has got free.
Hard Damage exists in this “third place to be.” Rainer Maria Rilke, that great poet of longing, recurs. In the book’s third section, “Rilke and I” — presided over by Rilke’s line “Lass dir Alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken” (“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror”) — each subsection is named for two words, the German and its English translation, and the poem unfurls in the space between. From “ich / I”: “Ich, the German first-person singular pronoun, is not capitalized. // Is my German selfhood humbler, does it fold into itself? Why is the English I so prominent, so searing on the page?” Holding together the German and the English shakes off the sediment of common sense, estranging the self so that it might relate differently. Toggling between these two wor(l)ds, the self becomes a connective vector, transformed in translation. When the poem ends with a refusal that makes way for wide affirmation — “No. Let everything happen to the word I worry.” — there is the sense, indeed, that “something has passed us and kept going, that some possibility has got free.”
Where exile forges an unbreachable distance in time and space, it tends — among other openings and closures — to the romance of imagination. In this way, violence and possibility are knotted at the root. “This is how it is about place: / each one a genesis. I mean bombs,” Aber writes. That distance between the speaker and home sometimes forms the ground from which to speak — “I’m privileged enough to think of a border / as another line to write on” — means that to speak sometimes is to amplify that distance. After all, is art made in exile not also the art that exile makes? Hard Damage explores the violence of one’s song being hitched to violence, the complexity of being made — and making — here, where what is now there was once here before the now-here made the now-there uninhabitable for the speaker’s family: “How much / of my yearly tax is spent to bomb the dirt that birthed me?”
Still, where cleaving characterizes both birth and death, it is also a kind of map — a line(age) that is not linear, like the daughter mothering her mother, or the line of poetry that doesn’t move from one end to the other but plants sounds and images that reverberate against the blank space of the page, revising what came before. In “Mother of All Balms” — whose name stages a mishearing of “Mother of All Bombs,” a common name for the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, the most powerful conventional bomb ever used in combat, which the United States dropped in Afghanistan in April 2017 — meaning proliferates to tell a story that is not a story. Aber writes: “[T]his ink, / like memory, / an ancient unguent, // enshrining what cannot be held / of what went missing — the dog, her hat of hay, // one brother.” The poem holds the almosts and the nearlies that it describes — not capturing but touching them so briefly as to turn any certainty into a question. The poem’s ending, “all her once-upon-a-chimes,” sounds a thousand openings, not only calling an as-yet-unwritten story out onto the blank field of the page, but also shivering back up the whole poem, sending the reader to search for what else might have been there all along. This proliferation of possibility, too, is the balm that mothers.
Jenny George says: “[L]anguage is just what poets use — like wind chimes — to catch the sound of the larger, more essential thing. Wind chimes themselves are not the point. The point is the wind.” To move between languages is to hear the strange music language makes — air passing through the wind chimes. Language’s music is dulled to us when we take it for granted, wield it as only instrument. “I would argue that most piercing lyric poets don’t speak in the ‘proper’ language of their time,” Ilya Kaminsky writes. Where “proper” describes a form though which power flows unchecked — the proper behavior, the proper documents, the proper speech — to speak “improperly” is to open relational possibilities that agitate those forms deployed to naturalize the hierarchies power prescribes. These improprieties are a poetic resource. The collection’s opening poem, “Reading Rilke in Berlin,” retains the memory of coming into a language from an outside: “It took me twelve strange springs to know: nothing / occurs out of a sudden.” Later: “So I lay at a pavement. Under your elegy. In a bridge” — the preposition substitutions inaugurating new relationships. Language requires the air of the outside for its strangeness to be spun to song. Kaminsky: “Isn’t lyric itself a strangeness inside the language? Isn’t silence? After all, what is music — any music — without silences in it?” Music, then, bears witness to outsidedness.
If documentary witness shows us what is, Aber’s is a lyric witness — summoning the conditional and counterfactual as constitutive components of the present. It is exile’s promise: missing what has never been touched, mourning foreclosed futures, learning of the past through the unreliable narration from those plagued by loss and tasked with rebuilding. “Who / I am trying to return to / I’ve never been,” Aber writes. These poems sound out a kind of loneliness — that outside inside, apartness that is also deeply a part of — from that space of estrangement that makes song, that song makes. Kaminsky on the lyric poet, quoting Paul Celan: “Alone with unintelligible language, he sings ‘in front of strangers.’” This might also be said, “Her unintelligible song makes her strange to everyone around.” Or, “Singing among strangers, her language is unintelligible.” What the speaker longs for does not exist. Yet, the lyric event creates the here that otherwise would not be. To sing, then, is an act of faith — not so much that we won’t be strange to each other, but that the meanings of strangeness might be contoured by love, that we might, as Aracelis Girmay writes, “name every air between strangers ‘Reunion.’”
If there is humor in Borges’s story of the map, there is also pathos. Where the cartographers had finally achieved perfection, their descendants “saw that that vast Map was Useless” and cast aside the work of their ancestors, “deliver[ing] it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.” How ungrateful, the cartographer’s descendants. How sad that they cannot see the value in the record of their ancestors’ study. “I wanted from this world only to be kind to my parents,” Aber writes in a moment of stunning clarity. Hard Damage enters into this terrain of what came before, gathering the “Tattered Ruins of that Map” and making way in “the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.” This is not the colonial project of territorializing, but the question of climate — the German snow, the “musky, / expensive scents” of the aunts filling the halls, a kitchen warmed by the oven’s heat, a chest knotted as “the liveliness / of this day assails me” — how we are together, how else we might be, and what that feels like.