Shrapnel and Song: On Contemporary Poetry from Afghanistan
By Matthew RitgerApril 20, 2014
I Am the Beggar of the World by Seamus Murphy and Eliza Griswold
I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment.
— Virginia Woolf, in her diary
IN THE SIXTH CENTURY, an extraordinary Buddhist monastic complex flourished in the mountains of what we now call Afghanistan, where the ancient Silk Road traversed the Hindu Kush. About 90 miles northwest of modern-day Kabul, the industrious monks of Bamian carved more than a thousand Buddhas into niches in the sandstone cliffs, as well as a vast network of tunnels, staircases, and chambers.
Two of these carved Buddhas towered over the others, and were considered some of the finest examples of early Buddhist art to be found anywhere in the world. The smaller was 115 feet tall, and the taller stood a staggering 174 feet — the tallest Buddha anywhere in the world, taller than the Statue of Liberty. The statues had wooden faces, and it is thought that, centuries ago, their eyes were lit from within by lanterns and glowed in the night.
In the early spring of 2001, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban (known in Afghanistan as Amir-ul Momineen, the commander of the faithful), announced that the Bamian Buddhas were to be destroyed. Islam (like Protestantism) condemns idolatry, and the statues were idols that had been “the gods of the infidels,” he declared.
The director of UNESCO called this “a crime against culture.” Despite global outcry, the Buddhas were pulverized: with pics and shovels, artillery fire, and finally with antitank explosives. Within weeks, all that remained of the world’s tallest Buddhas were the towering twin gaps in the mountainside, the niches where the statues once stood. And the rubble.
This is one of the more well-known cultural “reforms” the Taliban instituted in Afghanistan in the late 1990s; lesser known is a ban on musical performances and singing, which also restricted an ancient and popular poetic tradition called the landay, practiced almost exclusively by women. Though that ban has now been lifted in many parts of the country, in the rocky Pashtun region — where many girls are not allowed to attend school or leave their homes —for a woman to write poetry still indicates a dishonorable free will. Many girls are not allowed to attend school, and many women are hardly allowed to leave their homes. To participate in this poetry, girls and women risk dishonor and their lives.
Despite what we might consider a criminal repression of basic rights, this ancient culture of poetry persists today. Radio programs about poetry connect women to each other and to the outside world. A women’s literary group in Kabul runs a phone hotline for girls in far-flung villages to call in and share their work. Poetry is their art and a way to continue their education.
These are poems without authors, poems coined by the illiterate, poems whose authors can’t afford to be revealed. And yet these landays, which traditionally were sung along to the beat of a small drum, are now discussed across long-distance calls, swapped via text message, posted on Facebook, and — in at least one case — scrawled as graffiti on the wreckage of an American tank.
The couplets in I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) have been collected and skillfully translated by the intrepid poet and journalist Eliza Griswold, and represent one of our most fascinating chances to see another history and another poetry — and to see our own history and our own poetry — differently.
History is written (or demolished) by the victors, but, as I Am the Beggar of the World shows us: Poetry is also written. By anyone. It is spoken, it is passed along, rewritten and remixed and “redeployed.” The previous paragraphs have been mostly about history, but the following will be primarily about the also-written: These poems — these splinter-stories called landays — which, in their scathing wit and compressed music, marry shrapnel to song.
Here’s a poem you might remember, by Ezra Pound, called “In a Station of the Metro.”
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
And here’s a poem you’ve probably never read before, from I Am the Beggar of the World:
Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.
What’s incredible about that second poem is not just that it achieves everything Ezra Pound’s Modernist classic does: the solidity of image is fused through sound to an endlessly moving (emotive and mobile) meaning; Griswold’s “eyes” and “bees” have a similar effect to Pound’s imperfect rhyme of “crowd” and “bough.” It does all that (which is quite enough) without its context. With its context (and ours), the landay also achieves the self-specularity aspired to (most self-consciously, at least) by postmodern poetry.
Presumably the poem is spoken by a woman, to an eroticized addressee — probably a man. But the image the poem conjures most lucidly is that of an Afghan woman’s eyes peering from her burqa — the image of the person who is speaking the poem. The poem therefore describes “your” stinging eyes, while it also describes “my” (the speaker’s) eyes. And because in reading the poem the reader’s “I” reanimates this speaker’s “I,” I suddenly find this speaker’s eyes — which we thought were looking out from inside a burqa in Afghanistan — are now inside of my “I.”
And yet, there is no “I” in the poem, at all. These poems literalize the theoretical death of the “lyric I.” That no one wrote this is the condition that allows the poem to exist. There is no subject here, at all. There can’t be.
Within the couplet’s many “beautiful caves” (which are probably infinite), then, I see three essential levels: An Afghan woman addresses her beloved; a subject addresses its own “incurable” limits; and the reader addresses the poem — that is to say, the reader addresses her own being-affected-by the poem. Or, the reader addresses her own being (affected by) the poem.
But all of those readings are circumscribed inside the necessary subjectlessness of this lyric: All three of those readings both are and cannot be.
Out of all the poems collected here, that one about the eye-bees is probably the most boring. Many others display the humor that gives humanity its “depth,” in Woolf’s formulation, and most sound more like a Mae West quip than anything else:
Making love to an old man
is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold.
Come, let’s leave these village idiots
And marry Kabul men with Bollywood haircuts.
In their original Pashto, landays have relatively few formal properties: 22 lilting syllables (nine in the first line, and 13 in the second) that sound like a lullaby but contain a harsh truth, or a rude joke, or a brutal grief. In the original the poems don’t necessarily rhyme, but many of Griswold’s translations do, to approximate the musicality that belies these poems’ bawdy wit:
Daughter, in America the river isn’t wet.
Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the internet.
In the Pashtun region where some women are only allowed to leave their homes to fetch water, the riverbank is the site of social interaction, of gossip, and of flirtation. In many of the poems, jugs and pitchers are one of the central and most mercurial metaphors, used to (conceal and) reveal (the erasure of) the erotic.
One of the promising young poets we’re told of in Griswold’s introduction went by the name Rahila Muska. She called in to the women’s literary circle in Kabul frequently, though she was forbidden from writing by her family. When her brothers discovered her poems, they beat her terribly. Unhappy with her life in many ways, she doused herself in heating oil and set herself on fire, and soon died. Here is one of the poems she repeated:
I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.
Through Griswold’s introductions and glosses, we travel to refugee camps, we are smuggled into an Afghan bridal party; we meet with a woman in a hospital garden who wants to share her poetry but doesn’t want it to be translated into English, “the enemy’s language.” What poems could possibly compare to these unnamed women, to these stories, to these lives? And yet, all along, the poems themselves stand alone, without their glosses and contexts, rewarding difficulty of their collection, transcription, and translation. Perhaps because Griswold’s own imagistic and highly-compressed poetry shares many of the formal qualities of the works she has translated, her translations are particularly acute.
Many make the old new and the new old (and the new new), like the landay above in which Facebook seems as timeworn as socializing by the village water supply. Many more repeat the tropes of the past, swapping out “sleeves” for “bras” and British soldiers for American ones. In the following poem, the word “American” has come to replace the phrase “a liar”:
Because my love’s American,
blisters blossom on my heart.
In America today, there are many highly respected ways to make poetry that is not worth reading. From the high-handedness of Conceptualism to the hand-wringing of “witness” poetry, the ascendance of poetics over poetry — of process over product, of context over text, of lyric theory over the lyric itself — can often leave one feeling empty-handed. I often find myself totally enamored of a poet’s “poetics” or their “project,” but unable to say that I actually love any of their poems. Translations can suffer from a similar problem: many that seem worth doing end up not worth reading. Or: many that are the most useful are not also beautiful.
Which is to say: I approached I am the Beggar of the World even more skeptically than I do most books, precisely because the project seems so respectable, so worthy, so useful, and so very important. Here must surely be the most unimpeachable of poetic tasks: to collect and translate poetry from the secret realm of Afghanistan’s burqa-shrouded women, to foster human subjectivity in a war-torn country, where America’s automated drones prowl the skies. But would the poems, translated, really be worth reading? Could their significance be understood but also felt? Could they ever step out of their overshadowing context?
The simple answer is: yes.
I began with Woolf’s metaphor of the “beautiful caves,” not because the caves of the Middle East play such a horrific role in the American imagination, as the settings for beheadings of journalists in grainy film footage. I chose that passage not because of the network of tunnels burrowed behind the Buddhas of Bamian, or because of the gouges left in the mountains where they once stood. I didn’t choose it because the cave seems womb-like, and not because of the interior qualities of the ineffable pitchers and jugs of these poems. Not because of the perceived interiority of many Pashtun women’s lives (inside their burqas and inside their homes), and not because one might like to imagine these poems as the caves connecting the imaginations of the Pashto-speaking to the English-speaking, the Afghan to the American. And not, finally, because of Plato’s allegory of the cave, though that might be closest.
I chose Woolf’s passage mostly for the word “beautiful.” The poems in this book, no matter what else you want to say about them or feel you need to say about them, are beautiful. I can find no cure for their sting.
Matthew Ritger is a graduate student in the English department at Princeton University.
LARB Staff Recommendations
What can we learn from the Arab Middle East through the history of World War I?
Haig Chahinian interviews Kenan Trebincevic, the author of a powerful debut book about the Bosnian war.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!