Verse From My Venerable Country

'For Iraqis who have been suffering inside Iraq and those who have been violently uprooted, the word 'today' begins in 1963 with the fascist military coup that brought the Baath Party, in which Saddam Hussein was a young ambitious officer, to power in Iraq," writes Arab novelist and scholar Saadi Simawe in his introduction to Poetry International's feature section, "Iraqi Poetry Today." Poetry International's founding editor, Fred Moramarco, asked Simawe (who translated many of the poems) to edit the Iraqi poetry section. On Friday, April 14, D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla will host a reading of selections from Poetry International 10, an annual poetry journal published at San Diego State University. According to Simawe, the major themes represented in this cross section of Iraqi poems are "love, war, fascism, sanction, torture, prison, exile, communism, Sufism, nationalism, feminism, homeland, exile, colonialism, and selfhood." Many of the Iraqi poets are living in exile.

Moramarco was particularly struck by the poem "Intermittant" [sic], written by Yousif al-Sa'igh and translated by Simawe and Chuck Miller. "Tonight / the nightmare was very condensed: / A dining table / A bottle of wine / Three glasses / And three headless men." Moramarco says, "They're dealing with these horrors they have to deal with every day. A condensed nightmare is what it is."

Al-Sa'igh was born in the northern city of Mousil, Iraq, in 1932 and currently lives in Baghdad. Simawe writes of al-Sa'igh, "Since the early 1950s, like most of Iraqi writers and artists, [he] was inspired by the Iraqi left and joined the left to fight against Western colonialism and Western intervention in the Middle East."

Some poems make bold political statements. In "The Piano of Condoleezza Rice" by Sa'adi Yusuf, the author calls to the late Bob Marley to "Stop this train!" and contrasts the secretary of state with jazz singer and pianist Nina Simone: "You don't know the woman who relaxes at the piano / True, she is black / Yet, my dear, she is not the friend of your dream lover / Nina Simone." Yusuf was imprisoned for his association with Iraqi leftism in the 1950s. He currently lives in London.

In "Transparent," originally written in Hebrew and translated by Vivian Eden, poet Ronny Someck, who was born in Baghdad and grew up in Israel, writes, "Tayyib studies literature at Tel Aviv University / He has a knapsack with a grammar book and a composition / about Mahmoud Darwish / The knapsack is transparent because this summer / with any other bag / in the X-ray eyes of all policemen he is marked / as hiding a bomb."

The poem "A Soldier May Cross" by Fawzi Karim begins, "Hundreds of masked soldiers pass into our eulogies / like cold water seeping into a cave." Also by Karim is "The Last Gypsies": "Oh you who avoid coming close to us / shake your fear / Although you see our cities in ruins and skeletons / we are not victims of past epidemic / nor were we fodder for past wars / No, we are your mirrors."

Day-to-day life in the midst of war is portrayed in "An Iraqi Evening," written by al-Sa'igh in 1986. "The entire house becomes ears / ten Iraqi eyes glued to the screen in frightened silence / smells mingle: / the smell of war / and the smell of just-baked bread."

In the introduction to the journal, Moramarco writes, "Iraq has been suffering the ravages of war and oppression for many years before the American invasion -- although that has certainly created a lot more suffering than it has alleviated...No wonder some Iraqis ask as the student speaker does in Abdul-Razzaq al-Rubai's poem, 'Wrinkles on the Face of the Country,' whether the brash, youthful arrogance of Americans reflects the fact that it is 'Born yesterday,' and 'Indulging in child's play / With my venerable country.'"

A few poems highlight more pleasant aspects of life. In "A Moment of Love," Awad Nasir writes, "There you are, my love, in front of me...An apple blossom in your hair, / silver shimmering on your neck, / your waist a dash of olive green in the field of my yearning...At that moment we had nothing but ourselves / and love exploded like African drums." Nasir emigrated from Iraq to live in London in the late 1970s.

The Iraqi Poetry section showcases 53 poems by 21 native Iraqis. Neither Simawe nor any of the poets will be present at the reading. Poems will be read by members of the Poetry International staff, and the reading is to be emceed by managing editor Bruce Boston. -- Barbarella

  • Selected Readings from Poetry International 10, featuring "Iraqi Poetry Today"
  • Friday, April 14
  • 7 p.m.
  • D.G. Wills Books
  • 7461 Girard Avenue
  • La Jolla
  • Cost: Free
  • Info: 858-456-1800 or

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