Review

Miracle Maker (Selected Poems 1960-2002) - Fadhil Al-Azzaw (Translated by Khaled Mattawa)

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Despite a long-deserved reputation over the last 40 years as one of Iraq's leading contemporary poets, Miracle Maker serves as Fadhil Al-Azzawi's first full-length collection of poetry in English. Born in Kirkuk in the north of Iraq, Fadhil has (for almost thirty years) been living in exile. Before leaving Iraq in 1976 to accept a scholarship in Leipzig, Germany, Fadhil had been jailed three times for his political writings, his longest term being in 1963 after the Baathist Party (assisted by a young Saddam Hussein) sentenced the young poet to three years on grounds of ‘dangerous speech’.

The poems Fadhil wrote around the time of his imprisonment were smuggled out of the infamous Al-Hilla prison while he and other inmates were enduring torture (or in some cases death) within its walls. Some of the poems Fadhil wrote in this period appear in Miracle Maker, a particularly moving example being Prisoner No. 907 where the poet “falls in love with foolish girls“ attempting to recall the fullness with which he lived the world outside. The poem culminates in a predictably poignant final ending (predictable because Fadhil's last lines of poems are frequently exquisite) where the poet is left banished yet ever-hopeful to “seek a moment of love / on the face of the world”.

Miracle Maker spans 42 years of Fadhil Al-Azzawi's poetry, beginning with two collections initially published in Iraq; Rising to the Spring (1960-74) and The Eastern Tree (1975). The early poems can be misinterpreted as mere myth, and are better appreciated when considering the political geography in which they were written. Despite continuous threads of isolation and disillusionment skilfully employed by the author; in acclimatising to the conditions in which these poems were written, the reader gains a sense of the poets remarkable defiance in a changing country, where he is ready to “…gamble the world away, even for a slap / that wipes the tears off my eyelashes”. Further examples of the poet standing resolute (as the Baathist military junta stamp their authority) appear in the beautifully written Romeo in Old Age and throughout the sprawling canvas of The Teachings of F. Al-Azzawi. Indeed, The Teachings seem to signal a new direction in the poet. Through a series of juxtaposed forms (amusingly incorporating diagrams and spaces for the reader to fill in blanks), Fadhil achieves a quite astounding level of metapoetic unity. Still a young poet and writing under such extreme circumstances (including his aforementioned imprisonment) Fadhil Al-Azzawi arrives in print as the avant-garde poet in an increasingly repressed Iraq.

The second collection featured in Miracle Maker was Fadhil's last book to be published in his homeland. With an increasing feel of seclusion throughout, The Eastern Tree is essentially fable-esque; its chief protagonist Abdullah (meaning ‘servant of God‘) embarks on a series of journeys through the wilderness where he learns new ways of living and finding his place in the world. This is essentially accomplished by hanging out: Abdullah is the flaneur in a troubled land. In a great display of originality by the author, Abdullah's answers arrive from the most unlikely sources. In one poem Abdullah trades places with a whipped donkey, having spied from afar a miller flogging the exhausted animal. As he accepts the lashes to his back, the donkey turns and thanks him.

The Eastern Tree is divided into two parts. Though the fables stand alone, the latter poems such as In Prison and Happiness mark another turning-point because of their sheer honesty in the face of abuse and brutality. Many humble realisations are made in these poems. As stated in Happiness: “It's enough that I am alive…as I climb the ladder of my death / I write my poems in the memory of the future”. Moments such as these mean that The Eastern Tree culminates as one of the most heart-rending chapters of the whole book. Throughout Eastern Tree, it's as if Fadhil knows his leaving is imminent, and he is preparing for exile.

It would be easy to go on in this way; in chronological order, praising each collection. All deserve individual mention and have strong poems. While many early examples of Miracle Maker are somewhat ‘poet's poems‘, Fadhil's best and most accessible work is to be found in the remaining four collections. It's almost as if the poems are allowed to breathe more easily now that the author is not enduring daily fears of abuse or oppression. While the poems in A Man Throws a Stone into a Well and End of All Journeys often focus on the author adapting to life in exile as an Arab in the west, they also travel back to Iraq with a clean precision; a learnt sense of experience. This is typified in the scintillating nostalgic tones found in Song of Myself, perhaps the most complete translation in the book. Fadhil reviews his experiences decade by decade, from suppression to exile, to eventual dislocation, consistently reassuring himself that “Everything will be alright, Fadhil”. The end of the poem sticks in the throat and deserves mentioning in full:

And now what will you say to yourself, Fadhil
now that you've burned all the ships you left behind?
Oh, I don't want to say anything,
I won't say a thing.
Leave me alone, damn it!
I've reached the end in one second
and learned all the wisdom of the world before realizing
what had happened.

(from Song of Myself)

Here the translations by Khaled Mattawa seem to reach a new level of feeling. Mattawa, born in Libya, emigrated in his early teens and had to build a new life for himself in America. The sense of exile, the fight shown in overcoming oppression, and the general level of sensitivity sing consistently throughout Miracle Maker. Mattawa is not only interested in the language of the poetry, he has complete respect for the poet himself. This shows throughout the entire book and in the informative introduction.

Writing from exile becomes a platform for further fables intrinsic in Fadhil's work. However, the writer does not lose any of his tenacity. If anything it seems to increase while he is living abroad. Elegy for the Living, a poem written on the eve of the Gulf war of 1991 is a staggering apocalyptic vision sensing further bloodshed as the American bombs ready to drop. The poem employs a series of different forms (like the earlier Teachings) and is so populated with brilliant lines, it is surely worth the book alone. In our current climate of East vs. West conflict, with so many ignorant poems written by people who would never experience the direct effects of conflict, here in Fadhil's work, we find a poet who is writing from the real, the experienced. In harvesting some of truth from the present-day conflict, and in learning about how it has affected another culture, these poems are more important than ever. Elegy for the Living, in particular, is a tour-de-force all on its own.

Perhaps surprisingly (given what he has been through) Fadhil has an exceptional gift for irony and humour in his more recent poems. Even at the most volatile moments in Elegy for the Living, when Fadhil says to the Americans how he will send back “the severed hands of Iraqi children” a few lines on he remarks: “…do whatever you want with your smart missiles. / Hunt whales with them, / or blow them up in your rear end…” Later in the poem he declares how these bombs will be sent back “without spite” to the likes of “Whitman, Ginsberg [and] Elvis Presley&lrquo;, perhaps regarding them as better keepers of weaponry. More overt examples of Fadhil's ear for irony and wit appear in poems like The Book of Lies, Newton's Apple and the Kafka-inspired poems: Cockroach and The Surprise. The candid ironies towards the end of the Selected Poems make the book a more complete selection of a writer who is by now thoroughly confident, at his peak and multi-dimensional.

You get the gist. Miracle Maker is a quite incredible book, cleverly translated and rammed with luminous poetics. The only downside is that, amazingly, Fadhil Al-Azzawi doesn't yet have an English publisher. Hopefully that will soon change. In the meantime, do what you need to do…Google or Amazon it. You won't have another poetry collection like Miracle Maker on your bookshelf. Fadhil Al-Azzawi is a rare breed of poet; brave, funny, experimental, endlessly inventive and flecked with genius.

James Byrne

 

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