fine print

What happens to your memory when your land catches fire and you are burning too

When I ask you to teach me to write a poem, you tell me that a poem is nothing but a question, nothing but shock, nothing but one sentiment and one word. Combine these things together, you say, and that will be a poem that does not die. Is this how I start to live?

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Read by Yasemin Sabuncu, a multidisciplinary creative who works as a writer, director, actress and comedian. Photo: Thomas McCammon.

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You tell me that poetry says what prose cannot contain. Tell me, where can I contain a home?

I see the birds in the garden searching the grass, so I toss some rice in their direction, and I think perhaps they’ll pray for me, the prayers of birds are answered, and perhaps they will take me home. A home that doesn’t exist, a home that doesn’t exist and that’s why I miss it.

You’ve seen my family, and my home and our home and the grocer where we bought the candy after sunset and you’ve seen my school and the Arabic texts and the eggs, and you’ve seen the baker and the bread and you’ve seen my grandmother’s chickens, her cigarette smoke and her black cloak and her lamb and chickpea stew and the line of people outside her house holding an empty plate and a spoon, and you’ve seen her serve, you’ve seen her love.

Tell me where to put the prose I cannot contain. The presence of a narrative implies the presence of a narrator. The narrator doesn’t exist. You bomb the land you bomb the man. I try to embody my existence. I take photos of myself every morning and every evening, of my face and my clothes and my hair and my makeup and my desk and my pens and my group chats and my road and my bicycle and even the rain from the window. The other day, the vase fell from my windowsill and broke, so I took a photo of it: I thought this meant the vase exists. I take photos of my food. I exist because I eat. Sometimes in states of writing and loneliness, I forget to eat because I forget to exist, and I forget that breathing is intuitive, and I start to suffocate. I forget to shop and I have a glass of milk for dinner. I forget myself and my existence watching the birds in the garden looking for the rice, and I forget to take any photos. These days that are undocumented are the days of my vanishing, my forgetting, days I have not lived and have not woken up from. Tell me, what is prose, what is poetry and what is existence in the absence of home?

You say you go over my lines, sometimes like walking on an earth of ember, sometimes like diving into a dark sea. I tell you that what I miss doesn’t exist, anymore, and you say ‘hm, neither do you.’ I say that my mother is what the country used to be, and you say that our mothers are the only homeland, and you say that poetry has no time and no place. Do you have either?

John Berger said that ‘everything that made sense of the world was real; without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless but also lost in nonbeing, in unreality.’

Is this why when I breathe, I feel that the air entering my lungs is on loan, and I will one day have to return all of it to the people I’ve borrowed it from––or maybe stolen it from? The English people. The Australian people. The Malaysian people. The Emirati people. The Iraqi people. I know they’re all keeping a tally, and they are recording my daily intake of oxygen in a collaborative spreadsheet that keeps growing, and, one day, they are going to send me an invoice for the life I’ve been living. ‘Here’s a line for the passive breathing, a line for the gasps, the shrieks, the screams, the laughter, the sighs, it’s all recorded and dated, you can double check if you like,’ and they won’t ask me for a sum of money, they’ll just ask me to give all of it back.

Distance from home is exile. So what do we call the obliteration, the burning, the destruction of home? What do we call what no longer exists, what do we call what no longer exists in reality but its gap inside me is large and physical and I can feel it? What do I photograph? What prose and what poem from this river, after it has been drained and they’ve closed the borders and stopped the rain? Even the graveyards are no longer being built. Just corpses in the desert, not even a name on a tombstone so we know who to pray for. Won’t you explain to me how death works, how void works and what poem and what prose and what narrator remains in this darkness? I’m not asking you how to write, or how to make a poem, or what a narrative is. I am asking you where man is. How can the man of the bombed land be, except buried under the soil, unnamed? I am asking you who will pray at our graves when we don’t know where we have lived or where we have died, and who will feed the birds? Whom will they pray for if we are not are, and we don’t understand life, nor existence, in the darkness of the no-home?

Tell me is your Baghdad still is? Tell me, are you still are? Do you think of a past young man, who was you before you became what I see now? I don’t know if I look at a man or a shadow, if when you breathe your cigarette in, you are breathing something entering your body, or if it enters and escapes––I don’t know. When you took a sip of your beer on that warm evening, when it entered you, I thought I would hear the drink splashing on the floor straight away. Do you exist? Are you Baghdad? How sad, if Baghdad were to vanish and the only thing left was me, and my mean aunt, and her daughter that hates me and my mother, and nothing stays but a box of sweets I brought back with me, and nothing stays but us, homeless half-people, empty. How sad, if the city were to end and only we remained.

I am not sad, and I am not overwhelmed with depression. I do not hate life and I don’t miss it. I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand existence or presence and I don’t understand the touch of skin against skin. I don’t know what it is to shiver, to flinch, to run, to bleed. Is it an illusion of my own mind, a mimicking of life, a mimicking of presence? When you explained poetry to me, why did you leave the most important things out of your explanation, and why didn’t you tell me who you are and who Baghdad is, and how life continues and how earth sprouts within you and what presence means, and what is man if Baghdad isn’t? Why didn’t you tell me if your Baghdad still is, and if my Baghdad has vanished? Is there anything in this soil that can sustain you? Can I swallow it? Can I eat the land and wait for a tree to grow, grow a new country inside the lining of my stomach, and let new people live?

Lur at READING CIRCLES #1. Photo: Thomas McCammon.
Lur at READING CIRCLES #1. Photo: Thomas McCammon.