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Thinking Out Loud

Subversive Verse

by Michael Jinkins | Apr 07, 2015

Subversive VerseMost people who think they don't like poetry just don't like bad poetry. I'm with them.

There's a particular broadcaster on a popular television show I regularly watch who periodically breaks into his homespun doggerel. At our house we love the program, but I find myself hitting mute every time he starts up with his "poetry." Tortured lines of iambic pentameter have never yielded so little save tortured clichés. His "poems" are the verse equivalent of every bad short story that ever began with the phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night," and every public speaker who ever uttered the words, "Unaccustomed as I am to speaking."

Most people who think they don't like poetry are just waiting for good poetry. And when good poetry comes, it is worth waiting for.

Good poetry does all sorts of good things: Surfaces insights sometimes in the most unpromising places. Surprises us with new perspectives on things long taken for granted. Engages the mind in the business of the senses. Awakens an awareness of just how much we shape the world around us by our perceptions of it. Makes us confront terror and hatred, violence and the ugliest aspects of this world, but in a way that enriches the soul rather than depletes the spirit. And, of course, takes our breath away with passages of startling beauty.

My friend Mike Mather, the pastor of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, often alerts me to good poetry. His recent recommendation reminds me of poetry's subversive power. The book Mike recommended is titled, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, collected, translated and with commentary by Eliza Griswold, and with photographs by Seamus Murphy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

The book opens with these lines from a poem:

“I call. You're stone.
One day you'll look and find I'm gone.”

Then this commentary by Eliza Griswold on the poem:

“The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan's thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn't allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she'd be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. In her community, as in others, educating girls was seen as dishonorable and dangerous. Poetry, which she learned at home from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education.”

Accompanied by comments by Griswold and with stark and frequently beautiful photographs by Murphy, each short poem confronts us with the voice of a woman, usually rural, usually without the benefit of a great deal of formal education, always Afghan. Landay poetry is a form of folk poetry from Afghanistan which is well-suited to these women: each poem is a couplet, limited to 22 syllables, nine in the first line, 13 in the second, and written in the language of these women. While some rhyme, most do not. They are thrown and turned on the mind's wheel like a clay jar before being handed on. Griswold tells us that landays are usually sung, and once were shared around the fires after a day's work was done. These days, she says, they may be shared more readily with strangers than with people who know the authors well and who might betray them. "Familiarity breeds distrust," she writes.

Imagine a verse form that can range from fury to comic lampoon, from lament to a call for justice, but then add the earthy, the vulgar, the ribald and the risqué. In other words, many of the best (and certainly some of the funniest) landays in this volume cannot be shared in this blog. Indeed, I can only share a few for the sake of space, with some comments from the editor about the women who wrote them, beginning with a landay that has been treasured for more than a century and which was written by a nineteenth-century Afghan "folk heroine" and "warrior poet" named Malalai.

“I'll make a tattoo of my lover's blood
and shame each rose in the green garden.”

We can see why this poem has been handed down for generations. But as good as it is, it is rivaled by a modern example:

“Your eyes aren't eyes. They're bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.”

While some landays seem so rooted in an ancient culture that reading them feels like we are entering the foreign country of the past, others brush past us on a crowded modern street.

"Daughter, in America the river isn't wet.
Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the Internet."

Some landays speak of love and longing. Others ridicule erstwhile, awkward and cruel lovers. Through these verses women are given the power and a place to articulate their disgust, dissatisfaction and anger. Still, other verses, while rooted in domestic relationships, take us beyond the domestic subversion between lovers to a social protest against the betrayal and violence of those closest at hand.

“When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

And:

“You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.”

One of the most poignant landays in the book, and the one from which the title of the volume is taken, reflects the powerlessness of these women. It was spoken to the editor by an elderly woman, Ashaba, in a refugee camp, sitting next to her dying husband:

“In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

The political subversion in these verses reminds us that Afghanistan has been contested territory not just for years, not even just for decades, but for centuries. Some landays speak against the Taliban, others against America or Russia or the British Empire, while still others remember combatants and occupiers from long ago.

Often a verse breaks through that reminds us of the deep personal cost of every armed conflict:

“Send my salaams to the Mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his gun and come home.”

When we realize that the verse above is a modern adaptation of a much older landay, we see another facet of this lamentation:

"Send my salaams to the Mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his book and come home."

As Griswold observes:

“In this modernization, a Talib's book becomes his gun. It's a subtle indictment of the role that religious teachers play in today's conflict. … And rather than places of religious study, their schools are commonly seen as training camps for holy war.”

I have read few collections of poetry that have taken me to so many different places emotionally and spiritually while holding me captive to one geographical location. And I have read few books that in so few words express so much of the human condition.

We often speak of someone speaking from the heart. Seldom have I come across a collection of poems that has made me realize just how rare that experience is, and how close together in the human heart lie tragedy, joy, longing, hope, comedy and horror. This volume reminds us how good good poetry can be.

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