“Memory’s Broken Time Machine”
A Review of
Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea.
by Dunya Mikhail.
Reviewed by Matthew Kaul.
Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea.
by Dunya Mikhail.
Translated by Elizabeth Winslow and Dunya Mikhail.
Paperback: New Directions Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Literary critic Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” writes that the translator’s task cannot be the simple rote movement between two “sterile, dead languages” (after all, we have Google’s translation bots to complete that task for us today). Rather, the translator is charged with continuing the very life of the original work. Translation, far from being a simple act of clumsy and mindless copying, is itself a creative, poetic act.
Benjamin’s thesis on translation is born out in Mikhail’s fascinating volume Diary of a Wave outside the Sea, a prose-poetic memoir of her life growing up as a poet in war-ravaged Iraq. In her preface to this translated volume, Mikhail writes that “poetry was not on my mind when I wrote this book;” but that her “partner in translation, Elizabeth Winslow, had originally transformed the unbroken, prose-poetry lines of my Arabic into a poetic broken-lined English” (vii). The book in its English incarnation, then, has taken on a form it did not previously possess.
Winslow’s translation of both word and genre works particularly well in the first of the book’s two parts, written during the first Iraq war in Baghdad and first published in Arabic in 1995. In this first part, Mikhail employs an elusive, shifting voice and a constant movement between opposed themes in her attempt to convey the singularity of war’s intrusion on her life. As Pascal noted, the human being is oddly and uncomfortably situated between the infinitely large and the infinitely small, and it is the uniqueness of our situation that provokes poetry. The initial section of Mikhail’s volume deals explicitly with this theme, particularly in a time of war. Mikhail employs a series of Pascalian meditations on the ambiguity of human experience, moving between depictions of unbearable burden and levity, of alienated exile and the sweet comforts of home, and of vivid memory and the ambiguities of forgetting.
Such meditations take as their focus the year 1991, the start of the first Gulf War. Mikhail has been reflecting upon the contingencies of history that separate people from each other, and that provoke them to divide themselves into opposite camps–“we are the good, they are the evil; we have the light, they wallow in darkness”–while at the same time recognizing that such stark oppositions rely upon each other. She writes, “The chemist Paul Derek confirms this, saying that / the electron and its opposite are born together / at the same place and same instant, / and they die together whenever and wherever they meet.” She continues,
I thought of this when the Allied forces dropped
eighty-eight thousand tons of bombs
on the land of the two rivers
and made a spectrum in the air
at the speed of light or fear
leaving an indestructible energy. (38)
The collision of opposing forces not only kills and destroys, but has consequences unaccounted in the the rational schemes of Strategists and Commanders: an “indestructible energy” is left behind, in the bombs’ wake. This energy warps time, bending memory so that it always turns back to itself. In one of the first part’s most memorable images, Mikhail depicts memory as a time machine:
When I moved the time machine’s lever to the year 1991,
it began to shake severely and seemed as if on fire.
My God! It is falling
under the debris.
It is breaking up
and taking phases
of the events
like the moon in the palm of my hand.
I wish I could turn the time machine’s indicator to the year 0,
but the disaster has ruined everything
and the machine can no longer travel either into the past
or the future. It is broken. . . . (40-41)
1991 distorts and disorders everything, yet through its singularity it also becomes the centerpiece around which all Mikhail’s memories revolve in Part One; the poet’s power of image and metaphor finds unification in its very opposition to this war and the devastation it carries. At such points in the work, Winslow’s brilliance in transforming a prose-poem into pure poetry is particularly evident: the chaos of a year’s events find embodiment in the stilted enjambments of the lines: “It is falling / down / under the debris.” The broken lines do justice to memory’s broken time machine.
In Part Two of the narrative, however, the movement into poetry does not work nearly as well, for straightforward personal narrative drives the section. Part Two, written after Mikhail’s exile to America, seems at times almost demythologizing–Mikhail explains the biographical origin of symbols employed in Part One, reflects directly upon the effects of Part One’s publication, and provides stories about her friends and the fellow poets referenced only obliquely in the first section. Yet, despite the feeling that broken-line poetry detracts from, rather than adds to, this second section, Mikhail’s deeply moral sensibilities continue to clarify the relationship between Iraq, her homeland, and America, her newfound home. She revels in the fulfillment of her dream to read whatever books she wishes; at the same time she recognizes the comforts she now enjoys irrevocably distance her, much more than the physical miles, from those she has left behind: “I am sorry I left you among the ruins. / . . . / I apologize for running to lose weight / instead of running to escape explosions” (115). Her life in America is ambiguous, and she certainly does not feel fully at home here, though it was the site of her reunion, after 10 years, with her husband, and the birthplace of her daughter. The distance she feels from a land to which she is nevertheless deeply grateful gives her critiques of American foreign policy particular resonance:
America is but a baby of a country.
She doesn’t really mean to cause problems.
She always thinks it’s easier to replace problems
than to fix them. “Your washer is broken,”
the repairman says. “It is easier to replace it than to fix it.”
“Your country is broken,” the politician says.
“It is easier to replace it than to fix it.”
Americans use positive phrases
even in the worst situations.
It is easy to be optimistic when you are young. (120-21)
This moral clarity, carrying through the two distinct parts of her work, makes Diary of a Wave outside the Sea a peerless record of the Iraq wars. There is much to learn from and reflect upon, especially for those of us who are Americans, in Mikhail’s beautiful and stirring genre-bending poem.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com