TNQ Poetry Editor Barbara Carter interviews poet Lamees Al Ethari
Lamees, The New Quarterly was privileged to publish “Poems Of A Fallen City” in its recent Summer Issue. The four poems haunt the reader with their beauty and their horror. Are you willing to share the back story of these poems? What prompted you to write them?
These poems were included in my chapbook From The Wounded Banks of the Tigris (Baseline Press, Fall 2018). Most of my poems began as a reaction to the lack of knowledge and interest I found here in North America regarding the Gulf War. They are reflections on my personal experience of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath. Most of the poems introduce specific moments that my family and I witnessed during that time.
When and where were you when the words came to your pen? I ask this question because the images are immediate and must have been painful to draw upon.
The poems were actually written a few years after the war. I began writing poetry after we left Iraq in 2006; the memories of that time are still very painful to recall, even after 15 years.
Tell me about the title you chose as an arch over this quartet of poems: “Poems Of A Fallen City.”
Although I don’t like to think of Baghdad as a “fallen city,” at the same time the Baghdad that I knew growing up seemed to have disappeared when the American occupation of Iraq began in April 2003. We kept hearing and using the phrase “when Baghdad fell” as a distinct marker that separated Iraq before and after the invasion.
May we talk about the specific poems? “Amber Skies” is a poem that grabs hold of the reader and doesn’t let go. It sets the stage for the others with its specific horror that moves from present, the past, and to the future. The horror in this poem is juxtaposed with colour and scent. Can you tell me about this daring combination?
In “Amber Skies” the protagonist is struggling to deal with motherhood during a time of war. The air raids bring about her longing to return to childhood when she was still under her mother’s protection. The poem is an actual memory of one of the attacks that we survived. The air raid was so vicious that we had to leave the house because we feared that it would fall apart around us. We decided to sit outside, covered with a blanket and my newborn baby between us. The darkness that surrounded us was contrasted by the amber colour of explosions that lit the night sky. For a few moments, it looked like it was daytime. The softer images and colours in the poem are connected to the desire to escape reality: for instance, the dreams (lilac visions) and references to my mother (scent of irises). My mother’s name in English translates to Iris.
“Dar Dour” places the reader in the situation with image and language. I like how this poem allows the reader to fill in between the lines. I am intrigued by the poem’s form. What inspired the form of this poem?
The words Dar Dour (translation: House, Many houses) are from the Iraqi first grade reading text. In Iraq, children used to learn to read and recite poetry at a very young age and most of these poems had rhyming schemes. In the classroom, the teachers would read the lines to the students and they were required to read them back aloud. I wanted to follow a rhyming scheme to convey childhood innocence that is juxtaposed by the subject of the poem: violence and loss. The images of exploding toys and floating bodies were taken from some of the violent real-life images that our children were exposed to at the time.
“For Buthayna” also moves the reader to fill in the horror of the loss. The reader is transported to a country different than her own by image and sensory appeal as the speaker implores Buthayna to “walk/ no float out of the darkness… into the garden…planted in the middle of the house.” The reader walks along side the speaker as she collects in jars “the dusk air/infused with jasmine” and sets them on Buthayna’s bedside table. May I ask who Buthayna is?
Buthayna is my mother’s late sister. She suffered from a chronic illness that kept her bedridden for long periods of time and that finally led to her death. The poem, like the other three, is part of the first section of my forthcoming chapbook, From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris. The collection is divided into two parts “Wounded” and “Exiled.” In the first part, most of the poems deal with the concept of war; this poem introduces a different kind of loss.
“Smoke” closes the quartet of poems dramatically imprinting on the reader the picture of a burning city. Yet, when I went and googled Dar Al-Salam, I found that the phrase means House or Abode of Peace in the Arabic language. Once more your diction gives the reader much to ponder. Tell me about the use of this word in the poem.
The actual term that was used to describe Baghdad in the 8th century was Madinat-Alsalam (Translation: The City of Peace). Of course, the images that the poem presents contradict that title as the protagonist witnesses the burning of the ancient historic city and its people.
The smoke is all encompassing as it shrouds the city “in dust and rubble/ …curls in streams/…hovers/over the scorched/ scattered bodies.” It never lets go until “its tentacles” tangle the strands of the speaker’s hair. And yet, the poem’s last line is a defiant one: “it rises from the fire in me.” Do I detect a whiff of hope?
I like how you read the last line with a positive perspective. I didn’t think of that. “Smoke” is the first poem I wrote after leaving Iraq while the experiences were still very fresh in my mind. The images try to present some of the moments I witnessed during the invasion and the constant burning of buildings and sites that ensued after. The smoke seemed to consume us. The last line reflects the fact that the fire becomes part of the speaker, something she cannot put out or forget.