As I deployed to Iraq as an Army sergeant late in 2003, I stuffed an anthology of poems (Iraqi Poetry Today; King’s College, London, 2003) into my rucksack. I never would have guessed that within a couple of years I would meet one of the authors whose work was in the anthology—the amazing poet Dunya Mikhail. I also could never have guessed that I would have a book of poetry myself and that by chance I would work with Ellen Dore Watson as my first line editor at Alice James Books.
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and to become friends with both Dunya and Ellen. In a recent email, Dunya told me that she’s revising one of the poems that I carried with me in the anthology. Here’s the first section of that poem:

Please don't ask me, America.
I don't remember
on which street,
with whom,
or under which star.
Don't ask me…
I don't remember
the colors of the people
or their signatures.
I don't remember if they had
our faces
and our dreams,
if they were singing
or not,
writing from the left
or the right
or not writing at all,
sleeping in houses
on sidewalks
or in airports,
making love or not making love.
Please don't ask me, America.
I don't remember their names
or their birthplaces.
People are grass–
They grow everywhere, America.
Don't ask me...
I don't remember
what time it was,
what the weather was like,
which language,
or which flag.
Don't ask me...
I don't remember
how long they walked under the sun
or how many died.
I don't remember
the shapes of the boats
or the number of stops...
How many suitcases they carried
or left behind,
if they came complaining
or without complaint.
…There are many fine poems in this volume. It’s available through Amazon (though I’m sure your local bookseller can also order a copy for you):
Iraqi Poetry Today (Modern Poetry in Translation, 2002); ISBN-10: 095338246X
To read more of Dunya’s work, you might start with this amazing collection:
The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005)
And to read more of Ellen Dore Watson’s work, you might start with:
This Sharpening (Tupelo Press, 2006)
In 2008, another anthology came out that I found insightful (in similar ways to Iraqi Poetry Today)—Flowers of Flame (Michigan State University Press), Edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider Al-Kabi, and Dan Veach. (That was a project that expanded after first appearing as a special issue of The Atlanta Review.)
Another book I’d recommend (though I have the 1987 edition):
Modern Arabic Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1991)
It’s an ongoing, life-long education. These are a few of the wonderful books that have helped me along the way.—Brian T

Originally Published: April 30th, 2010

Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before serving for seven years in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. Then in November 2003 he was an infantry team leader...