I stumbled upon the work of Dunya Mikhail earlier this week and fell in love with her collection The War Works Hard. Her fierce examination of war and the situation in Iraq makes an emotionally compelling read. Mikhail does an outstanding job of weaving together the personal and the political, showing readers a face behind the destruction and war. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, Mikhail’s honesty is gripping.
Upon opening the collection, readers will notice that Mikhail’s poems are oftentimes written in long, page length stanzas. The lines are short, and Mikhail’s writing tackles complex subjects through simple words. One aspect of The War Works Hard that surprised me during my first read is Mikhail’s use of sarcasm. In the title poem, the speaker applauds the war, claiming that it “works with unparalleled diligence! / Yet no one gives it / a word of praise” (lines 50-52). Through grueling images that put readers at the forefront of the war scene, Mikhail is able to show the consequences of the American invasion of Iraq: “It contributes to the industry / of artificial limbs, / provides food for flies” (lines 34-36). So much of The War Works Hard speaks to the powerful ways in which poetry can be used to advocate for political and social justice.
In other poems, the speaker aggressively protests the war, forcing readers to acknowledge the horror. In the poem “America,” the speaker directly addresses the American government, demanding that it take accountability. The speaker asks, “What good is it to gain the whole world / if you lose your soul, America?” (lines 50-51). I really love the blunt nature of the speaker, and how she holds nothing back.
Mikhail, who was born and raised in Iraq, was placed on Saddam Hussein’s enemy list. After facing increasing threats for her writing, she fled to Jordan, then later immigrated to the United States. Her fearless defense of her work is empowering, and it is this type of courage that readers will fall in love with upon reading The War Works Hard.
Buy The War Works Hard here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about New Directions Publishing: “New Directions was founded in 1936, when James Laughlin (1914–1997), then a twenty-two-year-old Harvard sophomore, issued the first of the New Directions anthologies. “I asked Ezra Pound for ‘career advice,'” James Laughlin recalled. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.”