In Her Feminine Sign

New Directions. Jul. 2019. 128p. ISBN 9780811228763. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811228770. POETRY
Baghdad-born, Griffin Poetry Prize short-listed Mikhail (The War Works Hard) explains in an author’s note to this sparkling new collection, “I wrote these poems from right to left and from left to right, in Arabic and English. I didn’t translate them; I only wrote them twice.” That dual act of writing is mirrored in her very content, as she finds the present layered with the past, Detroit fireworks recalling Baghdad bombs, the war’s dead children recalling the play fighting of her youth. Her poems aren’t shudderingly dark, though, but lyrical, intimate, and openhearted, often reading like fables. The opening poem evokes the tied circle of Arabic orthography, a circle with two dots signifying the feminine, as townsfolk await a stranger bearing this sign. That the wishes she promises “come true only when forgotten/ or replaced by the wishes of others” suggests how much we hope for and how much we’re disappointed or diverted in an ever-shifting world. Similarly, a 4,800-year old fossil “has the curve/ of mothers telling/ endless stories,” including one about a bird remembering thirst and two poisoned, silent friends, “their circular embrace…/ a song inside a fossil,/ life in a cage.” That shivery image recalls the layered duality throughout.
VERDICT Mikhail’s deeply felt poems read flowingly but only look simple; there’s real depth here for all readers.
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