I AM THE BEGGAR OF THE WORLD (FSG, 2015)
An eye-opening collection of clandestine poems by Afghan women.
Because my love's American,
blisters blossom on my heart.
Afghans revere poetry, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet―a landay, an ancient oral and anonymous form created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. War, separation, homeland, love―these are the subjects of landays, which are brutal and spare, can be remixed like rap, and are powerful in that they make no attempts to be literary. From Facebook to drone strikes to the songs of the ancient caravans that first brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago, landays reflect contemporary Pashtun life and the impact of three decades of war. With the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk of being lost when the Americans leave.
After learning the story of a teenage girl who was forbidden to write poems and set herself on fire in protest, the poet Eliza Griswold and the photographer Seamus Murphy journeyed to Afghanistan to learn about these women and to collect their landays. The poems gathered in I Am the Beggar of the World express a collective rage, a lament, a filthy joke, a love of homeland, an aching longing, a call to arms, all of which belie any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.
“Griswold's translations mark a stunning handling of [landay's] complex 'beauty, bawdiness, and wit.' Flanked by Murphy's photographs, with their striking blend of wartime journalism and human compassion, Griswold's couplets are peppered with brief prose passages in which she delves into cultural and historical traditions that inform the humor and gravity of her translations . . . a collection that may indeed be remembered as a groundbreaking work of translation and poetic journalism.”—Publishers Weekly
WIDEAWAKE FIELD (FSG, 2007)
The chairs have come in
and the crisp yellow thwock
of the ball being hit
says somehow, now that it's fall,
I'm a memory of myself.
My whole old life―
I mourn you sometimes
in places you would have been.
The poems in this fierce debut are an attempt to record what matters. As a reporter's dispatches, they concern themselves with different forms of desolation: what it means to feel at home in wrecked places and then to experience loneliness and dislocation in the familiar. The collection arcs between internal and external worlds―the disappointment of returning, the guilt and thrill of departure, unexpected encounters in blighted places― and, with ruthless observations etched in the sparest lines, the poems in Wideawake Field sharply and movingly navigate the poles of home and away.
“Evidently this new poet has loved and lost (though of such loving, it is the losing which is disclosed), a good show for lyric verse, as the old poets have demonstrated; but equally evident is Ms Griswold's engagement in the world's woes, even her possession of them. Such double-dealing results in a distillation of political ressentiment which is a novelty in the annals of our poetry of passion. Who conceives Dickinson conferring an instant of her attention on what occurred at Gettysburg; indeed who expects the accents of Christina Rossetti to sort with the collective griefs of, say, Darfur? Yet hear Griswold:
I'm embarrassed to remember
the time before I grew
uncertain about you,
and that I had a right to say
where I had been
and what I saw there.
We must salute the achievement of this poetry not for novelty alone, but for its immediacy of feeling, its recognition of defeat, its stoic joy.”—Richard Howard