Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ryan Croken: Unembedded Poetry

Unembedded Poetry: A Review of David Smith-Ferri's "Battlefield Without Borders"

Saturday 29 November 2008


by: Ryan Croken, t r u t h o u t | Review


    On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, as our political figures and talking heads wrangled over the best way to babysit the cradle of civilization at the barrel of a gun, American poet and peace activist David Smith-Ferri had a different idea: he would go to Iraq and ask the people who lived there how they felt. "I wanted to interview Iraqis," he writes, "about the threat of war. Surely, I reasoned, it should matter to us what people in Iraq think."


    This presumption, startling in its seeming innocence and radical common sense, underpins the poetic and humanitarian mission of his book, "Battlefield Without Borders: Iraq Poems." Culled from Smith-Ferri's experiences as a writer and importer of contraband medical supplies on three separate trips to the Middle East between 1999 and 2007, "Battlefield" is a staggeringly eloquent portal into the forgotten human dimension of our engagement with Iraq, and an exercise in the project of person-to-person diplomacy. As an unembedded storyteller, Smith-Ferri reinserts Iraqi civilians back into the generally depersonalized conversation we are having about them and without them. Through the uniquely equipped medium of poetry, Smith-Ferri delivers hard-earned insights and reflections that broaden our emotional framework for understanding Iraq, and lend heart-wrenching individuality to an otherwise undifferentiated mass of "irrational people / masked terrorist tribes, hands around throat s." It is in this spirit of reporting not just what is happening, but also who it is happening to that we lift off with the poet on his first visit to Iraq.


    It's 1999, and after nearly a decade of military and economic warfare, the nation is in bad shape. Sanctions have decimated Iraq's ability to provide clean water and a functioning medical system. Children are dying by the tens or hundreds of thousands from diarrhea and easily curable diseases. Smith-Ferri and his co-workers drift through pediatric wards that seem more like preludes to morgues than centers of healing. As the same contaminated waters that gurgle in the rivers outside pour from the faucets of hospital sinks, Smith-Ferri pauses to take stock of the situation in meditations that blur the genre lines between field notes and elegy:


Daily, like a sorcerer, the sun warms Iraq's sewage-laden rivers,

conjuring cholera and typhoid and E. coli

that are killing children in this hospital ward,

slowly draining juice from their tiny bodies.

Here lies the desiccated fruit of a generation.


    Smith-Ferri and his delegation wander through a malignant landscape where bombings more routine than rain have stolen countless limbs, and fields of depleted uranium have created "nuclear children ... slowly roasting, / leukemia a fire in their bones and blood." Leaning over the deathbeds of these victims, Smith-Ferri and his fellow activists ask an Iraqi doctor - "a grim, tour-weary guide" - what he does to try to provide hope for the patients' parents. The doctor, helplessly flanked by his empty medicine cabinets, responds plainly, "like a metronome," as if bolstered by the authority of his incapacity, "There is no hope. This child will die ... That child will die ... They're all going to die."


    Amid this assault of visceral information and a sense of powerlessness that is omnipresent and "pathologic," Smith-Ferri has to struggle to maintain his balance. His encounters with the Iraqis leave him breathless, speechless and existentially "immaterial." He struggles to preserve a sense of identity amid the vast expanses of the desert and the surreal "timelessness of war." Smith-Ferri stands, spectral, beside an innocent young victim in the aftermath of a capricious US missile attack. What words of condolence could he offer to a child whose arm has just been severed by shrapnel, without warning or purpose? The poet has nothing to say.


A one-armed, seven-year-old boy looks right through you.

His black-robed mother,

standing behind his bed,

won't even look your way.


    Smith-Ferri's verse is characterized by a tremulous poise that reflects his search for composure, order, justice and an alleviation of suffering. We can almost imagine him taking a break at the end of each line, gathering himself together before proceeding down the page. But his linguistic command of these narratives is as refined as it is raw; these are chiseled, elegant stanzas: cutting, measured, smooth and confident in their authenticity. With empathy and precision, Smith-Ferri fluently translates a foreign trauma into language that is both accessible and unfathomable. Like the blank space that follows a bomb, these words point to the wordless, hinting at the incomparable kind of experience that can only be lived in, and expressed by silence.


    But "Battlefield" is full of voices, and not just the author's. With titles such as "Walid's Story," "Amal Speaks," "Ahmed Speaks" and "Suad's Words," many of the poems in this book are either dedicated to, or written in, the voice of the people Smith-Ferri meets. At hospitals and bombing sites, inside a record store, at a dinner party, while kicking a deflated soccer ball with a child on the brink of invasion, Smith-Ferri works tirelessly as a poetic journalist, documenting the mood of the nation, asking Iraqis to share their thoughts, fears, ideas and aspirations. Their responses are seamlessly woven into the text, and are often nestled into a narrative context that endows them with enormous weight and emotive punch. Their voices ring in your ears long after you've turned the page. "If you can heal my child, please take him with you." "What is the mood in the United States? Will they attack?" "Your president is a coward, / fighting a coward's war, / attacking unarmed people ." "You like it here? Why not buy a home in Baghdad? / Prices have never been better!" "I want to show you something. / My left ear does not work, thanks to a car bomb." "The US will find a pretext to attack. / It will either be weapons of mass destruction / or support for terrorism. / No proof will be given." "Five hundred varieties of dates ... One huge one is called donkey's balls."


    While these characters express a range of sentiments - anger, valor, resilience, desperation, uncanny hospitality - they share one thing in common: they are all undeniably human. In working towards, as Kathy Kelly, author of the book's foreword, puts it, dispelling "the dangerous notion that only one person live(s) in Iraq, the notorious dictator Saddam Hussein," Smith-Ferri transforms a hazy crowd of very foreign foreigners into a collection of individuals who are extremely relatable and very much "like us." In the world of "Battlefield," people have been turned back into people, and, consequentially, the doors to empathy and communication are swung open. Suddenly re-humanized through the thoughtful deftness of Smith-Ferri's art, the crisis flares in our hands. Iraq is no theoretical quandary. It becomes personal, intimate, active. As the poet continues to bring Iraqi voices to American ears, we realize that these are not conversations to be overheard, but to be absorbed dir ectly. "Tell the American people we are not their enemies. / Tell the American people we love them, / but we must have our lives back!" The message is clear: if you are an American person, these people are speaking directly to you.


    "Tell my story ... tell my story ... tell my story ... " After hearing "these same three words" over and over again while traveling around Iraq and through neighborhoods in Jordan where uprooted Iraqis struggle to survive in exile, Smith-Ferri becomes explicit in his intention to relay the insights, appeals and agonies of a deeply misunderstood country.


Here on this page I spill Suad's words,

jagged obsidian chips that lacerate this paper,

its blood marking the hands of everyone who reads this book.


    All of this storytelling begs the question: how do we listen? Thusly marked by Suad's bloodied words, how do we respond? "Battlefield" does not answer these questions for us. It is a window, not an instruction manual. It invites us to contemplate our interconnectedness with another people in a world where borders - cultural, linguistic, geopolitical - have been erected to prevent the recognition of a shared humanity. Literally and literarily, Smith-Ferri crosses these borders and bears witness to previously inaccessible realities. After visiting a bomb shelter that became a tomb for over 400 Iraqis after two "very smart" American missiles slipped into the ventilation shaft and incinerated everyone inside, Smith-Ferri is slammed with an inter-culture shock of such bare-faced enormity that it kindles a sudden dark enlightenment:


My eyes were never meant to see this,

to flare like torch, sudden with knowledge,

like windows, to open on this illuminative dawn,

but like tinder in its box (named American, middle class)

to remain cold, untouched,

and far from flintstone truth.


    Smith-Ferri's "flintstone truth" burns at the heart of his stories, whose ultimate lesson is perhaps that we ourselves are a part of them. This realization of suddenly being a part of the plot destabilizes the cozy illusion that there are vaguely bad things happening somewhere way over there in a strange land that many of us can't locate on a map. The battlefield has come home. The wounded are laid bare before us. "Fighting them over there so we don't have to think about them over here" loses its absurd currency. Distance is capsized, walls are torn down, and we find ourselves fighting this war not only on our shores, but in our own hearts and minds. What is our obligation to Suad? Where do complicity and culpability lie? "These poems strip us of our innocence," Kathy Kelly observes. "David prods us to be uncomfortable"; he prods us to become sensitized actors in a drama that is already difficult to observe from the air-conditioned mezzanine.


    "Battlefield Without Borders" offers brutal, vivid and tender portraits of the fallout of the modern American-Iraqi engagement. Its lessons should be at the forefront of our minds as we try our best to figure out how to respectfully assist in the reconstruction of a country whose history and future have become inextricably linked to our own. More information about the book can be found at its Web site, All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Direct Aid Iraq, a grassroots humanitarian relief organization aimed at providing urgently needed medical care to Iraqis displaced by the sanctions, the invasion and the ensuing occupation. Information about Direct Aid Iraq is available at




    Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. He can be reached at


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