Mindful Witnesses: Three Books from New Directions

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In Her Feminine Sign is the title of Dunya Mikhail’s newest collection of poetry (forthcoming from New Directions on July 30, and available to Rumpus Poetry Book Club members first week of July), and it is an essential addition to literature in this era.

Born in Baghdad, Mikhail worked as a journalist and translator. She left Iraq after enduring censorship and interrogation, and, after spending time in Jordan, eventually settled in Detroit. The music of her poetry is declarative, elegant, informative, and unabashedly female. Here is the beginning of the first poem in the collection, “The Stranger in Her Feminine Sign”:

Everything has gender
in Arabic:
History is male.
Fiction is female.
Dream is male.
Wish is female.

Feminine words are followed
by a circle with two dots over it.
They call this symbol the tide circle,
knotted with wishes
which come true only when forgotten
or replaced by the wishes of others.

The poem continues at a pace shaded with the kind of foreboding a storyteller fashions, anticipating the arrival of a stranger who will appear with ”her feminine sign.”

The stranger’s lateness
worries those who wait.
Someone says she’s searching
for a word to complete
a special sentence,
the gift she’ll bring to town.

Another wonders if she seeks
a verb or a noun,
and offers to find her.
A third warns that the stranger
may turn him, with one touch
into a flower that blooms
for only an instant
before it withers and dies,
her circle throbbing with songs
that cause sadness and elation
and something so obscure
no one has a name for it.

At last the women hear footsteps, so they remind one another to “Make sure the gate is open.” The last two lines are the perfect preface to the rest of the book:

They hear clinking—
A bracelet? A chain?

We can’t escape the links in the chain of questions any more than people in Mikhail’s poems can escape their current situation and their memories.

Like so many who have survived entrenched violence, the speaker in “Baghdad in Detroit” has a vivid flashback. It is Fourth of July, and fireworks take her home in the worst way, because she’s in an American city that’s celebrating an America whose Middle East policies have left millions of people with terrible memories and grief. Mikhail’s speaker imagines:

A butterfly from the Tigris shore
alights in my hand.
No bombs today to scare her away.

Again we read tensile, embedded associations that no one should have to experience, and that far too many have. The poem returned me to the Jersey Shore marshland of my youth and the peace I knew there among the wildlife, a peace stolen from people from countless countries who have died in, or have been forced to flee, violence. For far too many, Fourth of July flashbacks are part of the price they pay for having done what they felt they had to do, given terrible options.

Mikhail writes the poetry of witness on par with that gathered in Carolyn Forché’s seminal anthology Against Forgetting, as “Three Women,” in its entirety, makes plain:

Another night on the way to the cages
and the stars-dead eggs glistening-
don’t know the secret of the stone.

For ten years the stone was left
in the basement with three
kidnapped women inside it.

Their souls broke the door and escaped.
Their bodies lagged a few steps behind.
They will never look back.

If they do, they will find their feathers
scattered everywhere, and a bell
with no ring, and three shadows

trapped inside a stone.

The second section of the book is called “Tablets” and contains a visually compelling attempt, as Mikhail has said, to write “Iraqi haiku.” Tablet is an especially appropriate, loaded word for anyone whose subject matter is connected to the Middle East, where writing began as characters pressed into clay tablets. Mikhail forms poems she has said she hopes will invoke Sumerian cuneiform, and all her poetry rightly insists on the validity of ancient ties to the present, where she creates anew:

I close my eyes and see a dot.
It becomes a spot of light.
It grows into the size of a person
who moves into the distance
until it returns to a spot of light,
a dot.

Ask not how many houses were built.
Ask how many residents remained in the houses.

Can your camera capture
fear in the eyes
of the mother sparrow, see
the broken eggs in her eyes?

Mikhail’s dot is a large, courageously nurturing one, and, as a poet who is also a journalist and teacher, she surely is aware of how the phrase “ask not” holds echoes of John F. Kennedy for her American readers. As a poet of witness, however, she has captured what a camera or a well-known phrase cannot—”the broken eggs in her eyes,” a devastating, micro-level image of births that will not take place.

Number 12, from the third section of “Tablets,” is another devastating, micro-level image with macro implications:

The grandfather left the country with one suitcase.
The father left with empty hands.
The son left with no hands.

Read In Her Feminine Sign to learn from someone who survived and escaped a culture of cruelty, made much worse by American arrogance and idiocy, in Iraq. Read it to face the reality of the United States’s own culture of cruelty, of caged children and other savagery. Read on to the third section of In Her Feminine Sign, and forgive her for quoting the somewhat overused Leonard Cohen line: “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” That’s in a poem called “What We Carry to Mars,” the core of this third section, and a riff on the concept of “Mother Earth” and astronomy. In the same piece, Mikhail writes, “The Sumerians said ‘returning to the mother’ when they meant ‘freedom.’” This is another way of honoring the protection that, at their best, mothers can provide.

“On the Edge of a Mass Grave” stunningly defies its conclusion in the last lines:

They are close to each other
like conjoined trees
on which they would rest their backs
except now they have no words.

Except, of course, the dead in this poem, and in the entire book, do have words, because Mikhail has written them. In Her Feminine Sign is as vital in every sense of the word as the strongest literary witnessing I have had the privilege of reading this year.


Unlike a lot of people raised by Jewish parents and grandparents, my exposure to Yiddish was limited. The educators in my family didn’t want me to grow up saying Oy! or other common Yiddish words and phrases that fostered stereotypes.

“Plotz” is one Yiddish word I sometimes heard and always loved. As a child, I did not try to figure out why. As an adult I came to appreciate the faintly fecal sound of the soft ‘o’ bracketed by the hard ‘p’ and the skidding ‘tz.’ In one syllable, it’s easy to visualize a person plotzing—so upset that their insides start to give way, with chagrin at those symptoms magnified by their cause, and clearly visible on the plotzer’s face.

“Plotzing,” my father might say twice a year, describing a relative’s response to something Richard Nixon said, or to a major faux pas made by another family member. “Plotzting in their graves” has lately been what I have said to describe the way people I have respected are surely responding to current events throughout the world. Robert Lax (1912-2000) and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) are among them.

They met at Columbia University before World War II, and New Directions has released new collections of old work by the friends who shared a hunger for the divine, nurtured in ways some found surprising. They joked and punned on the page and in person, and often used verbal hijinks to give voice to serious concerns. Merton liked to use the term “Cat-licks” to express dismay at the rigidity of some co-religionists, and employed playful terms such as “Mars bars” in response to news that made him happy. Lax shared Merton’s sense of humor, as well as his fear for the future of the world in the late 1940s, when nuclear war seemed more threatening than global warming. Their humor helped them cope and was inseparable from their religiosity.

Silence, Joy, a selection of writings by Merton, was edited by Christopher Wait. The first line in the first paragraph is from Seeds of Contemplation, and it begins: “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” Merton knew this wasn’t a fresh idea, and he expanded on it with a nod to Christ’s parable of the sower. The nine prose pages of the Seeds of Contemplation excerpted in Silence, Joy are a platform supporting what follows. Here is some of “In Silence”:

Are you? Whose
Silence are you?

Right now these questions are a moral imperative that becomes more urgent by the second, and Merton would surely be speaking out, either in public, which he sometimes did, or with his typewriter at his hermitage. He also sometimes broke his silence to meet with Denise Levertov and other activists, some literary, some not, and the website for the Thomas Merton Center provides abundant material on his progressive political views, which were inseparable from his faith-fed love of the world.

Merton had a complicated affection for his surroundings at the monastery where he lived, and “Trappists, Working” is a lovingly rendered tribute to the men in his community and the way they labored:

Now all our saws sing holy sonnets in this
world of timber
Where oaks go off like guns, and fall like
Pouring their roar into the wood’s green well.

Walk to us, Jesus, through the wall of trees,
And find us still adorers in these airy
Singing our other Office with our saws and
Still teach your children in the busy forest,
And let some little sunlight reach us, in our
mental shades, and leafy studies.

When time has turned the country white
with grain
And filed our regions with the thrashing sun,
Walk to us, Jesus, through the walls of wheat
When our two tractors come to cut them
Sow some light winds upon the acres of our
And cool the regions where pure prayers are
And shake us, Heaven, with Your living rivers.

Saws singing sonnets is an example that works on two levels. Saws are useless unless in the hands of people who know how to apply them to what is being cut, and who understand and respect the structure of the music they make as they labor, even if they may not be able to verbalize what they grasp. A kind of sonnet, a kind of specific order, almost always accompanies a physical task well done. If more people appreciated the physical music of labor and other aspects of what it takes to earn one’s keep, there would be much less plotzing by progressives and others who are horrified by so much disrespect and deception aimed at workers in the current economy. Then, those last two words—”living rivers”— bring to mind the work of Jane Mead, Robert Hass, and other poets devoted to the earth.

“Mindfulness” is a term that became popular long after Merton’s death, and the lines in “Trappists Working” illustrate why mindfulness is still worthwhile and can give us needed energy in our efforts of resistance. Merton’s mindfulness works alongside Mikhail’s witnessing, the way so many different forms of poetry stretch the mind and stoke the tasks of enabling decency in an indecent world.


Robert Lax had acolytes from the time he was very young. His sister and his closest friends at Columbia University were among his first, and so were some of his prominent teachers, including Mark Van Doren. He wore their adulation lightly, which contributed to his reputation for authenticity. That authenticity is on every page of 33 Poems, edited by Thomas Kellein.

Lax really did join a circus as a way to renounce his privilege, performing as a juggler and writing poetry about the experience. At the time, his poetry was appreciated more by the avant garde in Europe than by readers in the United States. This did not bother Lax, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and moved to Patmos, Greece. There he lived in austere surroundings and performed countless acts of kindness, connecting deeply with the people he lived among.

Not surprisingly, Lax was a pacifist, and while it’s doubtful that he ever participated in mass demonstrations, “The Bomb,” a “Scenario for Auditorium” as Lax called it, is a deliberate evocation of the chaos war creates. It is a brief scene with two columns, the left labeled “Voices” and the right labeled “Sound.” The voices are all just two frightening, made-up words: “jabba” and “wook” repeated single-file down the left side of the page. On the right are italicized, recognizable words in single file above another column of “jabba”and “wook.” “BWOOM! /(The Bomb”—thus ends the piece, and that ‘w’ is as deliberate as everything Lax has ever written. He has declared the unsayable with words that have not been said, unless one thinks of jabberwocky. It a juddering take on what the military-industrial complex, and the leaders behind it, need to face and never will.

Lax’s “Jerusalem”is a cri de coeur that should give sustenance to peacemakers everywhere, its last lines a manifesto for the world:

reading of lovely Jerusalem.
lovely, ruined Jerusalem.

we are brought to the port
where the boats in line are
and the high tower on the hill
and the prows starting again
into the mist.

for we must must seek
by going down,
down into the city
for our song.
deep into the city
for our peace.
for it is there
that peace lies
like a pool.

there we shall seek:
it is from there
she’ll flower.

for lovely, ruined Jerusalem,
lovely, sad Jerusalem,
lies furled
under the cities
of light.

for we are only
going down,
only descending
by this song
to where the cities
gleam in darkness,

or curled like roots
sit waiting
at the undiscovered

what pressure
thrusts us up
as we descend?

pressure of
the city’s singing,

pressure of
the song
she hath withheld.

hath long withheld.

for none
would hear

This was published in 1956, less than a decade after Israel was declared a modern nation, displacing millions of Palestinians. While the aftermath of World War II caused many to celebrate that displacement, Lax understood early that the city’s truth was not being heard.

Robert Lax and Thomas Merton were disciplined listeners, and gave light in dark times and comfort to the distressed. Encountering them now, they help remind us, as Mikhail does, that those of us with first-world lives should reach beyond our own cultures and interior difficulties to push back against the beasts in our midst.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →