Why I Chose Dunya Mikhail’s In Her Feminine Sign for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club

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In the Author’s Notes to her new collection In Her Feminine Sign, forthcoming from New Directions on July 30, Dunya Mikhail describes her writing process for these poems. She says “I wrote these poems from right to left and from left to right, in Arabic and in English. I didn’t translate them; I only wrote them twice… To capture the poem in two lives is to mirror my exile, with all its possibilities and risks.” And I have to admit, there’s a part of me that wishes this collection contained both versions of the poems even though I don’t read Arabic. I’d still like to see their existence in another form, see how the shapes mirror or echo each other, for example. Mikhail shows us only “one side of the mirror” in this collection, but what a reflection it is.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of In Her Feminine Sign, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with t’ai freedoom ford, you’ll need to subscribe by June 15!

Mikhail is Iraqi, born in Baghdad, and fled to the US in the mid-90s when she was put on Saddam Hussein’s enemies list. Her first poetry collection published in English, The War Works Hard, an extraordinary book in its own right, came out in 2005 near the beginning of President George W. Bush’s second term. I mention this here because I was thrown back to my reading of that book as well as my memories of the news coverage of the Iraq War by her poem “Baghdad in Detroit.”

On the Fourth of July
here in Detroit
I hear the echo of Baghdad explosions.
They say it is the sound of fireworks.

….

I enter a shelter
with the others in the crowd.
We will leave at the end of the raid.
They say this is the tunnel to Canada.

These are the opening and closing stanzas to the poem and they remind me of the stories about PTSD suffered by the residents of Baghdad, as well as by refugees who fled. It also reminds me of Congressman Tim Walberg’s (R-MI) 2007 comments where he compared the conditions in Detroit to those in Iraq and how you understood those comments depended a lot on your political point of view. But the thing about this poem is that the speaker is mirroring the two cities, and she’s almost suspended between them, between the Independence Day fireworks and a “butterfly from the Tigris shore” on her hand, between “ordinary clouds in the sky” and “the tunnel to Canada.”

This mirroring continues in the book’s final section, titled “T/here.” The opening poem of that section, “What We Carry to Mars,” suggests a future where human memory is downloaded and accessed when you need it, but what’s changing even more are things so basic we take them for granted. “Time will not be the same either. ‘I see you in a year of light’ means ‘See you later,’” her speaker says. She also asks “How many departures can you put up with?” which strikes me as a powerful question from someone who has already fled for her life once.

The middle section of the book is a series of short poems Mikhail describes as Iraqi haiku, and are an extension of some work she did in her second book, The Iraqi Nights. They’re written in sets of twenty-four and are filled with surprises and turns, in the way that short pieces can excel at.

There’s so much to talk about in this book, and I hope you’ll join us in the Rumpus Poetry Book Club in July as we read and discuss In Her Feminine Sign, first together and then with Dunya Mikhail in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by June 15 to make sure you don’t miss out!


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is Senior Poetry Editor at The Rumpus. More from this author →