Aria Aber’s first book of poetry, Hard Damage, does not consent to the simple narrative or the soundbite. It reminds readers that every displaced person, whether refugee, immigrant, or the child of one, carries with them a parcel of stories, stories that are often suppressed and mutated by the dominant culture, or lost to reductive media coverage.
Aber is the daughter of Afghan refugees; she was raised in Germany, and she studied in the United States. In Hard Damage, she illustrates the traumatic effects of displacement and highlights the reparative possibilities of cultivating love for one’s kin, as well as a wider community of living things: animals, plants, and the spirit included. Though trauma may strip life bare to what lies beneath the meaning-making systems of family, culture, language, religion, and nation, her book suggests that creative acts of community and generous works of art may help to hold a life in all its wholeness.
Hard Damage is divided into five sections: three sections of lyric poems frame the text, while the third and fourth sections comprise two longer meditations—a prose essay that explores Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous line—”Let everything happen to you: Beauty and Terror”—as well as a chapter of documentary poems that parse the events and precipitating factors of the American-led war in Afghanistan. The thrill of this book, for me, lies in its ethical reckoning; its poems enact what the epigraph from Rilke instructs, for the stakes are high: “Nearby is the country they call life.” The speaker in Hard Damage, it seems, is writing herself to life.
Throughout the book, I was awed by Aber’s ability to parse the nuances of self as it relates to its current geographical location and its perception by others. In one of the early poems, she writes:
years I lied about where I’m from
ashamed of the music of endings,
that deep hollow bell. How much
of my yearly tax is spent to bomb
the dirt that birthed me? is a question
I never wanted to consider.
The selves that drive the poems are kaleidoscopic; one seemingly never encounters the same lyric “I” twice. Selves seem to disperse into the subjects they examine:
The mind evades me. It flees into flesh, seeks peace in bread, lentils, pear wine. My animal self
purrs in my head, waits for the I to dissolve with a you.
In this way, the poem applies intense pressure to the lyric “I,” which in turn yields the places, people, and encounters that have shaped its speaker. The self becomes a vast space from which plants, animals, people, colors, foods, languages, and memories guide readers through history’s long consequences. Aber pushes this method further in a lyric poem entitled “What Your Life Was Like,” wherein her speaker tries to imagine her mother’s life before and after exile. It stands as another example of the empathetic imagination at work:
But among the havoc of Afghanistan, you had to leave your mother, your diploma, your polluted walnut tree where the strays begged for meat. What was it like, that sudden afterward?
And later, she asks:
Oh, Mother— weren’t you humiliated by phrases
such as thanks, of course, applesauce?
Imagining what her mother abandoned after fleeing the country (likely during the early 1980s, when over four million Afghans left as refugees) the speaker considers whether it was worth “forfeiting freedom.” Her mother traded freedom—the freedom of living in one’s home country, as opposed to the “freedom” as defined by the US government and its imperialist actions—for survival. The myriad violences of displacement give rise to moments of shame and humiliation throughout these poems. Elsewhere, the speaker feels her own shame as she considers the privileges that the English language and even the geographic distance from Afghanistan affords her. “I’m privileged enough to think of a border / as another line to write on,” she writes, invoking a border as both a seam and wound, but also as a site of imaginative consideration.
Throughout the collection, Aber points readers toward the twinned nature of geopolitical and physical borders, artificial and utterly real at once. She also plays with the imagery of plants and animal life, refusing to separate the human from the nonhuman, or even the “you” from the “I.” Throughout the essayistic third section exploring Rilke’s dictum, the speaker uses the “you”/“I” binary to excavate her relationship with her mother more fully, pairing it with an examination of the English and German languages, and suggesting, in turn, an interrogation of who holds global power:
We learn early on, especially in English, to use the active voice. It’s
inelegant to assume things happen to you; you do them. So, the English I is active, capitalized. I has agency, so I must have agency.
In the poem “Lass / Let,” she writes:
My mother let me happen to her. She let prison happen to her, simply because she believed in Women’s rights and Afghanistan as a sovereign state… She was, I can say now, a political prisoner. She let it happen to her; then she decided to leave her family behind, move on for love, for family, for me.
This sacrifice let her become monstrous.
When child-speaker asks her mother “what happened to you?” in German, the reply is crushing.
Was ist dir da passiert? I would ask.
In dir ist alles das ich habe.
All I have left is in you, my mother said.
The border between the mother and child is impassable, yet at the same time non-existent. It calls to mind the fears of those who would police the mother and daughter, but also, paradoxically, a reinterpretation of what a border might stand for: a kind of twoness-in-one that allows the sovereignty of the other. It’s an admission that we are made up of what-we-love and what-loves-us, and that this can come without dominance or aggression—but also with grief. I think of the speaker’s lines to her mother, in the penultimate poem of this section, “Und / And”:
You and I—that we could be such a thing as equals.
I leapt in love and grief.
Through this cycle of poems, the porous borders between the speaker and her mother are explored in both their beauty and their terror. At times, while reading, the child-speaker seems to be so acutely in tune with the mother figure that her independence feels necessary to her survival—and yet, I didn’t want them to be separated at all. They must remain both two and one simultaneously.
The individuated, Westernized self lives within these poems as well. These are interspersed with fragments of the speaker’s own shifting understanding of her place within this psychic terrain. Several poems in the book seem to borrow from Claudia Rankine’s method in Citizen. They track a variety of microaggressions the speaker endures within her life of displacement.
At a party, years later, someone tells me, “Nobody wants to hear the story of taxi drivers. Nobody wants to know that they were, like, an engineer or doctor in, like, Yemen, or wherever and have to drive taxis now. Why would they tell us this bumming story?
My father was at the time driving a taxi in my hometown.
And yet, as the book attests, the speaker—perhaps having no other choice—chooses to open herself to every “terrible angel” of her homes, old and new.
I wanted it all. I wanted the terrible angels of my home. When you,
Mother, were still the only you I had, you’d say: Germany is so
beautiful, look how green it is!
From the back, in my car seat, I’d protest: NO, AFGHANISTAN IS
MORE BEAUTIFUL. IT HAS EVERYTHING THERE.
She’d laugh, somewhat confounded: You have never been there.
From the site of dispersed trauma and displacement, Aber, or her lyric speaker, takes her position as poet-witness seriously. In the book’s fourth section of documentary-poetic works, she explicitly engages the role of “writer as witness,” leaning on predecessors and contemporaries in the form such as Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, Claudia Rankine, and Solmaz Sharif. She quotes Dostoyevsky: “We are not all guilty, but we’re all responsible,” and she takes this as a charge as she enters the poems in this portion of the book.
Aber reframes stories about the wars in Afghanistan by zooming into details of individual lives, which are often obscured within American media coverage. Drawing on Greek mythology within a long poem, “Operation Cyclone,” she gestures to the ways that warfare is mythologized, and made to seem epic in moral scope and providence. But it’s fallible humans who appear throughout this section. She chronicles people who were persecuted and killed, but also those guilty of interfering in the war in Afghanistan during the late 1970s, such as President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and the socialite and media personality Joanne Herring. The section opens and closes with a list of covert operations for regime change worldwide that have been led or backed by the United States government and military from 1949 to 2005; it stands as an homage not only to those who have died in Afghanistan but also the countless dead at the hands of American imperialism throughout the globe.
In “Ares,” a poem that calls upon the god of warfare, Aber quotes Herring, who helped persuade the US government to train and arm the Mujahideen resistance fighters to fight in the Soviet–Afghan War in the early 1980s. Originally known as Operation Cyclone, the covert operation was one of the most extensive in US history. Later that decade, al-Qaeda was born as Osama bin Laden and others formed a group to continue the war against the Soviets that threatened their vision of a fundamentalist Islamic state. In the 90s, they would shift their focus to the US, which they saw as their main obstacle.
I did not, said Joanne Herring,
the bombshell blonde, feline
in her fangs, create al-Qaeda; I cannot
predict the future. Southern Belle. Star of Pompeii. Helen
of Troy. What, do you think,
does she know of torture?
Herring’s post-9/11 statements are her attempt to shirk the blame for the fact that her work and media coverage was central to the training and arming of the Mujahideen fighters. Here, she is marked doubly guilty: guilty of denial, and guilty for the deaths that her efforts led to in Afghanistan and the US.
Aber looks closely at the human costs of war in a poem that describes the soldiers of the Mujahideen as individual people, both humanizing them and indicting them, and complicating a more conventional narrative that would paint them as killers alone. They are students who recite the Qu’ran, shampoo their beards, believe in heaven, sing Pashto folk poems, crack jokes, and rub their mothers’ feet—and who raid homes, rape women, and plant bombs in sacks of lentils at the market. Amid this litany, a stanza that further indicts Herring as one of the many American roots of the Mujahideen violence:
Mujahedeen, in an office with Reagan and Kissinger,
shaking hands, smiling for the camera’s eternal flash…
As well as the violence to which they are subjected to by the Soviet army:
Mujahedeen, faces pulled over with rags, flooded with
kneecaps breaking on cement, cotton lined with warm piss shitting their
Aber’s steady gaze on the ecosystem of violence that the war caused, and her attention to the lives of the guilty and the dead, reminded me of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Published in 1938, the work of documentary poetry examines the mass sickness and death of primarily African-American laborers in West Virginia at the hands of their corporate employer, Union Carbide. Over seven hundred men died of silicosis, a preventable lung disease caused by breathing in dust that contains silica—a crystal found in sand, rock, and mineral ores. Considered one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster is still largely unknown to the public. In the last poem of Rukeyser’s collection, she speaks to the relationship between naming and justice, as well as what a united people defending the sanctity of their lives might achieve.
What two things shall never be seen? They : what we did. Enemy : what we mean. This is a nation’s scene and halfway house.
What three things can never be done? Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone.
Rukeyser’s words seem to stand behind Aber’s project as well; the poets’ methodologies might be different, but their ethical orientation is the same. They come to ask questions, document, witness, and name. Like Rukeyser, Aber’s documentary poems ask readers to look closer at their own country by looking further into the violence that they might otherwise consider over there. Though America’s longest-running war may be faint as a heartbeat to many American citizens, to look away was—and is—impossible for many. As Aber writes, “This war, say the historians, was hidden. / Hidden, but from whom?”
I couldn’t help but read Hard Damage as an origin story and the shattering of an origin story at once. It sets out with an impossible task: How does a voice fill the gap, the void, of life as a perpetual refugee? How do you collect what’s left of a life after warfare, and make something from it? How do you make a life when all you have known has been marked by imperial violence? Or when life’s central thread has been severed, and you’re left with frayed ends?
Aber’s book holds the strands together to reveal the fullness of self in time. It answers the call put forth in the volume’s first epigraph, which comes from the late poet C. D. Wright: “You have your life / until you use it. You forfeit the only life you know / or go to your grave / with the song curled inside you.”
Hard Damage allows the songs—and the lives that they contain—to unfurl.