Elizabeth Winslow, translated from the Arabic written by Dunya Mikhail

copyright ©1993, 1997, 2000, 2005 by Dunya Mikhail / translation copyright 2005 by Elizabeth Winslow

Please don’t ask me, America.
I don’t remember
on which street,
with whom,
or under which star.
Don’t ask me …
I don’t remember
the colors of the people
or their signatures.
I don’t remember if they had
our faces
and our dreams,
if they were singing
or not,
writing from the left
or the right
or not writing at all,
sleeping in houses
on sidewalks
or in airports,
making love or not making love.
Please don’t ask me, America.
I don’t remember their names
or their birthplaces.
People are grass –
they grow everywhere, America.
Don’t ask me …
I don’t remember
what time it was,
what the weather was like,
which language,
or which flag.
Don’t ask me …
I don’t remember
how long they walked under the sun
or how many died.
I don’t remember
the shapes of the boats
or the number of stops …
How many suitcases they carried
or left behind,
if they came complaining
or without complaint.
Stop your questioning, America,
and offer your hand
to the tired
on the other shore.

Notes on the Poem

Poet Dunya Mikhail fled to the US from her native Iraq in the late 1990s, but continued to not only monitor and stay connected to the turmoil in her homeland, but to reflect it fiercely in her poetry. Translator Elizabeth Winslow has been acclaimed and lauded for, as the Griffin Poetry Prize judges' citation termed them, "perfect translations" into English of Mikhail's work in Arabic. When you cannot read poetry in its language of origin to compare and authenticate it for yourself, you must then trust that translations are sound and in the spirit and intent of the original, and combine that trust with evaluating the translations on their own merits as poetic works. Taking in this excerpt from "America", from the collection "The War Works Hard", consider how Mikhail and Winslow combine to convey the exasperation, weariness and deep despair of people hardened and rendered almost catatonic by ongoing war and strife. To start, the short lines convey both impatience and no energy to wax more eloquent. The repetition - "don't ask me", "I don't remember" - suggests that the speaker has run out of unique responses to what is being incessantly asked of her. The speaker tersely addresses an entity named "America" - undefined, faceless, monolithic, drained of specific human aspects, clearly not responding. Not too long into the poem, the one remaining convention suggesting a modicum of civility, however undeserved - "please" - disappears. Do you see how this slender, stripped-down poem starkly depicts the state of a profoundly demoralized mind, people and nation? More importantly, do you feel it?

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