Researcher’s Blues – Choman Hardi
Every day I try to lose them in the streets,
leave them behind in a bend in the road and keep on
walking. But they follow me everywhere, their voices
combining into a hum from which sentences rise and fall.
The woman I never interviewed cut the string of my sleep
at dawn, whispering: ‘I am not well’. Why didn’t I listen
to her story? Why didn’t I realise that she was dying?
The one widowed at 26 told me, ‘Imagine twenty
years of loneliness.’ I remember her in the middle of
an embrace and start weeping. The pleading voice
of the woman who was raped echoes in my head:
‘I only wanted bread for my son.’ I wish I had told her
that she is good, she is pure, not spoiled as she thinks she is.
Then I remember the old couple in their mud-brick house,
surrounded by goats and chickens. I remember their tears
when they talk about their children, when they remember
a woman who had been rich and powerful in her own village
but in Nugra Salman ‘she was stinking, abandoned,
worm-stricken’. What was the dead woman’s name?
Why didn’t I try to find her family? I keep walking away.
All I want is to walk without crying, without being
pitied by people who think that I have problems
with love, without the homeless man telling me that he is
sorry. I want to disappear, be unnoticed, unpitied.
Sometime ago when I started, it was all clear. I knew
what had to be done. All I can do now is keep walking,
carrying this sorrow in my soul, all I can do is
pour with grief which has no beginning and no end.
The Sunday Poem this week is by Choman Hardi, a poet that I heard read at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last weekend. I cried all the way through Choman’s reading, which was a new experience for me. Crying, I mean, not the poetry reading. Choman read poems from a sequence called ‘Anfal’ which sits at the heart of her new collection ‘Considering the Women’, published by Bloodaxe. The sequence draws on Choman’s post-doctoral research on women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, telling the untold story of the survivors. The horror that these poems document is terrible, and that made me cry first of all, but what kept me crying was the calm and poise and grace that Choman read the poems with. She did not let her feelings show when she was reading the poems, and I’m guessing this is so that there is no distraction from the stories that she is trying to tell, although I don’t know this.
Researcher’s Blues tells us that of course this type of work and this type of writing has a massive effect on the write, and it must take a superhuman effort to read those poems so calmly and clearly. The poem documents the literal haunting of the writer by the people she didn’t speak to, as well as the ones she did, and feelings of not doing enough and not listening enough.
I know that poetry like this brings up strong emotions in people about whether this is what poetry should be for and I will stick my head above the parapet and say yes, I think this is absolutely one of the things that poetry is for. Not every poem has to be about violence or trauma or witness, but some poems must be. It has to be good poetry of course as well and this is – right from the compelling first line. The line breaks are also working really hard in this poem. I like the line break in Line 2 after ‘on’ and the break after ‘listen’ in Line 6.
This poem is working hard as well, pulling together threads that have been explored in the sequence, and things that will be explored later on, the idea that knowledge is a dangerous thing, that you can end up knowing both more than you started, and less: ‘Sometime ago when I started, it was all clear. I knew/what had to be done.’ I also think that the desire for the erasure of the self at the end of the poem ‘I want to disappear, be unnoticed, unpitied’ is really interesting, especially when read in the context of the first poem of the sequence ‘Preface: Researcher’s Speech’ which says ‘fill me up with your words’. At the beginning of the sequence, the speaker of the poem is prepared to be a vessel for the stories of the survivors. By the end, even this desire has gone. The speaker wants to disappear completely.
I guess I wanted to put this poem up today because of everything that has happened in Paris this weekend, and everything that has happened in Egypt and Beirut and Syria and Iraq. The media don’t cover the terrorism that is going on in these countries – I felt ashamed that I didn’t know about the terrorism attack in Beirut. This poem, and Choman’s book centres on the idea of telling the story of people that have no voice, so I thought it was apt this weekend, in memory of all of the voices that have been silenced in terrorist attacks and bombing campaigns, voices that we won’t hear tell their stories.
I’ve been pondering this poem for a couple of hours now, trying to write this blog post and I still don’t quite feel that I’ve pinned down everything I want to say about Choman’s poetry, but I strongly recommend the collection. Choman was born in Sulaimani and lived in Iraq and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993. She was awarded a scholarship from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out post-doctoral research about women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan-Iraq. Her first English collection ‘Life for Us’ was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004. In 2014 she moved back to her home city to become an assistant professor in the department of English in the American University of Iraq.
I hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Choman for allowing me to post it here.
My week has been really difficult this week. I remember last year that the Autumn term was really manic – I don’t know if anybody else finds this, but it seems to be busy both as a music teacher and as a poet. Anyway, I can just about keep on top of it all as long as I’m feeling fit and healthy but my dizzy spell at Aldeburgh developed into a horrible cold this week so I’ve been doing everything I can to keep my head above water.
I got back from Aldeburgh at 5.30pm on Monday night and then had my junior band rehearsal followed by my soul band rehearsal. On Tuesday I had teaching all day and then quintet rehearsal and another soul band rehearsal. On Wednesday I taught all day and then packed and drove to Leicester because I was giving a lecture at Leicester University for the poet and novelist Jonathan Taylor’s undergraduate students. I had a lovely chat with Jonathan in the canteen after the lecture, which served to remind me why I love poetry and poets. I don’t know Jonathan very well, I think we’ve only met a handful of times, but twice now he has offered advice and encouragement – I was talking through ideas for a PhD and he came up with a list of books for me to look at. It made me think – this is what doing a PhD would be like – sitting and talking about poetry, then being given a list of books to read. It sounds like my dream! Except if I was doing a PhD I would presumably have time to read the books.
Anyway, after that, I jumped in the car and crawled up the M6 through horrendous traffic to Keswick for the Cumbria Culture Awards. As I got further north the horrible traffic died off but I became convinced it was because it had all been washed away due to the torrential rain. I ended up being late for the Cultural awards and although I’d bought a posh dress and shoes with me, I ended up running into the venue and performing in my jeans, trainers and my mum’s cardigan.
One good thing about being up for Cumbria Life Writer of the Year and being against writers like Sarah Hall and James Rebanks was that I was a 100% sure that I wasn’t going to win, so I actually enjoyed the night. It was really exciting to hear about all the amazing things that are happening in Cumbria. The Barrow Shipyard Junior Band sadly didn’t win Musical Group of the Year either, but I think they did brilliantly to be shortlisted and it also didn’t feel horrible not to win because Cumbria Life had done a lovely film about each person or group in the shortlist so it felt like you were made a fuss of, even if you didn’t win.
By the time I got to Friday, my cold was awful and got worse as I ran my Young Writers group in the afternoon, and performed with the quintet at Brewery Poets. The three guest poets were David Borrott, Kerry Darbishire and Barbara Hickson and they read really well, but to be honest, I felt like I was dying at this point ( I am nothing if not dramatic) and I was mainly focused on not having a massive tantrum because I felt so ill.
I woke up on Saturday feeling a little bit better, which was lucky really because I was running my first all day poetry workshop in Barrow. The workshop was a real success – there were a few cancellations due to the bad weather, but ten poets turned up and they were a lovely group and wrote some fantastic stuff. I’m hoping to book another workshop for January and then to hold them once a month after that.
On Saturday night I had a gig with the Soul Survivors and then today I’ve spent the day catching up with emails, so if you’ve been expecting a reply to an email for ages and you haven’t got one, please give me a nudge, as I think I’ve caught up with myself now. This afternoon I drove to Maryport to announce the results of the Maryport Literature Festival poetry competition and to do a short reading. It was a lovely event, but we finished early because of the bad weather. On the way back, my headlights were actually underwater at one point driving through the flood at Holmrook, but the car kept going which was a relief as I don’t know what I would have done if I’d flooded the engine…
So that is my week. Next week on Thursday I’m reading with Peter Riley at The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge – please see the ‘Readings and Workshops’ tab for more details. On Friday I’m off to Cork to read at the Winter Warmer festival and Matthew Sweeney is heading to Ulverston to read at A Poem and a Pint, which I’m going to miss which I’m really sad about, although I’m obviously quite excited to be going to Cork.
At some point this week, there will be information going up about the workshops and timetable for the residential I’m running with Steve Ely in St Ives. We have been putting the final touches to this and it is almost ready!