Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard”

Fallujah, Iraq. Steelworker 3rd Class Robert Sprague ties together rebar before a concrete placement on a bridge project.
Fallujah, Iraq. Steelworker 3rd Class Robert Sprague ties together rebar before a concrete placement on a bridge project.

Dunya Mikhail was born in Iraq and has published six collections of poetry in her native Arabic. Her book, The War Works Hard, from which the title poem included below is taken, was translated into English by Elizabeth Winslow and published in 2005 by New Directions Press. Mikhail’s poetry is strongly critical of war in her native Iraq and scrutinizes the effects of the U.S.-Iraq wars on the Iraqi people, the land, and its culture. Markedly different than other masculine Iraqi poets of her generation, Mikhail’s tone indirectly points fingers at the forces of greed, corruption, and martyrdom that characterize both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Mikhail currently works as an Arabic instructor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

It produces the most questions
in the minds of children…

In “The War Works Hard”, Mikhail uses a number of poetic devices to portray the labors and horrors of war. We get the impression that a busy god — or project foreman — is behind the war’s actions, making phone calls and delegating responsibilities. What propels the poem, however, is the repetition of the phrase “It wakes up…” which becomes “It produces…” and then “It inspires…”, etc. Also, the cataloging of actions verbs (the same sort of words you might encounter in a resume) speeds the poem up considerably, until you are finally slowed down by the final thought-provoking lines. Notice how many of the actions Mikhail lists in the poem allude to the new job opportunities that the war creates for certain people, or corporations, in the form of profitable building contracts, military weapons, selling newspapers, etc. She even includes herself in the “profits” by saying the war provides “themes to poets”.


The War Works Hard

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning,
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places,
swings corpses through the air,
rolls stretchers to the wounded,
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers,
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins…
Some are lifeless and glistening,
others are pale and still throbbing…
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children,
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky,
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters,
urges families to emigrate,
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)…
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed,
teaches lovers to write letters,
accustoms young women to waiting,
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures,
builds new houses
for the orphans,
invigorates the coffin makers,
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
The war works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

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