Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan – Edited and translated by Farzana Marie

This year I had only read one poetry collection from the Best Translated Book Award longlist, “Wild Words – Four Tamil Poets” – Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi & Sukirtharani (translated by Lakshmi Holmström),  and the similarly focused work “Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan” edited and translated by Farzana Marie appealed to me specifically because it features women’s poetry (as a proud supporter of their being more Women In Translation, reviewing female works from all spectrums is part of my credo) and because it comes from a marginalised group.
…poetry, with its symbolic language, is being explored and effectively used as a powerful means of protest against gender discrimination and injustice… (taken from the Foreword)
From the mid 1990’s through to 2001, during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the regime restricted reading, writing and all forms of education for women in the country. Herat, with a lively arts culture, and a stronghold of literature and poetry, whilst underground, managed to continue female involvement in education, reading and writing and after 2001 a new movement of women’s poetry became visible.
Dwindling international military support accompanied by reduced development funding, recovering from the debacle of the 2014 presidential election, and potential negotiations with insurgents all bear serious implications for the situation of women in Afghan society. The broad spectrum of emotions, images and ideas represented in the post-Taliban poetry of Herati women is important for grasping layers of nuance in contemporary societal and gender issues that are often simplified for public consumption.
Besides a Foreword and a substantial Introduction by the editor and translator of the collection, Farzana Marie, the collection opens with the poems of Nadia Anjuman, allegedly the most prominent of the post-Taliban female poets, a published writer who, at age 24, was killed by her husband. Interestingly the poems in this collection by Nadia Anjuman only cover the period 1999-2002, when the introduction speaks of her marriage in 2004, her poetry subsequently becoming darker and her first book being released in 2005 (interestingly the first published work by a female poet after the Taliban rule). Her husband spent a mere four months in jail for the murder and not having any works from the period after her marriage it is impossible to judge if there are any changes in her work post marriage.
The first poem in the collection is “Makes No Sense”, which is also known as “Afghan Girl” given the poem was used as lyrics in a popular Afghan song by Shahla Zaland. This is a poem that speaks of repression of women, them being voiceless; “stifling songs is my abuser’s strongest skill”, however the power of the soul, which can whisper songs, “Though melodies drain from memory” until “an Afghan woman wails and sings, and wail and sing I will.” There can also be a simpler reading of the poem, an exploration of grief and remorse striking the victim silent, speechless, until the soul takes over and the wailing/singing comes forth.
Smoke-Bloom
I’m full of the feeling of emptiness,
full.
An abundant famine
boils me in my soul’s fevered fields,
and this strange waterless boiling
startled the image in my poem
to life.
Here we have the immediate clash of images such as “emptiness” and “full”, “abundant” and “famine” (and “fields”), “waterless” and “boiling”, even though these images are polar opposites, it is through this balance that the actual work comes to life.
Muzhgan Faramanesh’s poems are short ghazals or even shorter quatrains, following a traditional Persian style but using modern contemporary themes and issues. Her works are of suffering, we have tears, eye witnesses to pain, and she is “craving to write [of] the ferocity of grief” but has a wish that God spares you the same. There is a work (“Ghazal 2”) that uses the unrequited love theme, brought home startlingly when we learn of the death of the protagonist, a death by someone else’s hand, a victim of a suicide bomb. Stark images of gunshot residue, fire, and the word “prey” immediately bring the reader back from the earlier sections of heart-ache and love’s gaze.
However it is not only these poets that have a strong activist edge, all the poetry presented here addressing repression, war, violence, death, feminism and like subjects.
Rows of Pockmarked Homes
Rows of pockmarked homes down our street
motion, calling –
hey,
who stole the stones
to build a human?
The title of the collection comes from a poem by Somaya Ramesh (a section below)
Load poems like guns –
each moment is loaded
with bombs
bullets
blasts
death-sounds –
death and war
don’t follow the rules
you can make your pages into white flags
a thousand times
but swallow your words, say no more.
Whilst a confronting collection and a work that needs to be recognised, not only this work but the ongoing writing of these empowered women pushing literary boundaries in their country, I do feel it is a book that promises a lot but delivers a lot less. Each poet is introduced and it is then followed by an individual “translator’s note”. Each of these notes reveals a weakness in Farzana Marie’s translation, she explains too much of the choices she has made, her detailed explanations impact the personal reading of the poems. The poems themselves no longer become a translated work they now become a translated/interpreted and explained work.
I also took umbrage at…”Sharifi’s poem “A Gamble” may have the most contemporary and relatable feel for English-speaking, especially American, readers, who have witnessed and experienced the most crushing economic trends in recent history.” This in a book that is dealing with women who have been denied education, a nation that has undergone decades of war! Personally I picked up this book to read Afghan women poets, I don’t want opinion pieces about first world problems.
When the neighbor’s kid continues
to learn “b” for battlefield
and “j” for jihad,
how will we be able to breathe
through the gunpowder?
          From Protestby Elaha Sahel
Whilst an important work, I think the collection falls down in the manner it has been delivered. We have 54 pages of foreword, introduction and translator notes, 8 pages of biographies (ie. 62 pages of text by Farzana Marie) and a mere 41 pages of poems (82 actually as they are presented in both Persian and English) a number of the poems stretching to a mere four or five lines. The subject itself falling into the background of the explanations.
Having said all that, it was an enlightening time and an educational one too, to read this book, to visit an important literary sub-culture in a region not too often visited by English speaking readers. The poets themselves presenting a powerful collection of works, with vivid imagery, it is a pity there was only a limited collection of them.

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