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Butterfly Valley by Sherko Bekas trans & intro by Choman Hardi (Arc Publications)

Butterfly Valley by Sherko Bekas trans & intro by Choman Hardi (Arc Publications)

One of the immediate qualities of Choman Hardi’s introduction to this powerful volume is its focus upon distance: the space between where one is now and the never-to-be-erased memory of horror heaped upon horror. The Kurdish poem was originally published in Sweden in 1991 after Bekas had sought refuge there from the genocide taking place in Kurdistan where the gassing attack upon Halabja had taken place in March 1988. As Hardi puts it

“Longing for homeland starts Bekas on a constant search for reminders of it. He tours Stockholm, walks in its rain and sun, throws himself at the wind, follows girls, and circles the markets hoping that an image, a sound, a sensation would briefly take him back to his homeland.”

The former Iraqi state had used a cocktail of deadly gasses in the chemical weapons it fired into Halabja: “The gas looked brown and yellow. Some survivors report that it smelt of garlic while others say it smelt of rotten apples”. This attack came as part of a concerted attack upon Kurdish villages in which a hundred thousand civilians were exterminated during the months of that year.

“—What is exile? She asked me. What shall I tell you?
Shall I say: it is the love between land and dreams?
Or the sigh of a flower, away from her own garden?
Or the wandering of a vision, looking for its memories?
Or loneliness when she flees
and carries her country on her shoulders?”

Adorno is often misquoted as asserting that it is impossible to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz and what he did say, in his essay on Lukács, was rather different:

“Art does not provide knowledge of reality by reflecting it photographically or from a particular perspective but by revealing whatever is veiled by the empirical form assumed by reality, and this is possible only by virtue of art’s own autonomous status.”

It is the veiled sense, that which is so difficult to grasp, which makes me think of Paul Celan when I read this long poem. Poetry of course can be a form of active engagement with socio-political realities and sometimes it is compelled to respond to the ungraspable: the Holocaust, chemical warfare. Sometimes poetry has to speak whilst already knowing that it must fail in speaking. And it was Charles Tomlinson who said that reality is not to be sought in concrete but in “space made articulate”:

“Who says exile is longing for
the neighbourhood children’s chaos in the evening?
If it is, then what are all the neighbourhoods’ children
doing in the roads of my voice?”

Sherko Bekas bridges distance and makes space articulate when he asserts “I was the yellow light, / I was the fog, / I was the railway tracks, / and the roads and the journey were me.” The lines on the page are themselves the tracks which join the exile to his homeland and the solemnity with which lost beauty is brought shimmering into the present is a dirge which is related “without laboured tone, like the litany of a wake in which we are told, one by one, the beads of a rosary” (Preface, Gérard Chaliand). What is exile? What is loss?

“Shall I say it is the lost smell of a string of cloves,
the smell of my mother,
the smell of the neighbourhood girls that has forsaken me?”

This is a sophisticated and intense expression of grief in which Sherko Bekas, as is made clear on the back cover of this astonishingly powerful and beautifully produced edition from Arc Publications, uses a mixture of conflicting traditions, “folksong, funeral lamentation, wedding ritual”. The poem mourns but also celebrates the victims not only of Anfal and Halabja, but also those of past centuries. Butterfly Valley, a long poem of human response to pain, deserves a wide readership and if we ignore it we become thinner by doing so. Listen to the poet

“You had to do this
to write poetry with the tip of flame
and set fire to your fear and silence.”

Ian Brinton 26th November 2018

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