War is a recurring theme for poet Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi exile who fled her country after being placed on Saddam Hussein's enemies list. She wrote her first poems as a teenager in Baghdad, just as the slaughter of the Iran-Iraq War began. Subsequent wars offered more to write about.
One of Mikhail's collections is called The War Works Hard. It's also the name of a poem with an ironic take on the meaning and consequence of war.
[It] 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.
Mikhail, who now lives in the United States, wrote that poem in response to the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
"When I think of war, for me, it's by default a ... lose-lose case," the poet tells Renee Montagne. "I believe there's no winner in the war because, you know, the killed one dies physically and the killer dies morally. So they are both dead."
Mikhail wrote the poem "Bag of Bones" about the current Iraq war.
What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.
For Mikhail, writing about war is not necessarily a way to heal wounds, she says.
"On the contrary, it keeps [them] open forever," Mikhail adds. "Poems are like X-rays. It makes you see the wound and understand it."