‘I Am the Beggar of the World,’ translated by Eliza Griswold

Gulbahar, Kapisa Province. November 2001 A car parked in a field.
  • COLDFRONT RATING: five
  • PUBLISHED BY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
  • REVIEW BY: Matt Soucy
“In my dream, I am the president. / When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

The story of Eliza Griswold’s work assembling landays has been well-covered by Poetry Magazine, Boston Review, Slate, the book’s introduction, and many other places. To focus on the poems, the book as final product and the response it has generated:

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While half of the poems translated in I Am the Beggar of the World establish and define taboo, the other half laugh at the forbidden. These fluid couplets written and repeated clandestinely by Pashtun women are a stark reminder that to ask “What is the purpose of poetry?” will always garner nonsensical answers, because it is a nonsensical question. The Pashtun women who risk their well-being or lives simply to speak poetry know that poetry is the purpose.

Given that poetry is a human end in itself, and landays (until texting and this collection) existed only in the speaker and listener, it is no surprise that nearly every poem translated here, exhibits some action on/with the body.

My body belongs to me;
to others its mastery.

 

Or,

 

I’ll make a tattoo of my lover’s blood
and shame each rose in the green garden.

 

Or,

 

My love gave his life for our homeland.
I’ll sew his shroud with a simple strand of hair.

Women are burned, broken, smashed, ripped open, and murdered. They also threaten most of these acts, but while the pain threatened is promised, the pain realized is actual, immediate and crushing. The poems’ simplicity and directness give them the power of blessings or curses.

You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.

Speaking in the past tense, the woman has completely broken from the family that has wronged her. She also bears no love for her new family. Her release is in the landay. The reader comes to realize that for all of the pain discussed, landays themselves are a primary response. Griswold has repeatedly compared landays to rap, in their fluidity and subversive nature. But rap/hip-hop emphasizes name-recognition and individual identity while landays dig into cultural identity and shared experiences of the anonymous burqa, the jilted, the scorned, and the secretly powerful.

The poems bear closer resemblance to online blips. They can be as anonymous as the author wants. Landays are general property and can be picked up, rearranged, reinterpreted and republished. Like memes are finally reduced down to take on the voice of a particular interest group(s) that ha(s)(ve) adopted them, landays are finally interpreted by a particular speaker in the moment. Like her project partner, photographer Seamus Murphy, Griswold has taken a snapshot of these poems, some of them minutes old, some of them hundreds of years old and still changing. As Griswold says herself in the Boston Review interview, “The beauty of the landay is that it’s gone as soon as you’ve said it; you have no ownership over it… Anonymity allows a freedom of voice that’s really unique.”

The division of the book into categories is unfortunate: Love, Grief and Separation, and War and Homeland. Starting with the introduction, there is an ongoing emphasis on the expansiveness and mutability of the 22-syllables that make up a single landay. The reading experience–landay, note from Griswold, aptly placed photo from Seamus Murphy–helps the reader build accumulated meaning from the spare couplets. The divisions disrupt this experience. Also, many of the landays are too massive to categorize:

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.
To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.

Love, Grief, Separation, War, Homeland and more.

Separation followed me with an axe.
Wherever I laid love’s foundation, the axe smashed it.

The poems of the final section that do fall neatly into War and Homeland categories read like slogans. The poems are less impactful for their move away from the personal into the purely political sphere.

In Boston Review, Griswold states:

With the instability foreshadowing the U.S. pullout this year, the people who will suffer more than anyone else are women. And that’s not just because they’ve made great gains since the Taliban. Also because more than a decade of American presence, international presence, has allowed them a cultural way to get out of the house, to have a salary, to work.

As always, there is an impulse to use a project like this as another post hoc war justification. To quote Publisher’s Weekly:

Among [Griswold’s] many accomplishments is elucidating the “fury at the presence of the U.S. military and rage at occupation” while also detailing the fears surrounding the end of American occupation, including a return to lives of isolation and oppression for Afghan women.

In some ways, I Am the Beggar of the World “the project” is as much a contradiction as the poems it anthologizes. If it’s possible to sideline our egomaniacal national ego, this book is the strongest refutation to any argument that military intervention has the capacity for healing or positive value. The reader gains more human understanding of Afghans, Pashtun, women, loss, and love in these 145 pages than in the 13½ years of the 24-hour military industrial complex news cycle that preceded it. As Griswold herself points out, the presence of the U.S. military made her work possible. Despite that wholly unintended consequence, starting wars is the least good option for seeing our way through to cultural understanding.

Look at Poetry’s excellent adaptation of it’s June 2013 Landays feature edition.

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