Text and photo by Joshua Clayton. The piece was originally written in October 2021.
Never such calm again. This was the phrase I thought to myself while reading most of the final third or so of Aria Aber’s debut collection of poetry, Hard Damage (2019). I was on a bench in Brighton overlooking the beach and the pier. The sun was blooming, bursting, a bloody orange; a high was lingering under my skin from a day in London on which I’d managed to see, one at a time, both of my brothers and both of my best friends.
I’d read the book before, but it was now hitting more cleanly because the light was stirring in me something I have recently heard described as ‘anticipatory grief’. I first read the phrase in Nina Mingya Powles’s Small Bodies of Water (2021), where it is picked up from Kylo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death (2017). There on the bench, the anticipation was not personal but planetary. It was March 2020. In London that day I had talked to one brother about cancelled conferences and to another about cancelled concerts; a few passing faces on my trains were half-hidden by scarves. We all remember that last long waning month. All those busy griefs, mounting the horizon.
Any good book might have given me the same shade of feelings on that Brighton bench, but I’m not sure if many others would have gone on to command so much of my attention. I return to Hard Damage often, usually to particular poems, and the last time I went cover to cover was very soon before the final withdrawal of U. S. and allied troops from Afghanistan. I wasn’t reading Hard Damage then because of the unfolding news—an uncanny timeliness often emerges from the books that mean the most to you—but it has since become difficult to separate one from the other. Aber, who was born to Afghan refugees in Germany, has for several years now been in the States, and one thing Hard Damage does is reckon with the contemporary legacies of U. S. involvement in the Soviet–Afghan war of the 1980s. The book is in part an example of what sometimes gets called ‘documentary poetry’: the fourth section, notably, is bracketed by two poems that do nothing other than list, as per their titles, examples of ‘Covert United States Involvement in Regime Change’, beginning with ‘1949: Syrian coup d’état’ and ending, after ‘2005: Syria, Operation Timber Sycamore’, with a simple promissory ellipsis. The lists themselves read as prompts for readers to do some research, and together they bookend an eleven-part sequence called ‘Operation Cyclone’. Google it. I had to.
Aber is also an extraordinary lyric poet whose project, essentially, is to sight the many sides of a self as it is tossed within a nightmare tide of transnational, imperially determined history. As she terms it in a note on ‘Operation Cyclone’, her habitual mode is that of ‘the witnessing lyric’, a canny phrase suggesting reportage, interrogation, responsibility, ongoing observation or surveillance, and centuries of the lyrical, legislative I. She works through her selfhood carefully, accounting for its debts to her family history, to God, to ‘three languages, one of them / dead’, and to the towering spectre of Rainer Maria Rilke. Aber’s every I is hard and dark and delicate on the page. Take the first two lines of the book, from the prefatory poem ‘Reading Rilke in Berlin’:
'Into English I splintered the way my father clutched
his valise at the airport, defeated and un-American. '
A splintery syntax is enacted here, with the trochaic, slightly unnatural ordering (cf. ‘I splintered into English’) both obscuring and emphasising the I, as if the language itself is shoving selfhood forward, towards the centre. Set this way, the phrase can be broken and read differently, such that ‘English’ is an adjective not a noun and ‘English I’ becomes an epithet for the English aspect of her selfhood, one of the three branches—sharing roots with a German I and an Afghan I—sprouting from what she calls her ‘forked childhood’.
The I here sticks out like a prong or a splinter, at once tearing and tearable. The line’s second verb, ‘clutched’, similarly evokes a kind of desperate scrabbling for something dear and dangerous and, before the line-break, the verb is itself uncertain of what it holds. Isolated, the first line implies that her father was clutching onto English too, but the second line reveals as its object ‘his valise’, an old-world emblem of dignified travel. It’s an open secret in poetry that a lot of meaning can be generated by ambiguities over a line-break. Heather McHugh has written that poetry ‘is shaped by its breakages, at every turn’, and Aber frequently shows, by this and other kinds of breakage, how selves are shaped by being snapped.
She is everywhere attentive to the materiality of language and of individual words—how they might be broken, how they might bleed into each other, how they might contain apparent opposites. What often emerges from this attention is a troublingly sensuous marriage of violence and care, such as in the title of one poem, ‘The Mother of All Balms’ (read: ‘Bombs’), and in the opening image from ‘Sisterhood’:
'Sister, when we found the hare,
a wounded emigrant in our yard,
it was already dying—it wasn’t our fault,
its wound a chiaroscuro (a word
newly acquired, and turned like candy
in our mouths) bleeding into frost—
small at first, then deluging
like a thought. Sister,
we tried to salvage but for what?
How unbelonging we were, in those blue-scaled,
inclement hours when the natural zipped us
out of dream. Ugh, the snow
again. As children of Others, we learned
early, one is born into desire—
the lattice of our bodies knew what matured around us
in velvet snow was never
The sheer terrible beauty of red blood on white snow seems so artful as to reflect the conscious patterning of chiaroscuro, an artistic technique centring around stark contrasts of light and shade. The hare’s ‘deluging’ blood is read as art staining into landscape, but the gradual velveting of the snow, though it seems to blend blood and cold into a bright harmony, represents unfulfilled assimilation. The snow, encompassing a land of whiteness, stubbornly resists the passage into it of such ‘children of Others’, even if they are making their mark on that land by blamelessly bleeding over it.
True assimilation is perhaps unreachable. There is rather a continuous compromise between belonging and unbelonging in which every move towards is always also a move away. ‘Not a day passes that I pass as belonging here’, Aber writes in ‘Dream with Horse’—‘here’ being both snow-white America and its colonially inherited language. But nor, she feels, does she belong back there, in Afghanistan. ‘Nostalgia’, goes one title, ‘Is Not the Right Word’. ‘To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue / pears laced with needles’, she writes in ‘Reading Rilke at Lake Mendota, Wisconsin’, a transatlantic sister to the book’s opening poem. ‘I had no life / in Kabul. How, then, can I trust my mind’s long corridor, / its longing for before?’ As a poet, she probes the past with language—she tongues it—but there is no easy path to sweetness and nourishment. The pear doesn’t lose its sweetness by being ‘laced with needles’, but it is a sweetness impossible to taste without cutting your tongue on the barbs hidden within.
Language, all in all, alienates as it conjoins. Looking back at the first poem we hear of two more tongues. One:
'At the accent reduction class, my teacher
instructed me to invert my tongue, like in love.'
The very notion of an ‘accent reduction class’ suggests the fraught promise of assimilation— you will become less unbelonging by hiding the marks of your origins—and, taking the ‘tongue’ as a sensory synecdoche for ‘language’, inversion suggests an unnatural arching away from your home, and your mother. But it also suggests something of the strange manipulations of poetry, with its power to create via defamiliarization. Poetry is itself an inverted tongue, a language of love and in love, a language turned back on itself in pleasure and torture.
Tongue number two:
'When they asked my mother where are you from?
she smiled and replied: fine, ou hare yu?
Oh, I shoved my hand right through
the officer’s mouth and ripped out his tongue,
then under my pillow I placed it, and waited
for it to bloom new my blood.'
Think of the officer’s tongue as the English language: ripping it out thus comes to seem an assertive, political, even a retributive act. The officer, with his presumptive authority, is rendered voiceless; Aber, meanwhile, finds (or rather takes) her working language and calmly waits for the opportunity to turn it back on those she stole it from, on those who had used it to steal. Why is this image so perfect and powerful? It’s largely to do with the sound and taste of ‘bloom new my blood’: none of the syllables is stressed over any other (such that the phrase is spondaic—this is achieved by shrewdly using new as an adverb). It’s also the order: imagine, as an alternative, ‘bloom my blood anew’. Without that resounding stamp of blood on the end, it just sounds too soft. Aber has taken hold of our tongues as readers, obliging us to weigh the words fully, to turn them like laced candy in our mouths.
In ‘Rilke and I’, an essayistic sequence, individual words are weighed against each other across two languages. Aber has several names for Rilke—‘my favorite asshole, my tempest’, ‘blue prince of the lyric I’—and a line of his forms part of one of Hard Damage’s epigraphs: ‘Let everything happen to you: Beauty and Terror.’ In the sequence, each word from this translated line is analysed alongside its equivalent in the original German, which is after all Aber’s ‘default language’. She begins with ‘ich / I’, having slyly inserted an I into a line that originally contains only a you:
'Ich, the German first-person singular pronoun, is not capitalized.
Is my German selfhood humbler, does it fold into itself? Why is the English I so prominent, so searing on the page? […]
I do not remember the formation of my selfhood. Of course, I wouldn’t—all existence before self was fluid, floating under me in icy shapes; it wasn’t mine yet; it was everyone’s.'
We arrive, duly, at ‘dir / You’:
'I touch you. I think of all the other yous my life is populated with. Mostly, they are lovers—I sometimes believe that only lovers and mothers can touch one to this extent, to the extent of branding themselves into you as a perpetual addressee.'
In her book, Aber twice uses the word limen. A psychological term synonymous with threshold, it refers to the ‘limit below which a given stimulus ceases to be perceptible’ (OED)—on one side of a limen, that is, we can feel what tries to touch us; on the other, we cannot. Aurally and visually, the word suggests lime, lemon, linen, lying, lichen, limit, sublimity, liminality; it also speaks to Aber’s constant testing of her poetry’s capacity to touch and to be felt. Her poetry is forever at the threshold, the limen, between I and You, Beauty and Terror, Memory and The Moment, Disappearing and Salvaging, Belonging and Unbelonging. ‘I touch you’: ‘I’ and ‘you’ are brought together by ‘touch’, by language, but they are also, ironically, always kept apart.