The Mindful Bard – Poetic Nonfiction in Iraqi Kurdistan

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The Mindful Bard – Poetic Nonfiction in Iraqi Kurdistan

Book: Echo Gods and Silent Mountains

Author: Patrick Woodcock

Publisher: ECW Press

?From being mere labels for material objects, words gradually turn into magical charms. Out of a catalogue of material facts is developed–thanks to the efforts of forgotten primitive geniuses–all that we know today as ‘poetry’.?

– Owen Barfield

A guide leads the poet to a small rectangular hole. They climb down to see where the Kurds hid, four families to a cave, when Saddam Hussein was bombing them. It smells terrible, it’s dark and dank and teeming with bugs. Although the bombing has stopped and Saddam is gone, old men still go down there to recite poems to each other.

Since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood there’s been much said about creative nonfiction, sometimes called literary journalism. But is there such a thing as poetic nonfiction? If so, It’s a singular achievement: the marriage of two very different modes of language?the primitive metaphorical and the modern descriptive.

The primitive metaphorical mode of language has its origins in the ancient world, especially in magical incantations intended to invoke, if not spirits and miraculous events, at least states of altered awareness. In this mode, symbolism, imagery, and rhythm are a means of conveying not literal truths but, rather, more profound and enduring truths that form a canopy over other forms of truth.

As for the descriptive mode of language, the dominant mode in the world in which we now find ourselves, today’s reader requires that what she reads be true and accurate (one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when comparing this expectation to the lies that now flood the media), and so poetry has been, in a sense, driven underground.

Nonetheless, there remains, as Northrop Frye pointed out, a need for the ancient, magical ways of thinking which must somehow be kept alive in the collective consciousness. This is why we still need poets.

But for the poet-journalist?a role that, in spite of being almost unheard of today, actually has a long and noble history (ancient Greece actually had poet-sports-journalists)?the rules aren’t picked up in any university journalism program. And by the time the poet arrives on the scene It’s to witness the aftermath of the conflagration and to hear the story from the traumatized survivors.

In this tome we’re lead to expect that Woodcock has accurately recorded the details of recent Kurdish history, notably the genocide undertaken against them by Saddam Hussein in the eighties. There’s no reason to think he’s fibbing, but we must remember that what the poet records may not be exactly what you would have seen had you been there. The point is that the poem delivers what matters.

Patrick Woodcock once edited the Literary Review of Canada but has since become a literary nomad?exploring the planet and opening himself to inspiration and opportunities for reflection and human understanding.

Vicariously reliving Woodcock’s journey through northern Iraq by means of his poetry renders it all astonishingly vivid. It’s like watching an exceptionally good documentary, but the experience is much more meditative and introspective.

He gives voice to a young woman named Mariama, the victim of corruption, bereavement, and rape. He shows how the war and the current conditions are based on a web of lies as tight as concrete. It’s a foundation that can support a diabolical structure of any size, at least for a while.

He touches on the growing problem of mental illness among Kurds, a condition created by torture and imprisonment under Saddam’s rule, a reality I wrote about in 2012 in my series of interviews with a Syrian Kurd. He writes about a former teacher who now can barely speak.

At first, you think the whole book is going to be about a people blinded by tradition and crushed by oppression. But then we read about a man who owns a teashop That’s actually a kind of mission to the mentally ill clients who’ve become like children to him, and you begin to think that maybe after all humanity is not entirely doomed.

Woodcock guides the reader into a sacred space. He’s mindfully engaged with others, with the environment, and with himself, and his verse manifests an intense refinement of expression, meter, image, line length, and rhythm, all subjected to the exigencies of the poetic idea.

In one poem he’s visiting a dwarf community. You feel a pang when the dwarves recount the same dilemma experienced by dwarves and others with physical challenges here in the West, i.e. the daily humiliation of living in a world not built with their needs in mind. He records the rather mundane hopes and dreams of its members. One would like a custom built car. Let’s hope she gets it one day.

Echo Gods and silent Mountains manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading.

It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda;
It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation;
It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.