March 2013, as the introduction to This Room Is Waiting (a recent poetry anthology produced by Freight Books) informs us, was the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. Although the conflict officially “ended” on December 15th 2011, there is still a great deal of unrest in the country. For many British readers Iraq as a country is synonymous with war. It is therefore almost inevitable that violence and conflict will be foremost in the minds of many readers as they open up this book of verse from poets in both Iraq and the UK.
War is, however, not how the collection opens. Instead, one of the first poems we encounter is “By The Time We Met” by William Letford. This short verse outlines a simple, wonderfully quiet moment during a meeting that might be a first date. The poem that follows (“And You” by Zaher Mousa) is similarly delicate, though Mousa travels more into the realm of the symbolic and spiritual – his poem is a reel of dream-like yet exactly-described images which follow one after the other in a loose train of associations.
Throughout the rest of the collection love is a frequent theme, as is family. Krystelle Bamford writes of the search for a rare flower – an orchid which she calls “the flower of peace, of silence, / of leave us fucking be.” Jen Hadfield’s poem “The Session” looks in on a band mid-practice with the wonderful lines:
“The tune’s the thing
a malleable scrap
“Comma” by Sabreem Kadhim on the other hand take the unusual perspective of a mundane household object. What could be a fairly forgettable twist-at-the-end poem, is in fact quite melancholy and loaded with longing, as the unseen narrator lists all of the things which it is not, which it will never be.
The poems are varied and surprising, and for the most part war as a topic remains largely untouched… and in many ways this is a blessed relief. To write only about war would be to ignore all but one facet of a fascinating country. It is hard to think of a better way to put it than Lauren Pyott in her introduction to This Room Is Waiting:
“Places of culture are often among the first victims of tyranny and war. For so long a place synonymous with literary invention, the last few decades have seen Baghdad become a place of censorship and fear. But Iraqis both inside and outside the country continue to create, to engage and to play. Iraq is not just the one-time ‘cradle of civilisation’, Iraqi culture is alive today and we wanted to share it.”
All in all the collection contains the work of eight different poets, four from the UK and four from Iraq. As well as poems written solely by one poet there are a number of collaborations, interpretations and translations which have been worked on by two or more. This ensures that This Room Is Waiting is constantly bringing new things to the surface, conjuring up new ideas, new viewpoints and experimental flavours.
As well as the standard verse, there are also four beautiful examples of original Kufic calligraphy, each one based on a line or two taken from one of the poems. They are wonderfully meditative, maze-like and curious. The original or translated Arabic and Kurdish texts which were presented alongside each poem also added a lot – even if (for me at least) the advantage was mostly aesthetic.
This Room Is Waiting is a varied and elegant collection that presents a fresh and surprising view of Iraq as a country. The story of how it came about makes almost as interesting a read as the collection itself – you can find out more by visiting the website of Reel Festivals, and then pick up a copy of the book itself from Freight Books.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England. He works as a copywriter for a charity, and in his spare time writes book reviews.