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Speaking to the World: the Poetry of Jalal Barzanji

Sabah A. Salih, 28 June 2010

Even when he was little, his parents could tell that their shy and somewhat reclusive boy was different from the rest of the village boys.  They were mostly the rough type, climbing trees and rocks and chasing the animals and often bringing their parents a great deal of trouble.  He, by contrast, kept mostly to himself. For prolonged periods of time he would gaze intensely at the sky, the rain, and the surrounding mountains.  And the stories the men told by the fire or on the rooftop under a crisp, starry summer night made the youngster dream of things he had never seen.

This is just one chapter among many in a life lived in Kurdistan that continues to define the Kurdish-Canadian poet Jalal Barzanji, the recipient of Edmonton’s first Writer-in-Exile Award; Mr. Barzanji’s memoir is to be published in English in February 2011 by the University of Alberta Press.  Kurdish readers, however, need not wait this long to learn what this poet has been up to lately.  A good size volume of his recent and not-so recent poems has just been published in Kurdish.   As soon as you start reading the memoir, you learn why Barzanji had decided to go for royal blue for this volume’s cover. The color became a favorite of his because, in a Kurdistan defined daily by poverty, war, and crippling social mores, the color, symbolically, was his only means of escape.

The most refreshing feature of this collection is that Jalal Barzanji seems to have decided that it is necessary to put the interest of poetry above all the others.  Self-pity, obscurity and advocacy are not allowed to intrude.  For him the language of poetry is too dear to be debased by politics and the troubles of a wounded nation.  Words and images matter a great deal to him, as do clarity and precision, but definitely not tear for tear’s sake or propaganda.  Above all else, it is important that poetry say something, and say it clearly, effectively, and precisely. The message can be mixed, to use a phrase of W.H. Auden’s, but it must have staying power—something that can speak to more than a generation, something that can bypass, and with ease, the crippling limitations of both culture and geography. As Barzanji says in one of his early poems, “Writing has turned me into /  a child.” Why? Because, “I want to color the whole world with pencils as tall as myself.”  The lines “Don’t shoot at me / while I am dreaming,” and “The Freedom I saw in a dream / has no counterpart even in writing” treat the specificity of one’s roots as a minor thing; poetry for Barzanji is not simply a matter of giving voice to the Kurdishess or Canadianness in him; poetry for him is a means by which humans everywhere can connect. Similarly, The lines “I saw god, / He was frightened / He was running away from humans” and the lines “The beautiful heart / And the ugly mouth / have been fighting for ages” solicit everyone’s attention, because they do not dependant on cultural boundaries for their effect.

All this is not to say that Barzanji has made a conscious effort to sever his ties with the Kurdish side of his identity as far as poetry is concerned.  Not at all.  This is simply to say that Barzanji the poet, rather than considering the Kurdish situation in isolation, expands it into a human situation.  The laudable thing about this effort is that it prevents his poetry from falling prey to provinciality.

Exile, understandably, is a major theme of Barzanji’s poetry, considering that Canada has been his second home for nearly two decades, but here too the rewards and pains of exile are determined not by where a person came from but by the circumstances of exile itself. The possibilities suggested by the following image cross all boundaries:

Between the two oceans,

A woman was wielding a club,

She was hunting for dreams.

If exile is a condition that comes with a price, it is also a condition that comes with rewards, and it is a condition towards which the world is rapidly heading.

Dr. Sabah A. Salih is Professor of English at Bloomsburg University, USA.

 Kurdish-Canadian poet Jalal Barzanji


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