You begin your life in a provincial capital. When you’re three years old, the country’s leader attacks your city, which is the “wrong” variation of your region’s and family’s faith. The family debates: leave or stay? The brutality of the ruling regime makes the decision: leave. The next four years of your life are spent in a refugee camp, until the family is granted asylum in a new country. The family is safe; it’s survived. But you’re now a stranger in a strange land, with a new language, a new culture, and a new society. The predominant skin color is not the same as yours.
At some point in your young life, you will begin to write poems like this one.
of two places
struggling with being
the wrong ethnicity
in the eyes of my roots
and where I am asked
to bury them
between east and west
sun and moon
that doesn’t get to witness
the magic of its being
resisting against the image
of supposed impossibility,
delaying its birth furthermore
the unity of two
that even in darkness
miracles are born
The poet is Ali Nuri, a young man who works in the IT industry in Las Vegas and who writes poetry to make sense of his life and experiences. He was 3 when Sunni Muslim Saddam Hussein attacked Nuri’s Shi’a-Muslim hometown in Iraq; he and his family spent the next four years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia until emigrating to the United States. The family moved often – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana. That Nuri was dyslexic didn’t help his adjustment. What did help was the online world of writers. He would grow up to earn a degree in urban planning and become a poet, an author, and an artist.
His poetry collection Rain and Embers reads almost like a journey. The poems, like “Cultural Chimera” above, reflect tensions — the general tension of all emigrants arriving in a new land, and the specific tension of an Iraqi Muslim in a non-Muslim country, when what the poet remembers of his birthplace is rain — the napalm rain that pours from airplanes (and thus the collection’s title). It’s also an individual tension —the feeling of being different, the trouble of learning to read and speak in a new language, the sense that being of two countries means being of no country.
The poems cover a broad range of subjects: family, homeland, emigration, people, relationships, art, and more. There are even poems relating to a specific color — Pantone 448C, a muddy brown said to be the ugliest color in the spectrum. Nuri considers that Pantone 448C is the color of his skin, and he wonders what color God is.
Some poetry collections charm the reader; others can chill the reader. And then there are collections like Rain and Embers, which ask you to travel along on a journey of fleeing death and destruction, living in refugee camps that often belie the name, and arriving in an alien land that offers physical safety but often demands that you change who you are. And you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be changing from.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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