16 pages • 32 minutes readDunya Mikhail
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“The War Works Hard” is a poem by Dunya Mikhail. It is the titular poem of her 2005 poetry collection, The War Works Hard (2005), published by New Directions, and translated by Elizabeth Winslow. “The War Works Hard” centers around an unspecified country torn apart by war. The poem details the sheer scale of death, destruction, and misery wrought by the conflict, presenting the war as an omnipresent force that has reshaped society from top to bottom. Although Mikhail has personal experience living in a war-torn country – she was born and raised in Iraq before fleeing as a refugee – neither the country nor the war is explicitly identified by the poem’s speaker. “The War Works Hard” is therefore a meditation upon the nature of war itself, testifying to the harm and trauma that armed conflicts inevitably bring wherever they appear on earth.
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Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi-American poet. She was born in Baghdad in 1965, and studied at the University of Baghdad before working as a journalist and a translator. Living under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Mikhail’s writing began to attract government censure, and she began to fear for her life. In 1995 she fled Iraq as a political refugee, travelling via Jordan to eventual safety in the United States where she has remained ever since. She has worked as a lecturer in Arabic at Oakland University in Michigan and as a director of the Iraqi American Center, while also continuing to publish her poetry throughout the years.
Mikhail has enjoyed great acclaim in the Arabic literary world for many years, and the English translations of her work have attracted critical acclaim in the Anglosphere. Her poetry often deals with themes of war, displacement, and human suffering. Her poetry collection, The War Works Hard – which includes the titular poem featured in this guide – was published in 2005. The collection won the PEN Translation Award. Mikhail has also received other major honors, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom in Writing. Her poetry often reflects her experiences of war and life as a refugee, and to this day, she has not returned to Iraq, her homeland.
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Mikhail, Dunya. “The War Works Hard.” 2005. Translated by Elizabeth Winslow. Poets.org.
“The War Works Hard” offers a panoramic portrait of a country torn apart by war. It opens with the speaker acknowledging that the war is tireless: its activity is apparent from early in the morning when it ushers in another day of ambulances rushing to collect the dead and wounded. The speaker describes the grief of mothers and the destruction of buildings, as well as the casualties from the relentless bombings. The speaker then offers a series of details describing the different impacts the war has upon the country, such as the presence of bombs and weapons, the natural landscapes marked by violent clashes, and the political and social consequences of the destruction. These consequences include the bolstering of tyrannical regimes and the disintegration of the traditional family unit. The speaker mentions the documentation of the war in both history and the media and emphasizes the omnipresence of death and suffering. The speaker concludes the poem by remarking upon how, although the war is such a tireless force, no one ever praises it for its destructive efforts.
By Dunya Mikhail