The Wife's Lament

William Emery


A woman may be said. A woman lives there and watches. A dog is there and a window through which to see and be seen.

If I place women there I err. Women in the Baghdad, in patrols, perhaps, in hordes, or in ragged processions of mourning. No. Women, if we are speaking in truth, do not exist, and certainly not there. Only false things may be said of women. Of dogs, also. Dogs do not exist and nothing true may be said of them. Windows might be spoken of truthfully, but I cannot see a reason for it. Windows give everything away.

I may not place the woman there, the woman whose fingertips your lips left taking your body with them through a door of morning. My lips, perhaps, I could say. But she doesn't have a dog. She takes no interest in a window. Baghdad is meaningless if I place her there.

The salt of his fingers are what I remember of his leaving, that, the early hour, and his promise to return soon and safely.

It's a terror to know that words may be untrue. No. I may not say words. It's a terror to know that a word may be untrue.

The border is all that is known, is all that may be inhabited by a true word. A word, in truth, carries the border with it. A word is a place on the edge of truth so that truth may exist. A word may not travel into the heart of truth, nor may a woman, nor may a dog, and no window overlooks it, as if onto a garden, in truth, onto a street.

The truth is a vast unpeopled place; a desert where all negations are true. Without a woman on the border, nothing would be known of truth. We could not trace its edges nor find it in its absence. A woman opens the window and calls to a dog that has never before heard her voice, and he turns from the hole he was digging and runs to her because he finds her voice familiar.

The dog ran to me the afternoon that followed the morning my husband disappeared; it is evening now. In despair, hours after he left, left the door ajar, left to sell something because we had nothing left, I screamed his name once, and the dog, instead, came running, panting, to me. My husband's name is Basheer, the same as the poet, Basheer al-Baker, who wrote the lines

A broken bell hangs on the features of the passers-by.
Corpses are piled in trucks,
the faces of women and horses,
the wells of misery.
A woman disappears in the stab of astonishment
drying her shirt from the specks of dreams.
Soldiers hang girls and hats
on the trees.
Autumn comes from the windows of prisons
and taverns.

and who we met in London when we studied there. I do not know if the dog found both men's names, Basheer, or my despair, familiar. I've kicked him and he will not leave. I have nothing to feed him, and cannot go outside, else I be hung on a tree with the hats. There is nothing to do now but wait, rework my translation, and worry truth's bones.

Translate means "to bear across." To bear across borders. Translation is an act of smuggling.

We may fall into the hands of the soldiers or the insurgents at any moment. We have learned to live with this. He knew this, or he did not, and I knew this, or I did not, when he left me this morning.

The Wife's Lament

I speak a riddle of my unhappiness, my own,
mine fated. I who am able to tell
of my life's hardships after I grew up,
recent or of old, never more than now.
Tenebrific, my torment, always, my troubles,
As when my husband first left his people
Over tumbling waves, and I grieved before
For where my leader of men might be.

A riddle of my unhappiness may be said. Truth allows it. The treaties hold. I speak may be said. It is true that I speak. Most importantly, I who am able to tell, is true, true above all, those who say I speak are those who are able to tell.

The Old English is ic thaet secgan maeg, transliterating the lost letters into modern English approximations. Literally it is I that tell can, or I that can tell, but this does not capture the autumnal thickness of secgan maeg, and in the first hours of my waiting, before I grieved, and before the American woman, a reporter, came and asked me questions, I repeated I that can tell, I that can tell, I that can tell, until I found I who am able to tell, and savored the repetition of I who am able to tell, and found an echo of the original in the who am able warmly who am able on the tongue like the word lozenge. Hardships is an ugly word but there is little for it. Sorrow is sallow and difficulties facile. See how clever I am with nothing but words and a dog, and a window and through it, just as al-Baker said, broken bells on the faces. 

All questions may be erased in favor of their answers. A question is not a true thing. I may not ask is there a woman. I may not inquire after a dog. Questions are proof of a fallen world. Baghdad is a ruin of questions.

I left then, departed and sought his followers,
Without friends, wandering in my wretched
Then it began, his family planned
By secret thoughts to sunder us
To send us, far-flung, across the world entire,
To live lifeless, and I with longing.

My husband ordered me make a grove home
With so few there that I loved.

That was London, city of bread pudding and primroses, a grove such as she said. I will set down here, before the light goes to find my husband, what I told that woman reporter, the American, who came to me accompanied by two soldiers. The reporter did not know that I had lived in London or of my work in Old English Literature there, only that I spoke English well and held controversial views. I recognized her name; her work had appeared in many magazines. I thought poorly of her. She wants all women to be liberated with lipstick. She appears to want this, I should say.

Before the invasion, women could go out more or less whenever they desired to. I often went to clubs and did not come home until two or three in the morning. The Dictator's order was horrific, but it was order. Now there is nothing but chaos, and women dare not go out into the streets. Kidnappings are routine and killings are rampant.

She wants to know if anyone I know has been killed or is threatened by an honor killing. There is a flash in her eye when I tense at this question, but it is followed with a look of compassion that is not yet studied. The dog has curled up at her feet and is lying uncomfortably on her shoes.

I have known women who have died this way, yes, and I am threatened with it now. I married a man my family disapproved of, and ran off with him. They have been trying to convince my husband's family for ten years to turn me over to them so they could erase the shame I brought to them. They think a woman must be a kind of human Mecca. This is one of the reasons we left and went to England, but when it became obvious that America was going to depose Saddam we returned to witness the events, and document them as best we can, to live through them in our own country. We planned to leave again once some kind of stability was achieved, to finish our studies and then settle here. I am reliant upon my husband for everything now. 

 I may say a woman, and I may say she came with two soldiers. I may not say American woman. A woman who has come from America, I do not know if I can say, no more than I can say, I am from Iraq. No. No, I may not. These are not true places, America and Iraq, but episodes of mass hypnosis. A woman, yes, I can trace the edges of a woman and a city, yes, I can walk to the end of, but a country, no, does not exist, is false, and never more clearly have I seen this in the eyes of a woman, who has come from elsewhere, which may be said, and who is already returning elsewhere and who always carried elsewhere with her, just as the soldiers carry guns.

Ten years I was gone. How much elsewhere do I carry? No. Questions may not be asked. Quantity may not be expressed. It is true that I carry elsewhere with me.

With few loved friends, thus my heart is
But then a more suitable man I found,
Hard-suffering, sorrow–hearted
His mind concealed and a murder plotted
With a countenance blithe. Very often we
That we would not leave, but by death alone,
And nothing else. Later that was changed,
So that now, it may as well have never been,
Our friendship. I must far and near
Suffer the enmity of my beloved
Who commanded me live in a forest grove

A man, once he has left for even an hour, is only a man remembered. Nothing true may be said of a man who has left, save that he is remembered, and with a countenance blithe.

He was cheerful when he was sad, I remember, and this alone was enough to shatter my resistance as if with a lance, and I followed him knowing it was perhaps even to death. He was gone once before, like this, I remember now, when we were making our way out of the country. I worried as I do now, though more at that time, I suffered more that night than I do now, but then he came back, after a night of not sleeping, of a worry that built a vast empire of ants in my bones, laughing, laden with presents for me and boxes with which to carry them, and how hurt he was when he could not understand my anger in the calling of the scarves he offered me, and how then I comforted him, but he has never, with such joy, brought me anything since. I try to convince myself that he has had a lucky day, a day of too much luck to come home too soon, and when he does, it will be with gifts, and food, and I will show him the dog I have named Harold.

I have named a dog Harold may not be said. It is untrue to say that I name a thing. I call a dog Harold may be said. It is only in my power to call a thing, not name it, and rely on its need to answer.

Under an oak-tree, in an earthcave
An old cave, and I distraught,
In this dour valley, beneath vaunted peaks
Amidst grim hedgerows with briars bursting  

A word alone does not mean anything. It only marks its difference from other words. It stands in relationship to them. It is in this that meaning is established, or rather, put into motion, for meaning is something that happens to us, not something we understand. Hence, I have called the hedgerows grim.

I have taken a liberty in the description of the valley. My loneliness, perhaps, has caused the indiscretion, that I should so embellish. When she describes the valley, and mountains, and hedge, it is a simple list. Most agree that it was ritualized, that each of these things, dour valleys, vaunted peaks, would be recognized as symbolic expressions, and not intended to be an actual description of place. Her briars do not burst, but grow over. But it sounds pretty to me, her place of ritual exile, and I wanted to make it prettier.

The reporter asks me two strange questions next, if my brothers haven't forgotten about me after ten years abroad, and if I have given up hope for my people. I have to wait a few minutes before I can answer because the mortar shells The Coalition fires every day as a show of force have begun. All over the city, The Coalition interrupts conversations as a show of force.

Does one forget a sister in ten years, or even twenty? And hope is a word I have heard mainly in American movies, and so often that I don't know what it means. Have you given up hope for my people?

Unhappy at the tone my answers are taking, she asks me a question I must answer positively. This is her style, I remember, to end everything on an up-note, to discuss great evils and sorrows but end on an up-note, something to give her readers what she calls hope. Her trick is dirty. She possesses a list of the Dictator's atrocities against women, her voice never quavering, reads this list to me, a list ending with "and even hung women upside down during their menstruation so that their own blood would slowly poison them" and then asks me if I am glad that he is gone. I take a long time to consider my answer. I think about all the shocking and horrible ways I could reply to this, to destroy her up-note, but then I remember my place. She may be able to help me find my husband, and didn't he say a few days ago that he had met a solider handing out Christmas toys to some street children? They mobbed the soldier and he began to get nervous when my husband stepped in and helped to give him some space. He was young, Basheer said, a child. It's another Children's Crusade, an old joke of Basheer's and mine, another Children's Crusade. His name was Jack, from Kansas, and Basheer repeated his name with his accent (mine is much better) and soldier repeated, "Yeah, Jack, like Jack and Jill" and they had talked a little. Jack had never been to London, Basheer had never been to Kansas, but they both had been to Bagdad! Jack had said that it breaks his heart seeing the kids on the streets; the night before he had pulled two out of a dumpster. They were living like rats in there. Jack from Kansas, that's all I have. So I give her what she wants.

Yes. I am glad he is gone. A great evil is lifted from us all, and I hope that someday soon we will all be able to live in a free democracy and that I will be able to teach at the university. I am glad, very glad that he is gone. It is a great time for my country…

…my home joyless. Very often I am cruelly
By my husband's leaving. Friends are on earth,
Their beloveds alive and settled in their beds,
While I go, in the pre-dawn alone,
Beneath these oak-trees and through these
And there I may sit, as in summer-long days
And there I can weep for my unhappiness
And hardships many, and thus, ever I'm unable
This grieving heart of mine to rest
For all the longing begotten of this life.

The reporter was leaving with a belly pregnant with my words when I touched her arm and began to beg. I begged the soldiers too, each individually, and all together as a group. I told them things I am now too tired to repeat while their eyes looked increasingly like museum pieces, their faces taking on the dull life of old Roman busts. The marble eyes of liberators. No one knew a Jack from Kansas, and they made me repeat Basheer's name four times, but never wrote it down. As I begged them I felt my accent growing worse until I could barely understand myself. Jack, I said again, like in Jack and Jill. I even recited for them the verses …to fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. Jack and Jill went up a hill… I was hysterical when they tore themselves from me and left me in a heap on the floor next to Harold, who comforted me with his bones as best he could. It was my despair, then, that had been familiar.

A story is not a defender of truth but a siege upon its borders. It has been a long siege, and we are hungry. It is true that we are hungry, and the hungry eventually sleep, but truth does not sleep. Truth turns our lances against us until they pierce our breasts.

I wonder if she'll tell my story after dinner. She'll tell of my begging, of the dog, weaving the horror expertly, leaving a silence before she proceeds to tell them of the panegyric nursery rhyme I screamed when they did not understand. Her listeners will call to their god in shock, awe, and pity. The story will conclude with a joke the handsome soldier with the gold tooth told as they walked away, and the relief they felt then. It will be her story, not mine. A warzone is the place of eternal stories, but our stories will be told as theirs, if they are told at all.

Sleep is a substitute for truth and carries with it the promise of a different waking. This promise is a lie.

A man just left the house. It is after four in the morning. He brought news of my husband, he said, he was a friend. He was embarrassed. It was a mess, he said, but they had heard that his family was rich and they took him. The ransom was to be only as much as they needed, but when they came to give me the terms, they saw the two American soldiers through the window, they grew nervous, and well, he said, my husband was dead, and all his friends fled. For a smaller ransom, he said, I could have my husband's body to perform the death rites. He said he was sorry and that he would only wait until dawn tomorrow, because the city was becoming too dangerous for him.

Facts are not true, merely verifiable.

If I go out before dawn the chances of being seen by my family are less, and even the kidnappers sleep. I'll go wake up my neighbors and friends and explain. Burying my husband is all I can do for him now. I have grieved for him every time he has left me for ten years. I am…prepared. I am almost grateful to finally have something to do, something that may end with my own death. For that, I am grateful. Harold is awake and knows I am leaving him, regarding me with eyes that could be my own. I wonder what will become of him. All across Baghdad the power has gone out and in the cold skies, as in centuries past, a flying carpet of stars.

It is beautiful that a word can be a direction, what remains, a hand, departing and an act of departing, permission, a term in billiards, and the feathers of trees or to put forth foliage. Leave, leaves, left. It is the only true word of death.

Translator's Note

I have aimed above all for veracity. The untranslatable elements that I have attempted to preserve are its thickness of sound, its economy, and natural mid-line break, alien to modern ears, but unjustly so. I have not aimed to make it a natural translation, or a flowing one. Adherence to these goals has produced innumerable poetic atrocities and I have no interest in adding to their ranks. It is not a new poem in English, but a poem written in Old English, probably in the ninth century, by an unknown hand, that I have smuggled into a more modern idiom. Most probably it is part of a longer poem that has not been preserved. I find it a peculiar type of madness, though a popular one, that 1) a poem is mostly spirit and emotion 2) this spirit or emotion can be "captured" best by discarding the poem's actual words and 3) a poem is more sound than sense and that the former must be reproduced at the expense of the latter. I submit the radical notion that a poem is composed of very specific words, and only in the direct translation of its words is anything of worth known of it outside of its own language. This also achieves the laudable result of not being beholden to notions of what poetry should be, but of service to what it is. Aside from the linguistics, what I love about the poem is its sense of ritual-i.e. the formal distance maintained in its explication of grief. This sense of ritual now lost, I have tried to replicate its distancing effect with "otherness." The tragic cycle that is women, men, and war, has come to have a very personal meaning to me, and above all the poem seems to chart the dynamic between the memory and imagination of a woman idle in her grief. That the poem ends with a lengthy imagined description of her husband's plight, rather than her own, is of singular importance, in that it functionally unites their fates and feelings, which had hitherto been so disparate, his of action and travel, hers of sedentary lament. In the end, in her mind, he suffers the same unending torment as she, and she suffers for his suffering while he suffers for hers, but all of this, wrenchingly, only in her head. Notice the emphasis on must in the following lines. Notice the labyrinth grief makes of itself.

Always must the young man be sorrow-
Hard-hearted his thoughts, likewise he must
Have a countenance blithe, and a grieving
His constant sorrow multitude, independent,
From all the world's joy, outcast,
In the far country where my friend sits,
Under a cliff, storm covered in frost
Disconsolate, my friend, with water
In a desolate hall of sorrow there suffers my
With a great grief at heart, he remembers too
A more delightful home. Woe be to he who
Longing, his loved await.