This week I was after poems that deliver a jolt: poems with force and staying power. So I looked for work by poets in exile, or poets writing about exile, thinking that here I would find resistance or defiance: the kind of sound and fury that count as hallmarks of displacement and that give shape to anger at so much senseless loss.

I was not wrong. Though I did have to plough through screeds of lukewarm nostalgia before I turned up hard little poems of bitterness, regret, self-loathing, guilt, bile and cynicism – all the things that I know from being the daughter of exiles (in my case Iraqi Jews) fester and rankle down the years.

Happy Days in the Mental Institution by Bosnian poet Goran Simic was one such. Simic escaped from Sarajevo during the siege, moving to Canada, in 1996, with the help of Canadian PEN. He has produced prolific amounts of poetry ever since, much of it in English. Like Saadat Husan Manto’s famous story Toba Tek Singh – an allegory of India’s Partition, also set inside a lunatic asylum – in Simic’s poem you quickly surmise that the inmates are the sane ones. In fact they’ve feigned mental illness just so they get incarcerated, because the war itself is so mental.

When the doctors are around these inmates ‘gnaw pillows, piss on the floor, and fart…’ But after midnight, ‘when the moonlight moves the barbed wire up the wall,’ (as if baiting them with the possibility of escape), they play chess ‘so nobody wins’ and punish inmates who feel better with a double dose of meds. Outside the hospital, says Simic – and you believe him – ‘it’s worse.’

Sasha Skenderija is another Bosnian, this time transplanted to New York. We read a short, title-less poem of his in which he recalls how he felt, at 25, in the thick of the siege, when it was impossible to make sense of anything. It is a poem about survival, since he does get out of Sarjavo. But it is bitter and Godless. It offers no thanks. More, it is resolutely ungrateful.

As if to underscore the point and highlight the non-existence of God, Skenderija begins and ends with statistics. He wonders what it would be like to survive a plane crash, to be chosen by chance or paradox, your survival no more than a trick or feat, the magic of a deus ex machina. And he wonders what kind of survival this is, this one in a million, fated, freakish second stab at living. Because if, in fact, he is one of the lucky ones, then why does he feel like a dog? And why does he howl at himself, alone?

Skenderija is very clear that one cannot live with survival on these terms. And so on 23rd November, 1992, he flees to Prague, becoming another emigrant; another number to log in the book of life and death.

I’ve always thought that the wounds of banishment could be healed if an exile were able to return home. But the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali gives the lie to this over-simplification by calling into question the very idea of home. Taha was displaced from Palestine as a child, returning later to live in Nazareth. However his poetry makes it quite clear that he is still not home. He possesses a nationality but not a nation.

We read two poems by Taha. One, an angry poem of defiance in which he insists ‘I did not die’ and ‘I will not die’ ( — and if anyone dares cut him down his spilled blood will blossom like a flower, becoming a beacon ‘to guide ships and mark the site of palaces and embassies’). The other is a bittersweet poem of hopeful reminiscence that offers a portrait of his childhood friend Qasim.

In Fooling the Killers, Taha indulges in some serious mind-bending play. Moving back and forth in time, he addresses the (presumed) dead companion of his boyhood.  ‘Did you marry?’ he asks of the missing Qasim. “Do you have a tent of your own, and children? Did you make it to Mecca?’ Since there’s no answer, he speculates, ‘Or maybe you never grew up?’ …. Maybe, just maybe, the boy who liked green almonds and searching out birds’ nests is still running around, laughing, his ghostly presence echoing down the decades as surely as if he were still alive.

Twisting our brains still further Taha supposes that even if they did kill Qasim, he’s certain his friend managed to fool his killers, since no one ever discovered a body. ‘No one saw you concealing you corpse,’ he says to Qasim, musing on how skilled his friend was at playing hide and seek when they’d played together ‘barefoot, at dusk – forty years ago.’

Three very different writers. Three very different takes on exile.

Simic is collected, philosophical — as aloof and diagnostic as the doctors in his asylum, and as prone to see madness everywhere. Skenderija is perhaps the most broken, his humanity dismantled into a programmable code that nonetheless produces unexpected outcomes. And Taha. Well, he is the most angry, because he has learnt that once you’ve been stripped of the safety harness that is Home, life will never be anything other than precarious.

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