In the poem dir / You, which appears halfway through Aria Aber’s Hard Damage (University of Nebraska Press), a line reads: “Before there was me, there was you; even before I knew how to / address myself, you looked at me, made me yours.” And thus Aber offers great reverence for those who came before her: her mother, family, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (whose writing greatly informs Aber’s own), and the many people of Afghanistan—those who brave the war and those who are in exile, their compass pointed toward home.
It’s a stunning debut collection of poems. Winner of the Prairie Schooner Poetry Prize, Hard Damage is at once confrontational and tender, warm and insistent. With lyrical poetry and prose poems, Aber’s collection is a monumental achievement that can only have come from one specific place: deep love. I spoke to Aber about the meaning of home and the narrative that guides the pulse of the book.
I have to start by saying that I loved this book in a way where after the reading of a poem, you must hold the book to meditate on what you just received. I want to know where this collection came from, and at what point did individual poems lead you to the narrative of this manuscript?
I actually don’t know how to answer this question in a way that doesn’t sound incredibly spiritual and esoteric, but the poems emerged in quite rapid succession. I had a vision for this book for quite a while, and by that I mean the book’s shapes and colors and form were inside me and I could feel them, but I didn’t have the craft to execute the book. So, during my MFA, at some point, I think it must’ve started with “Azalea, Azalea” or “Can You Describe Your Years in Prison?,” I felt as though I had found the right tone and obsessions for the speaker. Afterwards, the poems just started flowing. I knew I wanted to create a narrative with family characters, with family archetypes I could complicate and trouble—which is why there are so many father and mother poems.
In your acknowledgments, you mention teachers and faculty members at NYU whose work guided you. Was there anyone in particular whose own articulation of home and community guided your voice?
My faculty at NYU changed my life. Meghan O’Rourke was my thesis advisor and she inspired me tremendously, in terms of precision and economy and mystery. So did Catherine Barnett—she was a massive guiding force in completing the manuscript. Regarding themes like family and community, I learned a lot from my contemporaries and my friends. Like Marwa Helal, Momina Mela, Fatima Farheen Mirza and other brilliant writers who weren’t teachers in the vertical sense, but I believe in mentorship that can be horizontal, without the patriarchal hierarchy of institutions.
In Asylum, your mother “becomes a window,” and in Can Your Describe Your Years in Prison, a bearer of a “surplus of truths,” and in dir / you, her displacement is a marker of your belonging to this world. In so many instances, she seems to serve the role of a conduit for you to make meaning of home. Can you elaborate on what it means to piece together a story of your journey through what is known and unknown of a parent?
Often, especially in refugee communities, we forget who our mothers were before they became our mothers. Who they were before they inhabited these very limited roles of mother, asylum seeker, refugee, war prisoner, etc. It seems absurd to me that I didn’t know my mother until she was 30 and gave birth to me, and even then, for like 10 years after that, I was just a blob of a human. I didn’t understand her. By the time I could come to terms with my mother, she was a different person. Usually, our parents give up their lives for us. They are parents first, everything else follows after. The mysteries of our parents, their secrets, their vulnerability and their plain humanity will always remain a source of inspiration for me.
I relate to this so much. I write unashamedly and obsessively about my mother, that when I write about my father there is an awkwardness that proximity. I resonated so much with the line in My Father Drives Me To Dȕsseldorf Airport when you say “I’m fearful of proximity to my father…” How do you navigate those two relationships through poetics? I ask this, because your mother is a more prominent figure in this collection.
Thank you for saying that. It’s a weird, risky poem, which I wrote for Sharon Olds’ class, and every time someone says they can relate to those lines, I feel immense relief. Freud would love this!
And oh, that’s such a good question. The parents in my book are loosely based on who my parents are, but they aren’t autobiographical depictions of them or my relationship with them. As I said earlier, I tried to create characters with archetypical features for the collection; a wounded mother, a distant father. In reality, I am much closer to my father—he is less of a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why in the book, I didn’t feel the need to explore my relationship with him that much, since poems often come to me as a means to explore an enigma.
In the poem I Wake Up Curled Up In A C. D. Wright Poem, I was so struck by the line “I’m privileged enough to think of a border as another line to write on” for the way it subverts and reinvents an image. But the meaning of the border also grows starker through the length of the poem, particularly in exploration of displacement. How do you hold the truths together: your own “privilege” so to speak, and that of reality?
Can I just say that I appreciate how specific your questions are? They make me think about my poetry and my own poetic practices and intentions in a way that I haven’t done in a while. Thank you. Regarding your question, I don’t think that reality and my privilege deviate from each other. My privilege is real. Of course, it’s sad to be robbed of my home country, but I am deeply privileged in the way I grew up and how borders functioned for me: I was born on German soil. I have one of the most powerful passports on earth. I can travel almost anywhere I want. There are millions of other refugees who never made it, whose children drowned in the sea and didn’t make it to a place like Germany. Every day, there are refugees who are not permitted to enter any country and sometimes they are deported to places they don’t even come from.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I discovered the work of Rainer Maria Rilke through this collection—what a holy introduction into a poet’s work this is. In Rilke and I, you say “Before I found you, there was only I,” which can be for both Rilke and for your mother who returns to stake claim to the active “I” in the poem. Do you speak through Rilke to speak of your mother? Or do you embody Rilke to speak verses that can be, as you quote Marina Tsvetaeva as saying of Rilke, “soul among war-destroyed”?
You know, this is one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever said to me—that my introduction of Rilke is “holy.” I am grateful for this comment.
Rilke had a great appreciation for the world of childhood, and the older I get, the more I understand the tremendous sanctitude of that. Childhood is a time of art, of pure poetry, of connection to the divine. Rilke loves God and so do I—I grew up in a pretty much non-religious household, but I always believed in God and was awed by the idea of surrender, and finding poets who celebrate and study the divine is important to me. So, I think I am speaking through Rilke and of Rilke all the time because there is this urge to reach toward the divine, the purity of the soul, even in times of war.
I keep returning to the poem dir / You, seduced by the image of the mother as a spiritual epicenter. The transitions in this poem are swift: you speak to your mother, and then of your mother, and then of Rilke, and then to your mother again, before you speak to you, the speaker. In this quest to address and be addressable, what roots is this poem gnawing at?
I’m leaning on Claudia Rankine and Roland Barthes here, but the root of being addressable is the root to receive intimacy. To be a “you” to someone who matters enough to address you. To collapse the bridges between the many egos of our society, so we can for a moment experience the connection between two human beings. The first connection we have is that to the mother. Ideally, that connection remains intact for a couple of years through early physical bonding. There are so many ways of touching, so many ways of intimacy, and most of them are not romantic or erotic at all. They are familial, platonic. I have to think of a passage in Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs To You,” where the narrator observes a father and his child, cuddling and hugging in public. The narrator then ponders on how in a couple of years, this innocence will have vanished; parent and child will not be touching each other anymore. The older we get, the more awkward it becomes to be so intimate. Touch is the first site of loss. But there is more than touch; there is speaking, listening. Writing a poem is a way to reach out to the world. It’s a handshake, as Celan puts it. It feels incredibly vulnerable to me to be addressable, and to make myself addressable by regarding a potential reader.
I love that. And it also made me think of the act of addressing in the many tongues I speak or recognize. The English universality of you, in not applicable to Hindi or even my mother tongue Telugu, where a respectful you in Hindi is aap, and a friendly, informal you is tu, like the french vous-tu, perhaps. Did you think of that, with respect to German, or even Dari?
Yes, I used to think about that all the time. I don’t know which version of the book you have, but the ARC had a passage in the dir / You section which meditated on exactly that. In German and Farsi/Dari there are several forms of address, formal, informal. I sometimes hear the ghost of the formal address when I speak in English, but it is because I am fluent in two languages where it exists… I guess English used to have the “thou” as informal, so there may be skeletal remnants somewhere in the language, but we don’t think of it at all. It’s frightening to me that the formal “you” is so distant, so gargantuan, so cold. Afghan children have to address their parents with the formal “you.”
I’ve been thinking about whether the English language is capable of capturing the breadth of human experiences, especially those stories that exist in English because of a colonized history. Having said that, I observed how affectionately you write of the women you know, especially in the poems that mark the first section in your book. So, within the scope of the language, how do you hope for honest telling and preservation of these lives? I don’t know if I’m making sense…
Haha, sorry! Yes I understood it that way but thanks for the clarification. I don’t know if English has the capacity to capture the breadth of human experiences. I don’t know if any language in this world has that capacity. Music probably comes closer than language ever will. But English is the colonizer’s language all across the globe, even in places where other European languages were used to obliterate native languages. French and Dutch, for instance, are not as widely spoken anymore. I feel affection toward English because so many people speak it, and so many of its speakers have accents, or speak in pidgins, vernaculars, dialects. It’s a double-edged sword: I deeply believe that we have the power to make English beautiful, to transform it and to make it even more accessible. But at the same time, I have immense respect for people who for political reasons refuse to write in English and try to work against its omnipresence, especially within the United States and its indigenous communities.
For the stories and narratives of women… I don’t think honest representation of stories is possible in poetry. I believe that the lyric is fiction. I try to be respectful toward the lives of Afghan women and women of color, and when I bring them into poems I want to show them in their complicated, multidimensional and very human richness and plurality. WOC are so often reduced to mere tokens or husks of characters; it’s my duty, I feel, to work against that. But I reject the idea of “honesty” in poetry, because I don’t think my work can sustain it.
The poem There is a series of nontraditional haikus, cutting phrases like “militarized / homesickness” apart into two stanzas, immediately followed by the poem Here, a series of couplets, a more condensed narrative. Was that intentional? How did you arrive at this juxtaposition?
Yes, that was intentional. After There, I wanted to explore what the “here” entails, the sense of safety and privilege of living in the West. I love that you see the tercets in There as “haikus” —I hadn’t thought of that before. The tercet is appropriate whenever I try to communicate unresolved tension for the lyric I. In There, the speaker is driven by anger and yearning and despair and the inherent homesickness of displacement. I wanted to juxtapose it to the surreal safety experienced in Here, driven by a calmer speaker observing their New England environment, which contains more peace, more quietude, less tension and a desire for community and union, hence the couplets.
I’m so drawn to the titles of your poems, to their ability to juxtapose words in German and Dari and English and investigate the causality of that bilingualism in your own work, to their ability to withhold memory, and to harken images. How does the process of titling happen in your poetry?
I adore titles, they contain crucial information, and they set the scene and the tone for the poem. Titles are the last thing I decide though, after the final revision.
So does an individual poem inform its title, but also the poems that come before and after it?
When I write a sequence of poems or am ordering poems for a book, every little thing is important, and titles will sometimes connect poems that are next to each other, like in “There” and “Here.” But when I write an individual poem, I try not to think of the final title until I am finished with revision. My poems will have tentative titles to guide the process—I can’t look at an untitled poem on a page or document, it drives me nuts.
To me, the volume of this collection can be culled into the opening and breathtaking line in the poem The First Toast: “What is it that we owe to each other?” You ask this Scanlon question of contractualism, most recently also popularised by The Good Place. So I ask you if this collection helped you answer some part of that question?
That poem is a callback to Anna Akhmatova’s poem “The Last Toast,” which ends with the line “We were not saved by God.” I think about that all the time; here we humans are, abandoned by God, together on this earth which could be so beautiful and bountiful and yet we are tied to the racist, warmongering and patriarchal system of society, which thrives on white supremacy and the institution of the nuclear family. Nothing is free. What we owe to each other, I believe, is to create a world in which kindness is more important than wealth—kindness to humans and the animal kingdom and earth itself. A world based on forgiveness.
For my final question, I want to reflect on Rilke’s “Letters To A Young Poet” and ask you what advice you would offer young poets today, especially young poets of colour, poets from South Asia, poets of displacement, who lack the institutional support of a writing degree?
You hear this all the time, but it’s the most important advice you can give anyone: read as much as you can. Read novels, essays, the news, books on architecture, cultural criticism. Read, read, read. You’ll learn everything from reading. Inform yourself about the world and history. Get a library card and devour the books; read as much poetry as possible. Old poets, young poets, dead poets, contemporary poets, poets from other countries, poets in translation. Do not be afraid to dig deep for the roots of your own culture. Notice the world: the luminous spider web in the garden, the big sculpture mottled by pigeon shit. Your images are there, at hand, in the world. And don’t be afraid of the page. Respect it, but don’t be scared of it.
Aria Aber was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. Her debut book Hard Damage won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and will be published in September 2019. Her poems are forthcoming or have appeared in The New Yorker, New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, Poem-A-Day, Narrative, Muzzle Magazine, Wasafiri and others. A graduate from the NYU MFA in Creative Writing, where she was the Writers in Public Schools Fellow, she holds awards and fellowships from Kundiman and Dickinson House, and was the 2018-2019 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. She’s currently based in Berlin and is at work on her second book.