Poetry Sunday: “Mutanabbi Steet, Baghdad,” by Julie Bruck

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads,” the saying goes, and for centuries the heart and soul of Iraqi literature was al-Mutanabbi Street, located in an old district of scribes’ markets, booksellers’ stalls, and shops and cafes in Baghdad. More than 100 bookstore owners and workers and café patrons were killed or wounded when a car bomb went off there on March 5, 2007. As the ash of burned book pages rained down, the world mourned the losses of human life and works of art and literature. A bookseller in San Francisco, Beau Beausoleil, saw the bombing as a targeted attack on artistic and individual freedom everywhere, and his response was to create the anthology (coedited with Deema Shehabi) from which today’s poem is drawn. After it won a 2014 Northern California Book Award, I wrote a review of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here and you can read it here.

At once a lament for what was lost in the bombing and a celebration of the power of language and literature, the anthology links Iraqi writers and readers with their global counterparts in the conviction that books are the repositories of memories, dreams, and ideas, and that the freedoms—and places—that foster books must be protected and revered. “[W]herever someone gathers their thoughts to write towards the truth, or where someone sits down and opens a book to read, it is there that al-Mutanabbi Street starts,” Beausoleil says in his introduction. In fact, as today’s poem movingly shows, that street starts everywhere, and the attack on a small street in Baghdad 10 years ago was “an attack on us all.”

“Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad” appears in Julie Bruck’s wonderful book, Monkey Ranch, winner of the prestigious Governor General’s Award in Canada. The focus is on the human loss in the bombing, and the message is personal and painful. In 20 free verse lines, the poem takes us to Al-Mutanabbi street after the blast, in the company of a father searching for the remains of a son who’d gone there to shop for a writing notebook.

Without sentiment or melodrama, the poem expresses a father’s terrible loss and grief, and does it through a few simple, plainspoken words and images. Central is the image of the son’s shoe, “a black chunk / of leather melted by the heat.” That line break after “black chunk” is agonizing, calling to mind the tortures and indignities suffered by a human body in a bomb blast, all the more effective for allowing the connection to be made in the mind of the reader instead of explicitly on the page. When things are too painful, we turn away, and this kind of holding back is key to the success of a poem of such unspeakable loss. (That is why we call it “unspeakable”—to put some things too directly into words necessarily diminishes their impact.) It is very, very hard to rein in outrage and grief when we are confronted events like these, but without that restraint, poems reporting such events can go over the top and end up alienating readers.

Here, the father’s feelings about the loss of his son are communicated primarily through action. He “clutches” the shoe, then kisses it before placing it “gently” next to other items recovered from the blast: “a pink plastic / flower, a pair of glasses, and a book with crisp, white / pages.” These every day, even mundane (“pink plastic”) objects are made beautiful and sacred in this litany. We also learn about the father’s feelings from what he says, communicated in the poem as direct dialogue.

This is your shoe, he yelled to the pale blue sky.
My son, I bought it for you.

What can match the tenderness of these lines? We find out soon, when the father says something any parent might say in these circumstances, “I bought it for him” and “It’s his size.” When those we love are gone, all that is left is their things, and we attach a peculiar affection to them, touching them, turning them over in our hands, remembering when and how they were acquired. Literature is one way, some say the best, to honor our beloved dead, and this poem does that.

After seeing the shoe, the relatives helping the father “stare[d] blankly” and continue to dig, actions that set up perhaps the poem’s most painful and powerful lines, those that, again with tremendous understatement, close the poem: “Don’t step so hard, the father said. / Don’t harm him.” That last line slays us because it feels in equal parts authentic and unbearable, a parent fretting about the harm that could befall a child who is already dead. The succession of initial “h” sounds (called “consonance”) you hear when these lines are said aloud sound to me like the ragged gasps of grief, working with the slant rhyme of “harm/him” to create sonic closure and help to effectively conclude the poem.

My craft takeaway here is that less is more when it comes to expressions of grief on this tragic scale—less flowery language, less melodrama, less lurid detail—and also that a focus on tiny, visual and other sensory minutiae is more effective than just lamenting about how awful it all is. There is zero editorialization here, just a careful presentation of the images of the scene and reportage about what the father said, all delivered with a genius for understatement and empathy. The father in this poem could be any father, as this precise physical description makes clear: “The man was slim, with peppery hair / and square, grey-tinted glasses.” He could be my father, he could be yours, he could be you or me. Bruck’s poem puts us for a few nearly unbearable moments in his presence, if not in his very person, and we are forcibly reminded that Al-Mutanabbi street starts right where we are standing—now, and here. Think it can’t happen in the United States? After 9/11, we all know it can, and reading today’s poem helps us to remember that al-Mutanabbi street is precisely where we live.

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  • Meryl Natchez April 1, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    It’s so hard to write a moving poem about this kind of tragedy, but Julie Bruck manages it! Thank you for posting.

  • JUDY BROWN May 21, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Dear Becky,
    I’m enjoying my Sundays even more. Thanks for sharing these amazing poets. This is heartbreak and love.


  • Ramona Howard May 21, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    This poem brings to mind the Dudley Randall poem, “The Ballad of Birmingham,” about the bombing of an African-American Baptist church by the KKK in Burmingham, Alabama in 1963, where four young black girls were killed. Rebecca, you are right when you say some events are “unspeakable.” Words cannot express the pain of the loss of a child, nor can we understand why there is such passion in some people to force their singular beliefs on the rest of us through any means.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. May 21, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Dear Becky,
    There is a reason that we invite you and your chosen poets into our homes and hearts on Sunday. This heartbreaking meditation on “unspeakable” loss will remain in my book of memories forever.