Black Butterflies over Baghdad
By: David Allen Sullivan
Published: Oct. 2021 (The Word Works)

Building on his earlier poetry collection about U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq (Every Seed of the Pomegranate, 2012) David Allen Sullivan, poet-laureate of Santa Cruz, California, and author of five collections of poetry, takes on the suffering of Iraqis living in and away from war-torn Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Black Butterflies over Baghdad is a combination of Sullivan’s poems, which are largely ekphrastic, and a selection of “co-translated” poems by nine Iraqi poets. The title page, listing Sullivan as author, declines to state that the book is multi-authored and translated in part. Bios and photos of the Iraqi poets do appear, and there are copious notes throughout. The co-translators are Dr. Abbas Khadim of John Hopkins University, along with Sullivan and the other poets.

Sullivan himself has never been to Iraq (at least, no visit is mentioned). His work responds to the paintings, film, sculpture, collages, and writings of Iraqi colleagues, friends, students, and artists who have called it home (some images of the artwork are included). “Mosul Birthday,” the opening poem, is “based on a photograph an Iraqi friend sent me,” writes Sullivan, who deftly transforms the ruins of a destroyed building into the dregs of a macabre party in which “the floor’s / cracked plates could cut your feet.” “Game” describes a sculpture by Ghassan Ghaib—a basketball hoop made of red paint and barbed wire attached to a backboard that includes a map of Iraq—and notes that the U.S. military doesn’t keep score of Iraqi deaths. Other poems reference collages, paintings, film, and video, and even the tattoo of a man who has suffered an amputation, his inked macaw “flying into his arm’s / absence.”

Alongside such juxtapositions of artistic play and violence, official forms such as lists easily convey irony, as in “Items Found in the Dictator’s desk”—“a clay figurine / from childhood, limbs missing”—and, in a devastating found poem by the Iraqi poet Kadhem Kanjar, a document listing the official reasons why “You Cannot Retrieve Your Deceased.” In Sullivan’s “Interrogation,” the understated yet eloquent Q&A that ends the book, a hostile official cross-examines an artist about his paintings.

In contrast with Sullivan’s imaginative reconstructions, the work of the nine Iraqi writers, tucked at the heart of this collection, is immediate and raw. Amal al-Jubouri, who lives in London with her son, mourns the Euphrates of her homeland: “We cry for the river, but we can’t cry on its shores.” Adnan al-Sayegh, who fled Iraq after his poetry got him in trouble with the authorities, writes: “I draw a table, invite my childhood to sit.” Of his childhood in Iraq, Jameel-al-Jameel, who has returned to live in Mosul, writes: “My mother cooked us smoked existence fried with fog. / That helped me put on weight / and I became taller than the gallows’ rope.” Kadhem Khanjar, part of a group that “performs poetry in sites of destruction and death” offers four poems, one in which he leaves the Coroner’s Office with the identified remains of his brother: “On the bus I placed you next to me and paid for two seats.” In another poem, he writes, “We Iraqis fire bullets at the sky / to mourn one of us who has died / and accidentally kill another.” The other poets whose work is included are Abdulzahra Zaki, Almeena Ali, Naseer Hassan, Abbod al-Jabiri, and Faleeha Hassan, who “became the first woman in Najaf to publish a book of poetry.” Having fled Iraq for New Jersey, she has published several more books of poetry and prose in Arabic. She laments the inadequacy of her poem, which “flutters like Marilyn Monroe’s dress,” and is “way too comfortable with death, even praises him.” In these moving glimpses of violence and dislocation, despair is never far from humor, no matter how grim.

Sullivan’s long piece, “Black Butterflies,” based on a series of paintings by Ghassan Ghaib, takes the form of a journal—ostensibly, the recovered notes of Awad Qusay, “former inspector general in charge of The Blue Hats, June 2019 to February 2020.” Dispersed throughout this Orwellian chronology of dissident uprisings, disembodied poems describe the strange appearance of black butterflies over the city. Although based on historical events, the entire piece is fictitious—a gloss that comes a bit late, in the endnotes. But the point is that the black butterflies represent what can’t be acknowledged by the oppressor, for whom “miracles are not part of our jurisdiction.” Are they soot-stained death messengers, identifiable lepidoptera, or mystical creatures embodying freedom? 

In any case, they are what cannot be contained. The human spirit under pressure—this is Sullivan’s focus, rather than politics. There is a religious dimension to his work, and a generosity that puts aside, at least for this reader, issues of appropriation. But, for accuracy’s sake, he should have been named as both author and editor on the title page, with the appropriate credits for translation, as this is, in part, an anthology, and most definitely and joyfully, a group project.

Ellen Kaufman

Ellen is the author of two poetry books from Able Muse Press. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Salamander, The Yale Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. New work is forthcoming from Epoch. 

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