Hard Damage works to relentlessly interrogate the self and its shortcomings. In lyric and documentary poems and essayistic fragments, Aria Aber explores the historical and personal implications of Afghan American relations. Drawing on material dating back to the 1950s, she considers the consequences of these relations—in particular the funding of the Afghan mujahedeen, which led to the Taliban and modern-day Islamic terrorism—for her family and the world at large. Invested in and suspicious of the pain of family and the shame of selfhood, the speakers of these richly evocative and musical poems mourn the magnitude of citizenship as a state of place and a state of mind. While Hard Damage is framed by free-verse poetry, the middle sections comprise a lyric essay in fragments and a long documentary poem. Aber explores Rilke in the original German, the urban melancholia of city life, inherited trauma, and displacement on both linguistic and environmental levels, while employing surrealist and eerily domestic imagery.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How easy for snow to turn to ice, for snow
to disappear the light from the ragged
frame of chestnut trees around the warehouse
by what's left of wild chicory, scraped
sculptures, weeping dogbane. Hunger borders
this land, while snow turns all to immigrants,
snow salts the embankment, where turtles wash ashore,
literally hundreds of them, frozen hard
like grenades of tear gas thrown across
a barbwire fence. But who of their right
will would ever want to climb that fence
to live here, who would pray each night
for grace, hoping to pass through the darkened veil
of shit, to bear witness to smokestacks,
wild champion, knapweed? Who'd loiter around cricks
glistening with oil, which, once gone,
will, like death, at last, democratize
us all? On potato sacks in the snowcapped,
abandoned warehouse, there huddle and sit
the soiled refugees, bereft, cow-eyed,
picking dirt off their scalps, their shelled soles.
Among them, wordless, is my mother,
and nestled on her lap is I, in love with the light
of the first snow of my life, so awed
and doubtful still of what lengths the frost wills
to go, and what shape it will then take —
Even poverty can be glamorous, if you insist.
Piss rusted on elevator floors so gilded I mistake it for a trinket.
Mother burrows her face in my hair. She bites my scalp for a hope.
We try to integrate. It is a dream to have enough for a car. Mother says One day we'll drive past palm trees to gas stations and buy lemon-salted almonds,
by which she means One day we'll have a house.
Our failures thread bread crumbs into prayer beads.
We are, by default, religious.
Before I brush her wet face, I am still young. Who wouldn't be humiliated by a cold room the size of a casket? Teeth cracked with ice.
But suddenly, with her in my arms, I am no longer small.
Dirty and hungry like a parasite.
I wish I could carry my mother, my life's true love, toward the mirror.
As if her caravan beauty could console her.
Huddled together like lovers in frost, I watch ants march through her inflamed eye socket, a spectacular procession.
God. Is what we lack a shelter for the fragile to pass through?
Does this refugee camp look like a life to you?
On paper, I have a birthright. To the sadness framing my mother's eyes this is meaningless but it makes me invincible in theory.
In theory, my mother is not a tongue running along the coin lock of a shopping cart,
looking for the promise of more.
But when did theory deposit me? When buy me dinner?
Come to me. Let me brush your face.
Poverty contains, by necessity, poetry.
Mother says Que sera sera, one step after another.
To return to where we've come from would mean to mourn, to moor, to morning.
Upstairs, the blue uncertainty wafts its clouds like unfurled flags.
The workers hand out flip phones, grape juice, sleeping bags.
Still, we remain silent in the fibrous shatter. Faithful to our gold feet.
At night, I sing a lullaby to Mother, cradle her in my arms.
I feed her a spoonful of glass. By morning, she will be a window.
Dream with Horse
Already, November makes a fool of me —
sun secretes its tacky, yellow gauze on what the snowmelt has divided. Slaughterhouse.
The domesticated nag. I am at a loss in the shadow
of the spruces. I freeze. A faint scent of equine.
Taut as a tuning fork, I meditate on the horse's heavy meat, its nostrils glistening like a liver,
laboring to breathe. The real shackle, of course,
isn't my flesh, but my mind's harness committing its slow violence through my eyes. Looking for a sign, I smear on snow my sputum, then hair.
Not a day passes that I pass as belonging here.
The girls and I circle the wet-grassed garden to serve noghl and tea to our mothers,
who titter and swat bugs on each other's arms. Yana slapping the tablah to Milad singing Rahim, Rahim Ulla
jolts my ears with its sexless faithfulness. What wrong did I expect of him all these years?
Later, while our mothers snore on the living room floor,
we gumshoe past jayenamaz,
pack our lives like limp geese by the neck and let them dangle from the window to avoid looking at the faces we're about to lose. Family, to me,
is only the sweat of female secrecy:
Negoor's body hair sings to mine as she passes me the joint, cheeks wistful with the heaven of Afghan blow. Finally, Leda explains to us Foucault: there is no invisible force to relieve us from ourselves. We are,
after all, going nowhere. And I agree — then why, whenever the bathroom reeks of sacred blood and poultry, do I begin to weep for a drill to cleave my forehead so the light can enter me in shuddering waves? I do believe in God. I do. But once Milad establishes that on judgement day even our mothers will run from us in fear,
I tipple the night's thick milk until it swallows me.
Can You Describe Your Years in Prison?
Over Skype, I try to document my mother's bald-shaved youth — she has a surplus in truths,
and science has proven what it had to prove:
every helicopter-screech I dreamt of was my mother's first.
Rippling my dumb hand, I wake up in childhood's crypt,
where prayer is keyless as a foreign laugh overheard and on the Masjid's cobalt globe a ghost ... an angel?
No, no ... who am I kidding? When I say God,
what I mean is: I can barely stand to look at my mother's face. So what if I've never seen what she's seen? I took the shape of her two hundred and six bones — I did not choose her eyes. Did not choose to masticate the ash of witness,
her crooked smile disclosing a swarm of flies,
Yes, missiles hailed there, named after ancient gods.
Hera — a word of disputed root — maybe from Erate,
beloved. And because my beloved is not a person but a place in a headline I point to and avert my gaze, I can now ask: would I have given up my mother for an alyssum instead of asylum? Or one glass of water that did not contain war? Her wound isn't mine, yet what I needed most was our roof to collapse on her like earth around stones.
Rain, the hard absence of skin. The silence of it —
no gust in my goddess. No artificial wind.
The morning Father boards a plane to Kabul
I strangle the hours in the law of my lolling
azalea. Embarrassed by her naked scent,
I'm reminded of my first American morning,
the yards that were yawning with jasmine
and evergreens. This is what I want
to excel in: gardens, elixirs of thought,
no one draping the stench of severed limbs,
yet the catacomb hymns for me. I prune
leaves, drown soil in the sink like throes
of a prayer. Dear limen of death,
stay away from my seat
as I read the news. 21,600 pounds,
weight of 134 of my fathers, the Mother
of All Bombs eructs acres into
a guttural throb. Mother, what is the order
of violence? I expect Father's death every time
he flies home, and sometimes I want him
to dishevel into a mouthful of worms —
I'd be offered a why to plea to. Indoor azaleas
prefer shade, imitating roots of trees,
but I don't know shit about geneses. For eleven
years I lied about where I'm from,
ashamed by the music of endings,
that deep hollow bell. How much
of my yearly tax is spent to bomb
the dirt that birthed me? is a question
I never wanted to consider. Let's fuck
while a farm in Nangarhar erupts
with dead cows — bodies — oh, the flies ...
No — what I need to know is how to say non-nuclear
without having to say azalea, azalea, azalea.
To look at a page without looking
away. Let's fuck until our bodies decay, let's practice
hard for heaven. Under the faucet, the azalea
perks up her thousand heads as if drunk
on good news, while I google pictures of home:
every mountain, every forest foregrounds
a camouflaged man, a rifle. And I cannot see
their faces, who is foreign, who native.
Funeral in Paris
The aunts here clink Malbec glasses and parade their grief with musky,
expensive scents that whisper in elevators and hallways.
Each natural passing articulates the unnatural: every aunt has a son who fell, or a daughter who hid in rubble for two years, until that knock of officers holding a bin bag filled with a dress and bones. But what do I know?
I get pedicures and eat croissants while reading Swann's Way. When I tell one aunt I'd like to go back,
she screams it is not yours to want.
Have some cream cheese with that, says another.
Oh, what wonder to be alive and see my father's footprints in his sister's garden.
He's furiously scissoring the hyacinths,
saying all the time when the tele-researcher asks him
how often do you think your life is a mistake? During the procession, the aunts' wails vibrate: wires full of crows in heavy wind.
I hate every plumed minute of it. God invented everything out of nothing, but the nothing shines through, said Paul Valéry. Paris never charmed me,
but when some stranger asks if it stinks in Afghanistan, I am so shocked that I hug him. And he lets me, his ankles briefly brushing against mine.
I'm too cowardly to hopscotch or riot against my militarized
homesickness. But how could you be homesick? you wonder,
denying all cahoots.
I vomit buckets full of gravel, comb through Ziploc bags of photographs:
never-returned. What's left of Farad: an afterthought, a cut
shirt; Faisal, we don't speak of. Not yours to elegize,
but I scroll headline after headline until the French door
is shards and the skin of my knuckles unlatches,
blood-wet and surprised,
like poppies after a long,
misbegotten rain. After the ER's fluorescent walk of shame, you drive me
through McDonalds to get delicious, soggy fries,
which I guzzle
then weep into the grease of — I, who was cultivated
among speedometers and irrigation intact, who sat with scan numbers
at public libraries and private schools,
who broke bike helmets
and was balanced on my father's feet like an airplane —
love, do I have the right to talk of there at all?
You pet my shoulder,
say, it's not your come-from, tuck
a curl behind my ear and whisper, Aren't you,
after all, from here?
We sip Arabic coffee and warm our faces by the oven, which glares at us with its black snout.
The watch cools on my wrist. I am swung open.
Scrupulous, this listening to the meter of time.
One hears everything here, where the landscape is a clean knife, slicing the mute — just a cat
wiping its face, roofs with snow for weeks, ice falling from fir trees like books pushed off a shelf.
The mind evades me. It flees into flesh, seeks peace in bread, lentils, pear wine. My animal self
purrs in my head, waits for the I to dissolve with a you.
We study the cracking of eggshells against glass bowls,
exchange words like shampoo, nuclear waste, missile.
Tsvetaeva on the wall: she was happy living as a clock.
We lock the doors. Our feet are washed, we feel safe.
Nobody refrigerates secrets in the rustling of tinfoil.
Nobody enters the garden, where the willow sprouts.
Red and alien like foreigners, her catkins surprise us.
How to Pronounce John Frusciante Correctly
But how ironic I must be to have entered a language wherein I mistake
I will leave you
I will love you
Blessed Are the Rich
If the scriptures punched into me anything, it's that the future is a torso in a bag, hidden in prison
before summoned to be true. Space-sex, where has your winter gone?
Today we lust after younger gravities.
Sudden February in New York City too hot and royal blue.
Like a comet's coma. Robot-blood.
And the collective cerebrum in tech plants a bramble of code: cellular fruit to get there first —
one of the exoplanets, the news outlets say, must be awash in water:
[H.sub.2]O slapping its weeping waves around a cobalt. A hole diluting.
Wet. For what? Flagpole? A NASA emoji.
Signs of alien life are now more probable than ever.
There's no geometry to language, but in America, alien
borders me and everyone and I love. Shoot-shoot.
Skirting my street, elm branches aglow with plastic bags: wings. Dirt-bound. So faint a verve of dead light, dead meat.
Familiar footsteps ... the uninterpreted world no, no. Fact that assaults us. signals smoke in the distance:
In coalition with our ape-skull, I want to be thankful.
Eggshell in space. Milk-toothy ache; small dwarf —
Trappist-1. The Ultra-cool, our astro-monk.
Solar Sister, so tell us — how to, how to
disassemble our fragile empire without ballooning the glottal-bleat system for another.
The red moon in our mouth wreaks sweet havoc. That debt. The digits of home.
Ode to My Hair
Exotic, "omg so thick," a rug, so to speak —
black cortex, I can almost be beautiful with you. Once, Mother snatched my split ends like newly acquired money and named them Taliban Beard.
I never wanted this much of anything,
so I scissored you at the scrunchy and sold you all to the World Wide Web.
In plastic bags, you were shipped next to different manes, the past stored in your filaments like fetuses in formaldehyde, fragrances distending as if skin of people huddled into the eyeless belly of a boat at night.
Cut and alone, dark keratin lies cold in factory halls: congregation of wait,
you're patient until you too are wanted.
But when my spools stop, and the silence holds —
let them braid you into other heads.
Let them brush you for my funeral.
Let those of you spared on hospital tiles,
picked from lovers' teeth, and nestled deep in the vacuum, or shampooed between dirt and debris in drains, light up.
May you glow with the weight of love you can only share with what pries out of yourself. Those stuck to balloons,
left in brushes, escapees taken away to elsewhere —
what is to be said of you? I won't be gone until you are. Heavy root that rots to bloom when I shrink —
stay and conquer the sargasso in my tomb.
Especially in line for the food bank,
my mother radiated grace. Talked a machinery of Principles. Elm trees and their dresses of urine, the Man.
This daily commitment to life felt laborious, haram.
Expendable it was, like all my milk-teeth knocked back into my mouth. That taste.
What even is sustenance? She was a woman of Principles;
she flossed, her exquisite fangs displaying remorse only when she reprimanded me or talked of the coat.
Consider the white lab coat hanging above a crusted heater; consider our dilapidating shame.
Consider me. Tonight, I exercise humility,
so I identify with the pigeons nagging on the chicken bone gray as the sky.
Unparagraphed I am, the way I still steal my dinner from a health store on 6th Ave.,
then lecture the diorama with my lentil soup.
The truth is, I never educated myself the way I cultivated my limits.
I was an abandoned thought,
marching through an unlocked window —
I had an albino budgie once, red ink for eyes.
He wore a lab coat and crashed against my window like a displaced insect.
His name was Apollo. Some circumstances never abandon you, you only train the muscle that carries them.
Is a wing a muscle? 3 Best Exercises for Building Badass Wings,
says the ad, and the man in the subway sprawled across hard plastic looks like a glorious bone. In his odor, I feel at home.
Consider his careful dedication to repose.
There is something he has mastered genuinely,
his fist curled around it. Sleeps on two cushions, one for his ass. She was a woman of Principles.
Consider her stark god of oblivion.
Nobody would've differentiated between us and him. Uniformly standing in line, a dark puff, plume on the wing.
The wing patched to the torso of a body entirely ignorant of aerodynamics.
The world hadn't hurt us more than it had hurt anyone else, but still, I couldn't trust the sky and its reverberations. In line, I made friends with a family of crickets in white lab coats. They sang to me, of the end of it,
that wings were awaiting us there: stale bread rolls, a cheese pie,
Braeburn apples sharing space with two cans of tomatoes.
What Your Life Was Like
Wednesdays, you dragged home a sack of oranges from the city center to your widowed mother. Because of her,
you and your siblings whistled of the sacredness of womanhood until they gated you.
Was it worth forfeiting freedom?
You threw a yes at anything,
didn't want to be seduced by doubt's boreal mouth. But among the havoc of Afghanistan, you had to leave your mother,
your diploma, your polluted walnut tree where the strays begged for meat.
What was it like, that sudden afterward?
Withered thin as a leaflet in your hallway's
Return to Sender box, I imagine you combing for food stamps, looking for oranges in market trash. There dithered a husband faint as a mirage on a plane. There gleamed your self-contempt, a voice wedded to your ear. Oh, Mother —
weren't you humiliated by phrases such as thanks, of course, applesauce?
I can see you now, night after night,
on those strange northern streets,
shivering in front of a neighbor's glass-walled house. An oxford lamp, a nightgown,
a piano: you beaconed toward their music like a bug. Would you stand there, harking, again? Would you ring the bell, stammer about the day you learned of symphonies,
then beg to play a song?
Excerpted from "Hard Damage"
Copyright © 2019 Aria Aber.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Source Acknowledgments Reading Rilke in Berlin I. First Snow Asylum Dream with Horse Family Reunion Can You Describe Your Years in Prison? Azalea Azalea Funeral in Paris There Here How to Pronounce John Frusciante Correctly Blessed Are the Rich Ode to My Hair Unmotioning Smells Like Liberty What Your Life Was Like II. Mother of All Balms Nostalgia Is Not the Right Word Reading Rilke at Lake Mendota, Wisconsin Vagabond Sisterhood At the Hospital, My Language I Wake Up Curled Up in a C. D. Wright Poem The Ownership of Naming Things Stone Self-Portrait as Wounded Doe of Artemis My Father Drives Me to Düsseldorf Airport Foreign Policies III. Rilke and I ich / I Lass / Let dir / You Alles / All Geschehn / Happen Schönheit / Beauty Und / And Schrecken / Terror IV. Covert United States Involvement in Regime Change, I Operation Cyclone I. Chaos II. Blue Bottle Fly Condition III. Hera IV. Ex Nihilo V. Hades VI. Dionysus VII. Ares VIII. Cyclopes IX. Cronus X. Catalogue of Grief XI. Interrogation Chamber Covert United States Involvement in Regime Change, II Operation Timber Sycamore V. The First Toast Nostos Fata Morgana, 1987 Meskonsing Your Whole Life Must Become a Sign and Witness to This Impulse Operation Cyclone, Years Later The Only Cab Service of Farmington, Maine Inventory of Lost Conditionals Acknowledgments Notes