Every Seed of the Pomegranate, Every Perspective of the War
Sullivan, David Allen. Every Seed of the Pomegranate. Tebot Bach, 2012. 116 pp. $16. Paperback
In his preface to Every Seed of the Pomegranate, poet David Allen Sullivan recounts his initial trepidation at crafting a book of Iraq War poems as a civilian who “had never been to Iraq, didn’t know Arabic, and had no experience in the military” (8). As a fellow poet and as a veteran of that conflict, I’m thankful Mr. Sullivan overcame that hesitation and produced this excellent documentation of the Iraq conflict—and in such robust and vigorous lines as well.
What perhaps Sullivan lacked in firsthand military experience, he more than makes up for in his meticulous research and fluid presentation of the war from a wide variety of perspectives. It’s quickly apparent that Sullivan has invested himself in learning the war inside and out, becoming more familiar with its various aspects, I’d wager, than many who served in the conflict. The scope of the 116-page volume is truly remarkable, presenting perspectives as diverse as soldiers in the service area, soldiers returned stateside, loved ones at home, Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi insurgents, families of Iraqi fighters, and detainees of both Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay. The topics circle everything from the war itself to life on the homefront, from Middle-Eastern history to Arabic poetry and Quranic myths.
It’s this range of perspectives that makes this volume so captivating. Glancing through the accompanying notes reveals the incredible array of influences poured into the various poems. Many readers will immediately recognize some well-known names in the titles: Colby Buzzell from his influential My War blog and memoir, Dexter Pitts from the HBO documentary Alive Day, and even infamous Al-Queda lead man in Iraq Abu Al-Zarqawi, but Sullivan doesn’t stop at these; rather, he faithfully recounts the stories and the sources for many lesser-known episodes. In this way, being a military outsider seems to have enhanced his perspective on the war—he compensates for a lack of personal experience by imaginatively participating in those of a host of different speakers. The result is a remarkable continuum of experiences, the tragedy of war seen from a multitude of angles.
Aside from the aggregate effect of the multiplicity of viewpoints, the individual poems are full of rich details and vivid portraits from both the war and families coping with war. An excellent example of this can be seen in “The Day the Beekeeper Died, Sulaymaniyah,” in which an Iraqi girl, upon learning of her father’s death, stumbles out to his beehives wearing one of his dishdashas. She breaks a spongy comb in two, and covers her entire body in the thick honey. Soon, the bees begin reclaiming their work: “A thousand tongues probe white cloth. / Feather-like wings churn / in her ears, rustle / and hum with agitated talk” (26-29). Her horrified mother mistakes the bee-drenched, buzzing daughter for an angel, then recovers to disrobe the girl and rush her to a bath, leaving readers with this image:
the bee-like angels
take all day to strip
honey from the robe,
return it to their tiered home (51-54).
It’s a haunting picture of the grief of a family losing a loved one, and a heartbreaking reminder of the toll of the war on the Iraqi nation.
An equally poignant moment occurs in “Doc Washington, USNS Comfort.” Here, the medic tends to a dying mujahid fighter, but finds himself helpless in his attempts to speak to the dying man:
Language gets erased
when his hand finds mine. I kneel
and his grip tightens
until bones grind through
outer layers to reach me.
I’m flooded with fire (7-12).
Sullivan deftly recreates the tragic experience, capturing both the torment of a life bleeding out in the speaker’s hands, as well as an inexplicable connection with an enemy fighter as a fellow human.
Coming toward the end of the volume, we find Sullivan engage in abstract pondering on life and death in “The Obedience of Iblis, the Devil.” Here the metaphysical meditations are presented in an engaging perspective through the Quoranic voice of Iblis, rendering lines such as these intensely captivating:
Love creates this world, sets it
spinning round; but love
of what’s created
would tie you to it, so death
would be a hateful,
instead of a back door to
the room where love’s born (106).
The imaginative speaker lends the poem and its message an air of mysticism and authority, bathing these reflections in a surreal light that adds a weight and purpose not only to the poem itself but also to the volume it brings to a close.
The curiosity of the volume is its rather stubborn adherence to haiku format—cover to cover, not a syllable varies in any line’s count. Although the author shows admirable creativity in arranging the various stanzas in terms of formatting, content, and even the speakers within some poems (as is the case of the fluid and complex “The Black Camel”), the form wears a bit thin by book’s end—despite the fact that the imagery and content remain as magnetic and fresh as early on. Additionally, at times the speaker’s voice comes across slightly stilted, perhaps impaired by stringent syllable counts. For example, in “Sasha Ksenych, Domestic,” the influent English and slang of the speaker is rendered a tad stiff and a touch hollow by the unforgiving haiku form. Otherwise, the poem is a masterfully creative and perhaps ironic perspective from which to view a grieving mother’s tragedy.
As in many cases of war literature, Sullivan’s poems dip into political commentary as well. In the case of “George Bush Eats Shoe (In My Dreams),” the title alone suggests plenty. The poem walks through a dream-sequence press conference featuring the ex-pres gnashing down a shoe an Iraqi journalist threw at him. The other shoe is scheduled to appear in Mr. Bush’s personal library. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zarqawi gets semi-heroic treatment in a poem likening him to Enkidu, friend and companion to the epic hero Gilgamesh. Other poems embody hints of a similar vein, though not at a volume to cause discomfort in any audience.
It may weigh in a bit heavy on the haiku, and it may sway a bit too political for some, but in the end, Sullivan’s poems succeed in probing the human effect of the Iraq War, holding it to a wide spectrum of varied lights, crawling into its tiniest alcoves for contemplation and observation through a host of varied speakers. As a veteran, I extend my congratulations and respect for a finely crafted collection of poems that succeeds in communicating with depth and empathy on a range of issues provoked by the conflict.