Aria Aber on the Poetry of Exile

Writing what can't be named

Meghan O’Rourke
A portrait of poet Aria Aber in sunlight

What was it like, that sudden afterward?” the speaker of one of Aria Aber’s poems asks while imagining her mother’s departure from Afghanistan, in a poem that seeks to dramatize what can’t quite be made whole through art: life before and after exile. Aria Aber was raised in Germany, where she was born to Afghan refugees. I first encountered her work in 2017, when she was a student of mine in the MFA program at NYU. Her debut, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. It is the rare book of poems that manages successfully to portray that which can’t be quite named or captured. It does so in part by sustaining both a high lyric style (these are gorgeously textured poems) and a probing, meditative drive that destabilizes, in its fragmentary attempts to name, the beauty we find elsewhere in the book. Here, we talked about those aspects of her work—and how she came to poetry in the first place.

This is the first in a series of weekly interviews that The Yale Review will run with contemporary artists and writers about their work.

Meghan O’Rourke, editor

Meghan O'Rourke The poems we published in The Yale Review beautifully but also painfully explore the aftershocks of war, migration, diaspora. Can I start with a big question—why poetry? How did you come to poetry as a medium for writing about such large topics?

Aria Aber First, thank you for publishing these poems. It’s true that the topics are large and political, and thus always teeter on the brink of becoming didactic and messy. Of course, they’re not easy things to write about in poetry, but while I am interested in the legal and abstract systems that surround migration and war (and for a long time even wanted to become a lawyer instead of a writer), I am mostly drawn to language, emotion, and the workings of the mind. I wanted those poems to explore how the self is affected by the often quite inhumane and surreal circumstances that come with displacement and exile, because that’s the reality that I know most intimately.

And, essentially, it’s a poetry of grief, right? In exile, you’re grieving the loss of a place. Throughout my education as a poet, I was always reminded of the fact that there’s no topic too small for poetry, based on the transcendentalist principle that the entire wonders of the universe can be found in the smallest droplet of rain in a cobweb. Or that everything can be a symbol for something else, that we can learn from the spiderweb even if we don’t assign it any philosophical significance. But I don’t think that by zooming into the microscopic we have to disregard the macroscopic and social concerns of our time.

Of course, political themes such as war and migration might lend themselves better to journalism, film, or other media. And there are things I will not say in poems, and am saving for other forms of writing. But that’s a different project. Even when I am inspired by documentary modes in poetry, I am interested in the materiality, muscularity, and musicality of language, first and foremost. But the idea that poetry is a place of lyric and linguistic purity always seemed faulty to me, because language, to me, is not pure—it’s inherently political; it’s the same medium that politicians use to manipulate the masses, often with the same stylistic devices. Especially the English language is political, because it has operated as a colonizing force in many places around the world, and changed global indigenous languages forever, if not completely eradicated them. If poetry is “the soul of a nation” (this quote is attributed to T.S. Eliot, though I cannot fact-check the source), and our nation is an empire actively participating in displacement and warfare, it feels only natural to me that these topics surface in poetry.

MO Your poems are often so sensually rich and musically patterned; your material and themes are often about rupture, violence, the impossibility of making a tidy whole of the various parts of your speakers’ lives. Can you tell me a little bit about the act of balancing aesthetic beauty and violent subject matter in your work?

AA This is such a good question and truly a great description of my work. I often fear that the chaotic household of imagery that populates many of my poems distracts from the violent subject matter. Beauty seems dangerous because you always run the risk of beautifying or glorifying atrocities.

I think of Muriel Rukeyser, C.D. Wright and Adrienne Rich as poetic influences, although their poems about injustice are rather sober and aesthetically very different from mine, deliberately shying away from beauty. But I cannot control the way I see the world⁠—I see it as a place of vulgar and lush beauty as much as I see it as a place of great suffering. Always, my poems try to enact this great tension, the dance between the elements⁠—the joy and privilege of being alive, and the unbearable horrors of loss.

I learned a lot about balance by close-reading other poets. I think of Eduardo C. Corral’s work as soft and tender, filled with beauty, yet the subject matter is often violent. He uses his craft to enact the intricate tension between violence (toward the self, and others) and desire. Yusef Komunyakaa uses surreal imagery to offer relief in his poems of war. Or Eavan Boland really homes in on images of beauty and nature when she writes about exile. When I feel ashamed about using beauty in my work, I try to remember the value of beauty not only as an aesthetic presence, but as a purveyor of truth.

I reread Robin Coste Lewis’s incredible interview with Claire Schwartz on LitHub: “…Beauty is as old as dirt. Beauty is dark, complex, transformation–and not for the faint at heart. Beauty is the Sublime, which means you cannot stand in its presence, but must fall to your knees. It is often unattractive, what it brings in its hands for you and only you. And the question is always Do you have the strength to stand here and take it. That experience is often unpleasant, or it is a journey, a quest. But if it is true, that Beauty is a particular face of the Goddess, why would you ever run? Regardless of what Beauty asks of one, one must stay to the end.”

The concept of beauty as part of elemental nature, as part of dirt, and duende, really resonates with me. I want my work to go all the way, and my speakers to surrender until they dig away at a sense of sublime beauty, even if it feels unbearable.

MO In “Nostos,” an incredibly controlled poem, you write about your family’s suspicion that your uncle’s and great-grandfather’s bodies lie in a mass grave that was recently discovered on the outskirts of Kabul. There are things the poem tells us–that your uncle was taken in for questioning⁠—and things it doesn’t, such as when your great-grandfather might have died, and whether it was during the earlier Soviet Afghan war or more recently. You also braid their stories with that of an American Marine, a veteran, whom the reader presumes you taught in a writing class. I wondered if that thread was always present in the poem, or did it emerge?

AA The thread with the student, who was a former Marine, was not always there. I had heard about the mass grave from the Soviet era back in 2007, when it was discovered. At the time I was a teenager and was quite good at disassociating from the realities of an inherited war. I never considered the significance the mass grave played in my family’s life until I started researching the Soviet-Afghan war and began speaking about it with family members. Stories emerged, but some people contradicted each other, and others refused to answer my questions. My mother, for example, is reticent about her past and my maternal side of the family lives in Canada, so while growing up in Germany I didn’t see them very often. I knew about my disappeared uncle, but I knew little else. I wanted the poem to revel in the unsaid, to reflect the blotchy sense of ancestry with which many children of war refugees grow up.

When I was drafting the poem, one of my students brought in a story explicitly about violence against Afghan bodies. The vivid details of the story haunted my dreams for weeks. Although the violence my student described was based on the more recent war in Afghanistan, I was interested in collapsing the chronology between the different wars, because Afghan soil has been saturated with decades of atrocity and violence–from the outside, then, it all looks like a giant blur.

MO I also wondered if you might talk about the balance of narrative information and lyric movement, and whether you think about the role of silence and what goes unsaid in your poems?

AA Initially, I always had the impulse to overexpose in my poems. I am still learning to achieve a balance, I believe, and studying with you has been a great way to learn that. I trust the power of images and sound more than I trust narrative⁠—often, the silent, mysterious elements of a poem possess a prophetic quality whose intelligence will reveal itself much later to you.

While I adore clarity, I want my poems to offer narrative where it serves the lyric, not the other way around. Louise Glück says, “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete.” What a great analogy, to liken the unsaid to the sight of ruins.

There is so much to be learned from the mystery of the unknown, especially as someone who has grown up in exile, as a child of refugees–your past is a site of ancient and recent ruins. Your roots have been scorched. You grow up with an inherent instability, a lack of ur-trust in place, in government, in family. Part of your history will always be in the shadows, in the unsaid. The poem cannot repair the loss, as John Berger says, but it can transform it, and serve as a balm for the wounds by illuminating the silence; the silence, then, if skillfully brought to the page, will speak for itself.

MO We sometimes have a tendency to focus on the biography of a poet who writes about geopolitical themes such as war, emigration. But I’m also curious to hear you talk about how you think your biographical experience may have led to formal/aesthetic innovations or pressures?

AA My biography inevitably influenced and continues to influence all of my work and my style as a writer. Because I grew up tri-lingually, with German and Dari next to English, my understanding of literature spans various traditions. I also studied Latin for many years. While all of this is an enormous privilege, I am actually very behind on the American literary tradition (I for example didn’t know about Robert Lowell until graduate school.)

The writers I grew up with were European⁠—Goethe, Schiller, Brecht, Hesse, Adorno, Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Rilke, of course. Part of my first book is dedicated to this hate-love-relationship I have to German, and I think that translation, and the living in-between various languages, will always inform my writing. On the surface, this expresses itself by crocheting lines of different languages into the poem. On the more granular level, I am interested in allowing the form to inhabit the ghosts of various languages, their sets of traditions, philosophies and poetics.

MO Your poetry⁠—for me, at least⁠—is highly musical, in an era when a lot of young poets seem to be eschewing that kind of musicality. Where does a poem start for you, and at what stage does the music emerge? Or do you start with an image?

AA Oh, I love music. I think that, together with syntax, music is the DNA of the poem. Poems come to me in various forms, sometimes with an image, other times with a line. But as soon as a line or image enters my mind, I follow its sound until the poem, and its essence, reveal themselves to me. Sound is the guiding force during the poem’s inception, and the music and syntax of the first lines usually define the form of the poem.

And then all else follows⁠—imagery, content, narrative, etc. I come back to music once I revise, to make sure that the poem “feels right.” There’s a subconscious element to determining when a poem is completed and “done,” and part of it for me is reading it out loud and gauging whether the music is reflective of its intellectual/emotional truths.

MO These poems are from your first book, Hard Damage. Has your thinking about what the lyric poem can do evolved over the course of writing it?

AA Definitely. With a first book, you are pressured to show the world who you are, what your concerns and obsessions are, and in a way, you build the door to walk through to your future books. I always knew that I wanted my first book to be a testament to my broad range of formal interests. So with Hard Damage, I delved into areas outside of my comfort zone, working with various techniques that maybe didn’t feel natural to me but which the topics I wrote about deserved.

In a way, this loops back to your first question, because these large socio-political topics demand stern dedication, respect, and profound humility. It’s not easy to write about war; at its heart, it’s an ethical project. I worked with documentary techniques, translation, essayistic fragments, narrative elements, interactive and observational modes.

For the long documentary poem, “Operation Cyclone,” I read a lot on theory around the documentary tradition in both film and literature, in order to learn how to best transform my research into poetry. The drafting process included stretching the lyric in prismatic ways and bending it into sometimes uncomfortable angles. For a while, I even decided to disregard the lyric and fully delve into documentary modes, but that excursion didn’t feel authentic.

Many things didn’t work. In the end, a thing you said in a craft class always stayed with me: “There is a difference between writing like the poet you want to be and writing like the poet you are.” So, after trying out the various poetic hats of my influences and literary ancestors, I returned to my true mode: the lyric. The biggest challenge was to maintain a balance between my poetic and political convictions, and to accept that lyricism and politics can coexist. Even Louise Glück, my great heroine of the “pure lyric,” recently published a poem called “President’s Day”⁠—the political is everywhere. In Hard Damage’s final version, the formal and aesthetic principles change from section to section, but each poem prioritizes the lyric⁠—its music, its suspicion of the linear, its strange syntax.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
February 4, 2020


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