“What Else is Beautiful”: The Narratives Refused by Aria Aber’s Hard Damage

Taneum Bambrick

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Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. 126 pgs. $17.95.

In Aria Aber’s debut poetry collection, Hard Damage, being American equates to walking by cow pastures poisoned “psychedelic blue.” The water, sex, hair, Coca Cola—everything felt and touched by the speaker—is held in relation to war. To prison. To the many covert involvements of the United States. A child of Afghan refugees, the speaker has lived in Germany and the US. The concept of home is a central concern in this collection: home as a physical space, as a language of relating languages. Aber’s proximity to the horrors her family experiences also creates tension within the speaker, where an aunt can laugh casually after reminding her: “within you sleeps a woman of war.”

In Hard Damage, elegizing is a privilege. The speaker’s homesickness for Afghanistan is “militarized.” Voicing one’s experience with loss—of place, family, identity—is met with questions of entitlement. There are kitchen scenes in which “every aunt has a son / who fell, or a daughter who hid in the rubble.” These aunts define for the speaker ideas of home that are hers to want, to imagine. The speaker admits,

It is a terrible time
to be alive.
I say this with the privilege
of being alive.

A sharp morality directs this collection, demonstrating the speaker’s power in her ability to understand and relay the complexity of her position in global conflicts. Simultaneously, through these constant turns towards almost conversational explanations, the speaker reveals the impossible difficulty of her situation, in which even her privileges put her at risk of a different, unnamable loss.

The fierce attention to tenderness and love in this collection also demonstrates the strength of the speaker’s character. Who adores and is critical of Rilke: “Rilke, my favorite asshole, my tempest, in my lap.” Who hugs the stranger after he asks her if it stinks in Afghanistan. In many moments, her generosity is calculated. In others, kindness is depicted as survival, a learned reflex. While grappling with micro- and macro-aggressions, Aber does not neglect joy: “What else is beautiful: // Your hands, at the end of a long day, carrying a cup of tea.” The simultaneity of various emotions, of reactions and impulses, creates an unwavering sense of refusal in this work. Refusal to allow the stories of global and personal tragedies to be extinguished. Refusal to be categorized or seen through a fixed narrative of suffering:

What I mean is, I don’t want
your sympathy, I want your attention,
and even that bothers me

In Hard Damage, fragments of conversation seam through poetic verse, as if interrupting the speaker’s thoughts. A man she once loved calls her his “sexy little terrorist.” The only cab driver in Farmington, Maine asks her to sit beside him while he explains how, after his deployment in Afghanistan, he misses it. He calls it “another planet.” Aber reduces the power of these violences by giving them a tangible shape through metaphor. The charged space between two people cracks: a frozen creek, thawing below the body of a deer. In her curiosity, her constant pursuit of both the cause and the end of a particular experience, Aber asks her reader not to look away. And how could we when our guide, even as she is victimized by a man’s language, crawls into his mouth, searching for “the softness of cosmos”? I have never read a more forgiving text, or a text that better portrays forgiveness as work, as an exploration into the limits of the self.

In an interview with American Microreviews & Interviews, Aber describes beauty and joy—specifically in music—as politically essential when she writes:

[T]here’s a reason why slave houses forbade singing, why listening to music and dancing is not permitted under Taliban rule. It is that which connects us to each other, to the invisible world which breathes under this world . . . the first breath, a rhythm, the pulse of the heart. We share it with all there is. Poetry is an attempt to add to that beat.

Music is one of the many forces that drive Hard Damage. In Aber’s work, we are given the relationship between “prism” and “prison.” We see how, through the mother’s pronunciation, “once upon a time” becomes “once upon a chime.” Some of the most political moments in this collection appear where Aber connects and pulls apart the sonic links between words: “even trauma sounds like Traum, / the German word for dream.” The speaker is constantly searching for these spaces, where terror shares a component, through the musicality of language, with something hopeful or bright.

Hard Damage offers itself—its own pages—as space for cultural critique in many ways, but perhaps most visibly in “Covert United States Involvement in Regime Change I” and “Covert United States Involvement in Regime Change II.” Both texts simply list covert operations of the United States, the first spanning from Syria in 1949 to Afghanistan in 1979, and the second from El Salvador in 1980 to Syria in 2005. These two texts sit heavily towards the center and the end of this collection, embedded with the knowledge of this speaker whose family was and is directly impacted by actions made and concealed by the United States. In stating these events, Aber suggests that the audience of this collection might not be aware of them, which highlights the damage that ignorance cultivates. These pieces also represent and speak to those who do know, who understand personally and painfully the consequences that accompany war kept out of global media. Tragedies that have been misnamed. And how naming has the power to provide or revoke the empathy required to make the behaviors and ideologies of a people change.

Through her many forms of representation, her ways of seeing and knowing, Aber resists again and again the place in which the collection arrives—the question of how to protect a history, a people, and a place from becoming “a yawn that is contagious to no one.” Hard Damage, in both its masterful depictions of complicity and its unwavering focus on what is true, asks us to consider what we owe each other as people occupying this same, dying, earth.

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