Poetic Devices in Dunya Mikhail’s Poetry

In an interview with NPR, Dunya Mikhail, and Iraqi poet who fled her home country 17 years ago during the Gulf War, reads two of her poems (I Was in a Hurry and The Shape of the World) and an excerpt from one of her books (Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea).  Each of these has important poetic devices which significantly impact the meaning of her words.

A device that appears in all three of these pieces is anaphora.  This is where a word or phrase is used repeatedly at the beginning of consecutive paragraphs, verses, sentences, etc.  The best example of this is in The Shape of the World, in which each stanza begins with the phrase “if the world were…”  This gives the poem a very hypothetical yet progressive feel.  It starts with this as a starting point with the word “flat.”  It’s outlook from here is very dim.  It then progresses to “square,” which more or less continues to represent the current situation in Iraq.  Finally, it progresses to “round,” which is the Utopian future of equality that those who suffer from the oppression of war look forward to.  This, it shows how similar this Utopian world could be, yet how idealistically different it would have to become.  In I Was in a Hurry, Mikhail uses the word “or” at the beginning of many lines.  Once again, this allows an amount of consistency in the progression of the poem, as if to indicate the similarity between each of her references, as if they each represent a single idea, which they do: loss of identity.  In the excerpt from Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, Mikhail uses the word “from” in the beginning of the final four lines of the second stanza.  However, the anaphora in this case does not represent a progression.  Rather, it represents the connection of various ideas into a single one, as “of” does in the previous piece.  It serves to bring together each of the images in the mind of the reader as a single one of the suffering of those in Iraq.

Another device used by Mikhail very meaningfully is the metaphor.  In the excerpt from Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, she says “Iraq is a tsunami in slow motion.”  This is a very interesting metaphor because it represents a view of Iraq being a danger to itself that is held in this extent especially by its citizens.  From the outside, the media portrays the greatest present threat to be outside forces, insurgents who threaten the citizens of Iraq because they dislike the influence the Western world has had on it.  However, it is important to remember that this poem was written in 1995, when Saddam Hussein was continuing his oppressive reign over the people of Iraq.  The violence that he instigated truly indicated to his subjects the possibility of the collapse of the country in on itself at any point in time, destroying everything in and around it.  The danger is that of a tsunami.

Finally, Mikhail uses the device of personification in The Shape of the World.  She says, “If the world were square, we would lie low in a corner when the war plays ‘hide and seek.'”  Obviously, the war itself isn’t a person, and thus can’t play hide and seek.  However, it does metaphorically do this with the people that it involves.  All those who live in Iraq try to hide from it, yet are often unable to.  Once the war finds them, it is a great threat to their livelihoods, as it was to Mikhail, forcing her to leave Iraq, and her niece, resulting in her kidnapping.  It becomes a person in that it is poses a danger that simple objects are unable to.

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