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Book Review: 'I Am The Beggar Of The World'


After reading, watching and listening to news out of Afghanistan for the past 12 years, poet Tess Taylor says she's finally found a book that offers a rare, deep glimpse into Afghan lives. It's a collection of poems - a form called landays - translated by Eliza Griswold, with photographs by Seamus Murphy. The book is called "I Am The Beggar Of The World." Here's Tess Taylor.

TESS TAYLOR: A landay is a 22-syllable couplet. A kind of folk poem, perhaps stating back to Persian caravan traders. Landays are traditionally recited by women, and they're essentially campfire songs. Even now, these rhymes have a certain call and response quality. Like any full quorum, they can be remade along familiar lines, either riffed on, or composed newly. Women sing them in private, at wedding parties, or in clandestine gatherings. They use them to express longing, separation, grief, or desire. And in a culture where women are deeply sequestered, reciting landays is one way of naming subversive feelings, while also disguising them. Of revealing oneself, while still hiding behind the veil of the poem. Because in Afghanistan open romantic love is discouraged, some poems call out to unseen lovers. Your eyes aren't eyes, they are bees. I can find no cure for their sting.

In others, a woman tries to find a path to her beloved. May God make you into a riverbank flower, so I may smell you when I go to gather water. Still other landays comment on the position of women in Afghan society. When sisters sit together they always praise their brothers, when brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others. And landays reflect a place that has been at war for so much of its history. Who will you be but a brave warrior, you who've drunk the milk of a Pashtun mother.

These songs feel both anonymous and universal. Griswold has gathered them from women in villages, women who call into a secret poetry telephone group, women who've recorded other women's landays on cell phones. The poems are arranged sparely, sometimes alone, at most three to a page. Alongside them are rich photographs by Seamus Murphy, photos in which the faces of women mostly did not appear. The book also reminds us how much we aren't seeing. Griswold includes commentary, not to each landay but just to a few. She reveals how landays today are changing. There are now landays about Facebook, about hating American soldiers instead of British ones, landays about losing a son to drones. One new landay reads, darling, in America, the river isn't wet. Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the internet. The poem Griswold has chosen for the title is particularly haunting, recited in a refugee camp it reads, in my dream I am the president. When I awake, I am the beggar of the world. The songs reach out beyond ancient caravans and into our troubled today. Through them, we register the hopes and disappointments of women's lives. In them, we glimpse some inner chamber.

BLOCK: The book is called "I Am The Beggar Of The World: Landays From Contemporary Afghanistan." It was translated by Eliza Griswold and includes photographs by Seamus Murphy.


This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tess Taylor