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“Bag of Bones” is a poem by Dunya Mikhail, and is featured in her 2005 poetry collection, The War Works Hard (published by New Directions). “Bag of Bones” appears to draw upon Mikhail’s personal experiences growing up in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, although the country in the poem is never explicitly named, making its depiction of violence and trauma universal. The poem features an unnamed woman recovering the skull and bones of her lost loved one, who was a victim of the dictator’s mass violence. In detailing the unnamed woman’s individual experience of search and retrieval, Mikhail explores how individual and collective tragedies are linked under a totalitarian regime.
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Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi-American poet. She was born in Baghdad in 1965, and studied at the University of Baghdad before working as a journalist and translator. Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Mikhail’s writing began to attract government censure, and she began to fear for her life. In 1995 she fled Iraq as a political refugee, travelling via Jordan to eventual safety in the United States, where she has remained ever since. She has worked as a lecturer in Arabic at Oakland University in Michigan and as a director of the Iraqi American Center, while also continuing to publish her poetry.
Mikhail is acclaimed in the Arabic literary world, and English translations of her work have attracted critical acclaim in the Anglosphere. Her poetry collection, The World Works Hard, which includes the poem “Bag of Bones,” won the PEN Translation Award. Mikhail has also received other major honors, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom in Writing. Her poetry often reflects her experiences of war and life as a refugee; to this day, she has not returned to her homeland, Iraq.
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Mikhail, Dunya. “Bag of Bones.” 2005. Poem Hunter.
“Bag of Bones” opens on the site of a mass grave, where an unnamed woman has just discovered the bones of her missing loved one (presumably a lover or husband). The poem’s speaker explains that this woman’s quest is not unique or uncommon: There are countless bones scattered around, and many other people searching for their loved ones’ remains as well. The speaker describes the surreal sense of incongruity the woman experiences as she contemplates her loved one’s skull, as the blankness of the skull seems so far removed from the living man she had once known. She considers the openings in the skull—where once eyes, ears, nose, and mouth existed to connect to the world and to her, now there is only absence of humanity. The speaker contrasts the peaceful life the woman and her loved one once enjoyed and the grotesque atmosphere of the mass grave site.
In the next section of the poem, the speaker asks a series of rhetorical questions centered upon the senselessness of this tragedy, and contrasts the ordinary life cycle with that of a life disrupted by state-sponsored violence. The questions wonder how to make meaning from such pointless and mass death, how to explain to grieving parents that they’ve outlived their children, and how to count who has died when the dictator who has ordered the attack leaves no records of the fallen.
The last section of the poem describes the monstrous figure of the dictator, who in the name of state power commits mass murder against his own people. The speaker suggests that many people are not only complicit in, but actually applaud the dictator’s crimes. Their blind support has led directly to the piles of bones and skulls in the present mass grave site.
The speaker concludes the poem by reflecting upon how the unnamed woman is, ironically, actually fortunate in spite of the horror of her situation: She has at least managed to find and retrieve the bones of her dead, which is more closure than many others have experienced.
By Dunya Mikhail