Saturday 13 January 2024

Review by Richard Byrt of "The Truth at the End of the Night" by Malka Al-Haddad


The poems in Malka Al-Haddad’s collection, The Truth at the End of the Night, are powerful and very moving, as noted by Emma Lee in her Foreword, and by three reviewers at the start of the book. A strength of the collection is the inclusion of short and long poems. The shorter poems often include moving ideas and images, described with admirable brevity and economy of words. There are poems about the wars and atrocities in Iraq, as well as  love, home and hope. Some of the poems (for example, "American Propaganda" and "Love and War") include interesting juxtapositions of opposing ideas.

Black and white illustrations by George Sfourgas complement the poems movingly and effectively to portray the "pain, struggle, bravery and sorrow," which Malka so vividly describes. There are striking images throughout the collection. For example:

          I was told in secrecy that the land I loved
          does not want me to grow wheat or fruit here,
          I only grow cacti.

Vivid, surreal images are used to describe disturbing experiences: 

          Put my head in the chimney
          To speed up the burning of waiting and scattered memories,
          Put the spoons in the fridge.
          Put shoes to sleep on the pillow.

Some of the poems are redolent with memories of home – contrasted with the starkness of war:

          Remember if Tony Blair had not stormed my country
          With his war chariot
          I would now be drinking cardamon tea
          With my brothers and the children of my neighbourhood.
          If he had not occupied my country
          I would have fallen asleep
          On my mother’s pillow smelling of incense.

Malka’s "Introduction: Author’s Journey" provides an additional vivid account of her experience of war in Iraq over several decades, and its devastating effects on herself and her family.  Malka describes how "discovering poetry was life-changing" and how she "confronted [her] ... pain by working as an advocate in human rights issues in order to raise the voice of the oppressed, and that of [her] ... family." Malka also refers to ten years of rejected applications for asylum in the UK, and being moved by "the Home Office … from place to place":

After ten years of Home Office challenges,
still their hands are spiders mapping
bullets in the walls of my sanctuary.

Another poem describes the unpleasant experiences of being detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre ("Yarl’s Wood"). This poem is a contrast to the images of hope in "Psychiatrist’s Prescription":

          At sunset
          I go to the sea to complain about my bad luck.
          Feed the birds.
          Write poetry.
          Butterflies invite me to dance with them.
          The doctor said: All this is beautiful
          You do not need medicines …
          Keep singing with birds.
          This gives you eternal happiness.
          And you feel completely free.

Elsewhere, there are expressions of hope. I really like the lovely lines: "Exile is the place / Where the light releases your voice" and:

          My heart is a dark room
          And as I fell in love with you
          The wind opened all the windows and the sun entered me.

Malka’s collection ends with the lines: “and there the bird without sky was able to nest / And the bird rose soaring through the sky." As Pam Thompson writes at the start of the collection: "Love will always be home and family for Al-Haddad, yet in their absences, marriage and love of nature and the solace of specific memories, their images shining brightly within the poems: schoolbooks, birds, a grandmother’s song, a wooden table.” 

Some of Malka Al-Haddad’s verse is majestic and reminds me of the language of the 1611 King James Bible. I particularly like the stately cadences of:

          A campaigner against the madness of the military
          A speaker to liberate the inhabitants of other villages
          From the intensity of the horror of the moment
          He and his soldiers froze in their place like statues
          From that day on, he and his generals became statues.

A few lines later, Malka writes: "That’s why all birds now poop on the heads of statues" – a great and unexpected contrast to the lines above!  

In conclusion, I strongly recommend The Truth at the End of the Night. The collection includes moving, powerful and vivid descriptions and images of the pains of war, exile, and an appallingly difficult and long process of seeking asylum, as well as of hope, love and family.  All proceeds from purchases of the collection are "donated to City of Sanctuary UK." 

Congratulations to Malka Al-Haddad, to George Sfourgaras for illustrations which complement the poems so well, and to Camilla Reeve and Palewell Press for publishing the collection and making Malka’s work available to a wider audience.      

About the reviewer
Since retirement from his "day job," Richard Byrt has tried to develop his writing of poems. He facilitates Creative Writing at SoundCafe, Leicester: a charity for people with many diverse backgrounds and talents, who have experienced homelessness. 

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