Berkeley Talks transcript: Poet Aria Aber reads from her 2019 e book ‘Onerous Injury’

Geoffrey G. O’Brien: Welcome. I’m Geoffrey G. O’Brien. I direct the Lunch Poems series at Berkeley along with Noah Warren. And we’re thrilled to have Aria Aber here. We’d be thrilled to have her any time, and this is a time, so we are thrilled. This reading is not a relief from what is happening in the world and in the nation. It’s a re-invigoration of attention to all of the beauty and horror that is always transpiring and certainly is transpiring.

Now, Aria Abers first book, Hard Damage, is a documentary work in the fullest sense, not in the sub genre sense only. Every moment in the book is a moment of fierce attention to both beauty and horror, attention to language, to multiple languages. A kind of attention that is full of both various states of belonging and unbelonging, and being spread across multiple languages. Multiple sites of origin and living, I think help make the poems listen to themselves as they inventory everything in the world from plants to examples of U.S. imperialist atrocity, and back again.

I think it’s clear that this book wants to understand everything else that is happening in every moment of its attention, so that attention is not ever some kind of isolated function that makes us forget. This is a book that wants to preserve memory and preserve present moments of attention in their fullness in a kind of radical clarity that is upsetting and inspiring, although never only consoling.

I wanted to just read one line that ends a poem early in the book “Dream with Horse:” “Not a day passes that I pass as belonging here.” I think it’s an incredible line and incredible metonymy for Aber’s project in that it passes from a kind of innocent idiom for a time, a day passing, into passing as both belonging or a practice of attempting to belong or being seen as belonging, whether or not one does. It’s not only that there are two senses of past there, it’s literally the passing from one sentence of pass to the other that I think shows all of the intelligence and moral force and self attention as well as attention to the world that is everywhere in Aria’s work.

A little bit later on in the book, we get a mention of the flower alyssum, and it’s right next to the word, “Asylum,” and I think there, we can see the same kind of work happening. They have nothing to do with each other etymologically but they sure look a lot alike when they’re rendered adjacent.

So maybe the final thing I’d say is that Aber renders everything adjacent to everything else, which is the truth of the world. And it requires something as simple as the inventorying of that physical world that is full of beauty, but also the political, the geopolitical that is always around and within any of those acts of attention. I’m really glad that we’re going to hear some of those acts performed for us so that we can listen to that listening and seeing. Please join me in welcoming Aria Aber.

Aria Aber: Thank you, Geoffrey, for that beautiful, beautiful introduction. It was always a dream of mine to read at Lunch Moments and it’s happening over Zoom right now, which is a different kind of situation than I imagined. But I’m incredibly grateful for this, especially this week. I’ll just start reading now.

Reading “Rilke in Berlin.”

Into English, I splintered the way my father clutched his valise at the airport, defeated and un-American. It took me 12 strange springs to know nothing occurs out of a sudden. How do I let it go? Little has been purloined from me, and the ghosts of childhood still sibilate, by which I mean nobody has touched me on my inner most parts. At the accent reduction class, my teacher instructed me to invert my tongue, like in “Love,” so I lay at a pavement. Under your elegy. In a bridge. Such darkness, the want to put inside me a perfect sentence.

What would have Lou Salome done? I absolved every year around the sun, knowing that there is an animal smell hooked to a line leading past a border I am not going to cross. So what is exile, exactly? What exactitude? Father says “Howa” for “Hour,” “Allo” for “Hello.” Father says “Iz gud,” “Don’t come bag,” “Eat frood,” “Green card.” If I could explain to him the difference between “exist” and “exit,” maybe others, too, will hear the law in Allah. When they asked my mother, “Where are you from?” She smiled and replied, “Fine, ou hare yu?” Oh, I shoved my hand right through the officer’s mouth and ripped out his tongue. Then under my pillow, I placed it and waited for it to bloom new my blood.

I wrote part of this book in Wisconsin where I experienced the most difficult winter of my life, and realized that snow was quite oppressive. And that inspired the next couple of poems that I’m going to read.

“First snow.”

How easy for snow to turn to ice, for snow to disappear the light from the ragged frame of Chestnut trees around the warehouse by what’s left of wild chicory, scraped sculptures, weeping dogbane. Hunger borders this land while snow turns all to immigrants. Snow salts the embankment where turtles wash ashore, literally hundreds of them, frozen hard like grenades of tear gas thrown across the barbed wire fence.

But who of their right well would ever want to climb that fence, to live here? Who would pray each night for grace, hoping to pass through the darkened veil of shit, to bear witness to smoke stacks, wild champion, knapweed? Who’d loiter around cricks glistening with oil, which, once gone, will, like death, at the last, democratize us all?

On potato sacks in the snow-capped abandoned warehouse, there huddle and sit the soiled refugees, bereft, cow-eyed, picking dirt off their scalps, their shelled soles. Among them, wordless is my mother, and nestled on her lap is I in love with the light of the first snow of my life, so awed and doubtful still of what lengths the frost wills us to go, and what shape it will then take.


Even poverty can be glamorous, if you insist. Piss rusted on elevator floors so gilded, I mistake it for a trinket. Mother burrows her face in my hair. She bites my scalp for a hope. We try to integrate. It is a dream to have enough for a car. Mother says, “One day we’ll drive past palm trees to gas stations and buy lemon-salted almonds,” by which she means, “One day, we’ll have a house.”

Our failures thread breadcrumbs into prayer beads. We are, by default, religious. Before I brush her wet face, I am still young. Who wouldn’t be humiliated by a cold room the size of a casket, teeth cracked with ice. But suddenly, with her and my arms, I am no longer small. Dirty and hungry like a parasite. I wish I could carry my mother, my life’s true love toward the mirror as if her caravan beauty could console her.

Huddled together like lovers in frost, I watch ants march through her inflamed eye socket, a spectacular procession. God. Is what we lacked a shelter for the fragile to pass through? Does this refugee camp look like a life to you? On paper, I have a birthright. To the sadness framing my mother’s eyes, this is meaningless, but it makes me invincible in theory. In theory, my mother is not a tongue running along the coin lock of a shopping cart, looking for the promise of more.

But when did theory deposit me? When buy me dinner? Come to me. Let me brush your face. Poverty contains, by necessity, poetry. Mother says, “Que sera sera,” one step after another. To return to where we’ve come from would mean to mourn, to moor, to morning. Upstairs, the blue uncertainty wafts it’s clouds like unfurled flags. The workers handout flip phones, grape juice, sleeping bags. Still, we remain silent in the fibrous shatter, faithful to our gold feet. At night, I sing a lullaby to mother, cradle her in my arms. I feed her a spoonful of glass. By morning, she will be a window.

And because Geoffrey mentioned the poem, I think I’m going to read it. “Dream with Horse.”

Already, November makes a fool of me. Sun secretes its tacky, yellow gauze on what the snow melt has divided. Slaughterhouse. The domesticated nag. I am at a loss in the shadow of the spruces. I freeze. A faint scent of equine. Taught as a tuning fork, I meditate on the horse’s heavy meat, its nostrils glistening like a liver laboring to breathe. The real shackle of course isn’t my flesh, but my mind’s harness committing its slow violence through my eyes. Looking for a sign, I smear on snow my sputum, then hair. Not a day passes that I pass as belonging here.

There is this American obsession with European cities, a quite romanticized obsession, which to me, as a person who was born and raised in Europe, it feels a little bit absurd because of course tourists ignore the underbelly of these glorified European cities. And my relationship to Paris in particular inspired the next poem.

“Afghan Funeral in Paris.”

The aunts here clink Malbec glasses and parade their grief with musky, expensive scents that whisper in elevators and hallways. Each natural passing articulates the unnatural. Every aunt has a son who fell or a daughter who hid in rubble for two years, until that knock of officers holding a bin bag filled with a dress and bones. But what do I know? I get pedicures and eat madeleines while reading, “Swann’s Way.” When I tell one aunt I’d like to go back, she screams, “It is not yours to want.” “Have some cream cheese with that,” says another.

Oh, what wonder to be alive and see my father’s footprints and his sister’s garden. He’s furiously scissoring the hyacinths saying, “All the time,” when the tele-researcher asks him, “How often do you think your life is a mistake?” During the procession, the aunts’ wails vibrate. Wires full of crows in heavy wind. I hate every plumed minute of it. “God invented everything out of nothing, but the nothing shines through,” said Paul Valery. Paris never charmed me, but when some stranger asks if it stinks in Afghanistan, I am so shocked that I hug him. And he lets me, his ankles briefly brushing against mine.

“Can You Describe Your Years in Prison?”

Over Skype, I try to document my mother’s bald-shaved youth. She has a surplus in truths and science has proven what it had to prove. Every helicopter screech I dreamt of was my mother’s first. Rippling my dumb hand, I wake up and childhood’s crypt, where prayer is keyless as a foreign laugh overheard. And on the Masjid’s cobalt globe, a ghost, an angel? No, no. Who am I kidding?

When I say, “God,” what I mean is, I can barely stand to look at my mother’s face. So what if I’ve never seen what she’s seen? I took the shape of her 206 bones. I did not choose her eyes, did not choose to masticate the ash of witness, her crooked smile disclosing a swarm of flies. Yes, missiles hailed there, named after ancient gods. Hera, a word of disputed root, maybe from “erate,” beloved. And because my beloved is not a person, but a place in a headline, I point to and avert my gaze.

I can now ask, “Would I have given up my mother for an alyssum instead of asylum? Or one glass of water that did not contain war?” Her wound isn’t mine, yet what I needed most was our roof to collapse on her like earth around stones. Rain, the hard absence of skin. The silence of it. No gust in my goddess. No artificial wind.

This one has an epigraph from a BBC news article in 2007: “Nostos.”

Avalon officials say they have uncovered a mass grave in an underground prison on the outskirts of the capital Kabul, which dates from the Soviet era. BBC news, 2007.

Lately, I’ve been moved by how the skeletons were found. Skulls with cloth around the eyes, wrist bones tied by rope. A miracle that fabric… What color was it, what material? Has touched, even witnessed, the suffering of those 2000 men who stood naked with their eyes bound and were raped before they were shot. Among them we suspect lie my great grandfather’s and my mother’s youngest brother’s remains. What is it about the disappeared? That survival, this dumb extravagance, insults us so?

“I felt nothing when I slayed the Hajis,” my student, an ex-Marine, wrote. “In fact, those barbarians fell easy, like buildings in Mazar-e-Sharif.” What could I have said? I praised the urgency of subject, her apt simile. To fight, you understand, was aimless. I’ve been primed for this, for disappearance, all my life. I dreamt of my student that night, her voice muscling the soft framework of memory whistling, “Leiche, Leiche, Leiche.”

Dearest, I wonder why in English, the body is both dead and alive, but I know the blight of grief has a heart and thus will love and learn, and thusly learn to hate. I want to believe that he, too settle porous into the light. He was 21 when they took him in for questioning. My uncle, I mean. “Do not return,” my mother shouts from her sleep. “Do not return.” His eyes were green.

I have another poem that’s inspired by a cold wintry state in the United States. This one’s set in Farmington, Maine, where I did a reading at the University of Farmington, organized by the great poet, [Aaron Lorsom 00:00:21:28].

“The Only Cab Service of Farmington Maine.”

He makes me sit next to him, so I inquire as if remembering his own smallness would prevent him from violating another’s about his childhood. Cape Cod, he recalls. How lonely he felt among the blue expanse each winter. Longed to travel, so he joined the Marines. “And I did travel,” he fools, “All the way to Afghanistan.” When I tell him, “That’s where I’m from,” his laugh crumbles, and I’m sorry for a trembling in me or in him. I can’t tell. Too chagrin to look at his face, I observed krummholz, blurs of frozen buds. “Afghans are good people though,” he disarms himself, “And damn, that food.” But I loathe my Afghan blood, especially here in the snowy balsam furs in cookie cutter houses. They saved, you know, his words butter me, my life. Gave me bread, warmth. They didn’t have to. Bad things happened. Awful things.

Nothing is calmer today. Kabul still mourns contaminated water and another suicide bomber. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but,” he coughs, “I miss it sometimes. The provinces were so hot. It was like another planet. I will never feel at ease here between subalpine hills, gas stations, advertising, Nescafe and Dove. But after eight years on the base, his voice clear as a fist, you wake up hating the person in the mirror. Now my life is about forgetting, his memory, too, a privilege. I couldn’t, after I arrived in the states, remember a single damn village. Is it a sin, then, to be envious that my driver had a home in my home, yellow dust on long mountainous roads, where 22 civilians died in the fourth attack this month, for longer than I ever did? He has, I feel, estranged me. “You know,” I hear his heavy American voice crack like a creek thawing under a deer, “It’s good to be back.” The unspeakable opens between us, its waters cold, full of shame, until we drift apart again, never asking for each other’s names.

I think I’ll read one more poem from Heart Damage and then I’ll read some new stuff.

Reading “Rilke at Lake Mendota, Wisconsin.”

I have relinquished my shame now that I have mastered what wasn’t lent to my name. Three languages, one of them dead. It is hard to misbelove all that isn’t as absurd as my forked childhood. First of the menses, padar’s stethoscope, to have hours upon hours to marvel at words like, “Driftwood,” “Trope,” “Misbelove.” To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue pears laced with needles. I had no life in Kabul. How then can I trust my mind’s long corridor, its longing for before?

“I have a faint depression polluting my heart,” sings the lake. That there is music in everything if you tune into it, devastates me. Even trauma sounds like “Traum,” the German word for dream. Even in the dirty atrium, Lou was waiting tenderly for Rilke. “Rene,” he signed his letters, the apostrophe full of love. Oh, in love, I was always and providential, but what I want is not of love. Its meatless mojo and limen bore me. I do not want to open, neither for food nor men. For loneliness, I keep a stone to kiss. At night, the entirety of me arches not toward the black square of absence, but toward you.

“The Cormorant.”

Every bird is an acquaintance of death, so every bird reminds me of you. The true sparrow, the ygritte, the peregrine falcon, but especially the double-crested cormorant that’s iridescence inscribing the April sky, revealing for a moment, the other world exiled inside ours. All that heaving and glimmering wrought. Over and over, I whisper to myself the name of this bizarre and arcane bird, “Cormorant, cormorant.”

Cormorant, my commandant. A confidant was the music of your hands when you touched me, traced a stone around my neck. Now there are cafe tables with bottled flowers. Bluebells, I think, and baskets of bread and wine by the lake. There, perched on driftwood, that concerns the water again. The black seabird, with its neon arrow of a bill, awkward as my grief and as omniscient.

Once, we laughed right here under a tree and everything thawed. We were drunk, fear was still distant as a father. I hadn’t learned yet the secret knowledge of grief, that one can yearn for the dead even more than the living. The curve of their shoulders, sweat on a cupid’s bow. That perfect end, I know. Or the miracle of an eyelash picked from a pillow. Oh friend, I long even for the littered courtyard of an evening years ago, all that grass warm and unconcerned with birds your souls will never touch again.

The next poem is my America poems which I wrote in February. So, the second month of this year, and it feels strangely chiastic to read it now in the penultimate month of the year and see that nothing has changed, and I eagerly… Yeah, predicted the exact situations that I would be in right now.

America. America, the footsteps of your ghosts are white stones weighting my center. America, the old girls’ campus in the heart of Oakland where I teach grows quiet as glass marbles rolling between my feet. I pick one up. I say, “It’s pretty,” and my students laugh, cheering, “Welcome to America.” I have no one to look to this summer. I light a candle, burn the proposedly holy wood, and God does not come when summoned, just the scent of bonfire and my hair, and light flooding the bay window, sure as a divination.

America, I divine nothing. In the other country, my parents wear their silence like silk ropes each morning, doting the terrible sun. Day after day, I weep on the phone saying, “Even the classroom is a prison.” And still my father insists, “But it is good to become an American.” And so I cement my semantics. I practice my pronunciations. I learn to say, “This country,” after saying, “I love.” I rinse my aquiline face, [inaudible] my language for fear. I fear what had happened in the forests, the words that pursued the soft silk of spiders. The verbs were “Naturalize,” “Charge,” “Reside.” The nouns were “Clematis,” “Alien,” “Hibiscus.”

America, I arrived to inhabit the realm of your language. I came to worry your words. What you offered was a vintage apartment, an audience for [inaudible], pills, the color of dusk, to swallow, so as not to collapse when I read the poem about my uncle, the reading of which I owe him, to everyone, who antecedes me. No, I mean, who haunts me, the haunting of which is a voice. The West is too young to be haunted, an ex lover assures. Still, every night, I listen to your voice scraping my walls. And in the mornings, I pick the spiders from my bed, flush their curl transparence down the drain.

America, I don’t know what to make of my ordinary cruelty or my newly bourgeois pain when I’m lacing each crack of the historic apartment, when I’m lacing the porcelain plates we hand out at parties. In the hallway, I let someone touch me under my mask. Three fingers in my mouth, my back pushed against the door, the cold sank. The mind plays where it leads a dark hour, the weight of a body on indigo tiles.

America, the scale says, “Not thin enough.” America, my lawyer suggests to keep quiet about certain things, about you and me. So I write in my notebook, your name, I write, “The country of cowboys and fame.” America, I have no cowboy and I have no fame. All I gather is the scratching of ink against paper, the laugh of a skeptic. There are nights we hear something likened to fireworks, lighting up the campus. And my students cheer. They laugh, “Welcome to America.”

Later in the empty corridor, the disembodied voice of my uncle saying, “The classroom is not a prison.” Saying, “Go, go on now.” And so I go, past vetiver and cedar, past eucalyptus declaring the shoreline, until I shiver on the blue stone coast on which my father once lay, and I proclaim what he did. I say, “This land is my fate.” America, who am I becoming here with you? If I wander the same as without you, barely visible, amid your indigenous trees.

Thank you, everyone, for coming, and thank you for inviting me.

Noah Warren: Thank you, Aria. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say that was a deeply, deeply moving reading of forensics and a weaving. My name is Noah. I’m the coordinator with Geoffrey of Lunch Poems. And I’d like to thank the library on whose support this all depends. And finally, I’d like to thank you all for joining us here this afternoon. We hope you’ll join us next time for Yusef Komunyakaa on Dec. 3. And you can see on the screen before you, we’re excited to welcome the next calendar year, Kiki Petrosino and Mary Jo Bang and Shane McCrae. So thank you everyone for joining another Lunch Poems and be well.

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