The Haunting of Memory and History

Hard Damage by Aria Aber

University of Nebraska Press, 2019

Paperback, 126 pp., $17.95


Cover of Hard Damage by Aria Aber.


The collage of memories that make up Aria Aber’s Hard Damage, the 2019 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Winner, offers an opportunity to reckon with the undeniable fact that poetry offers a home for the past and an understanding of our relationship to history. Memory is integral to why poetry must exist. American poet Ira Sadoff tells us that “memory is required for poetry,” and what Aber does is showcase this truth along with the complexity of memory, while questioning whether “memory is a privilege.


Hard Damage chronicles Aber’s understanding of the trauma ingrained within her familial lineage stemming from violence and suffering the family experienced in Afghanistan, as she grapples with the wounds inflicted by the political and personal remnants of history. In the poem “Family Portrait,” we get a glimpse of the microcosm of the family and how the uncovering of memory is ingrained within the familial unit. Aber writes:


Family, to me,

Is only the sweat of female secrecy


This discussion of family provides more nuance as we learn about the speaker’s mother’s political imprisonment in poems such as “Asylum” and “Can You Describe Your Years in Prison?” The aperture widens as the poems convey the inescapable reality of just how much the political is immersed in the personal or the generational:


. . . How much

of my yearly tax is spent to bomb

the dirt that birthed me?. . .


Aber challenges us to investigate a painful and violent history that begets a continued destructive present, and how these events shape the wounds that are passed down again and again through the generations. Hard Damage asks, with urgency, how living through—and with— trauma, violence, and war engages our understanding of the self, lineage, and survival. How does one live with the enveloping experience of violence? How does one access ancestral history and language? How can all of this be reclaimed?


By starting her collecting within the realm of the personal, Aber prepares us to journey into a series of enveloping worlds or sections of poetry interrogating the questions of access, history, language, and reclamation. Each world presents not only the opportunity to grapple with language but also to grapple with the reality of war. In the series of poems starting with “Rilke and I,” each poem elevates the conventions of the prose poem to discuss how we remember what has happened to us. Aber writes:


My mother let me happen to her. She let prison happen to her, simply because she believed in Women’s Rights and Afghanistan as a sovereign state. She went to prison with her little sister, and she emerged. She was, I can say now, a political prisoner. She let it happen to her; then she decided to leave her family behind, move on for love, for family, for me …


Within the poetic experience, the speaker is working to reconcile intergenerational trauma and the reality of being born after the original trauma occurred. How are we meant to grasp these memories? How do we accept that we are removed from specific traumas as individuals but are very much intertwined with the remnants of our family’s pain? Each of the worlds explored in Hard Damage offers a different understanding of the haunting nature of memory, of political violence, and the attempt to move forward. Aber’s chronicles of the historic realities of her mother’s political imprisonment, coupled with her awareness of her own privilege, creates a tapestry of the different ways that memories are consume us.


Aber’s voice is entirely her own within this collection, and yet it’s made possible by her intentions of honoring the resilience and death of her ancestors. Not only is Hard Damage a conversation with history, but it also presents a rich voice conversing with various aspects of history. From speaking to the German poet Rilke, using the etymology of German, English, and Arabic words and those of the speaker’s own family, Aber’s collection explores what we are left with when investigating the roots of our world today.


The profound attention Aber pays on the line-level to the crafting of her poems presents many opportunities to engage in the depth of moments recalled by the speaker and the intensity these moments have for the personal and the collective. In “Nostos,” the speaker notes:


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—


Ira Sadoff, in “Poetic Memory, Poetic Design,” does not simply claim that memory is needed for poetry. He asserts that “syntactical memories, gathering the emotional weight of the poem as it accrues line to line,” is needed for poetic expression. Alberto Ríos tells us that “lines are what distinguish poetry from all other art forms, and therefore they intrinsically mean something. They help us to see what makes a poem a poem.” Aber not only expresses a deep sense of care and attention on the line level but also a commitment in keeping the integrity of what a line must do in a poem.


On the line level, the poems in Hard Damage break and disrupt our own understanding In the poem, “At the Hospital, My Language,” for instance, Aber writes:


cousin with no empathy. But family

is family; the awkward shell

I harbor, crack—avian eyelids,

hospital, yolk—


These lines are not only enjambed, but media caesura allows for a break and redefinition of the language before them. Because of Aber’s syntactical construction, our understanding of family is reconstructed. It takes on multiple meanings. In Aber’s crafting of the line, she evokes multiple interpretations and provides a deepening of our understanding of the line itself and the poem as a whole. These moments of intentional meaning on the line level contribute to what I find most compelling about Aber’s collection. Hard Damage works to bridge the micro space of the line to the macro understanding of what makes poetry so altering to the reader. It is in the singular moments of surprise, redefinition, and nuance created within the line that lead us to unearth meaning.


This unearthing reveals the personal and political history that sits at the crux of the collection. Aber’s yearning to show the intricacies of the Afghanistan–US relationship, the Afghanistan–German relationship, and her own understanding of the traumas these political relationships have caused creates a collection intense in its ability to interrogate the political structures, while providing a deep sense of what it feels for a person to grieve the aftermath of violence, war, and imprisonment.


It is nearly impossible to not feel the haunting density of the memories Aber explores as we immerse ourselves further into the collection. The poems ask us to be consumed by the intricate experiences of the speaker, while also carrying the responsibility and gravity of the reality Aber exposes. An entire history cannot possibly be conveyed in a mere hundred pages, yet what Aber recounts is done with striking clarity and an acute awareness of the privilege writers have to tell a story. She says:


It is a terrible time

To be alive.


I say this with the privilege

Of being alive


We are born in the midst of past and ongoing violence. What does that mean as we reconcile our identities with the trauma rooted in our ancestry? What does it mean to be generations removed, and yet still contending with the inherited trauma of our ancestors? This collection reminds us of that undertaking. It urges us to wonder, reflect, and determine how to deal with the damage.