By Livia Meneghin
Behind the Tree Backs by Iman Mohammed
trs. from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022
Iman Mohammed sets the tone for the rest of her first full-length collection with a sparse yet substantial first page. A garden, with all its flowers and trees, is covered in human brain tissue after an act of war (5). Just one couplet forces me to confront a landscape in which human life is disregarded. The line “Milk teeth of hegemony” (5) follows, signaling the start of a witnessing.
Translated from Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida, Behind the Tree Backs explores stillness and motion in the face of death. In a sea of exclusively prose poems, the speaker reveals herself: “I see clothes fluttering along the streets, nearly animate. Evoking” (8). This “I” has the power of sight. As a general behavior, however, seeing clearly requires one to be inert. The clothing in the image, on the other hand, is privileged with animation. While presumably discarded and lost, it not only can move in the wind, but also can conjure meaning. The speaker is reminded of a past when locals were out and about, peering for love, for information, for friends, or even simply for a good place to sit down and have a bite to eat. Behind Tree Backs reminds readers that war takes away what life has to offer. This juxtaposition of passivity and movement reflects the severe power imbalance that exists in such a landscape. I was particularly drawn by a line of punchy sonic quality: “Sandbox time, the tall spine’s time, snowballs roll down slopes” (13). While full of simple and mundane imagery, the intensity of the spondees and trochees speak to this same authority that belongs to the non-human. War, the result of human quarrel, seems to strip people of all control.
In the midst of disparity and displacement, Mohammed looks to nature. On one page, she writes, “People pass while I lean / against magenta greenery, sanctuaries." (20) The following poem on the spread adds:
I search for poisonous plants, they will break apart the light, light
can cut my eyes in a single breath. Detours to school, past the
neighbor’s garden overflowing with swollen plums, secreted yellow
liquid, sticky gloss. Behind the tree backs, arched varyingly. (21)
The speaker is at first more passive, resting and subsequently bleeding on sculptures that support her body. But next, she prays for daylight to be extinguished. This prose stanza is also where the titular phrase comes into play. Salvation comes crookedly, randomly, and hidden while overripe fruit tempt the speaker—another garden eager to draw in human life. But she moves past the nourishing juice, seeking another source of relief.
Many phrases throughout this English translation dissociate from the human body. Figures—trying everything they can to escape, live, or die—are reduced to body parts. The verbs belong to defamiliarized subjects and not humans themselves. In various untitled stanzas, “Fingers pass cookies” (31), “Your tongue licked my aching neck” (41), and a “face possesses thousands of nerves wanting to speak to it all” (53). This syntax is clear in two small moments within another set of short, neighboring prose blocks.
Head is tilted left, a hand blows a kiss to someone who says
see you later. (26)
I place my hands
behind my head and walk through the park, in one dimension I
am bored, in another I beg for my life. (27)
First, in a stanza describing nightfall, Mohammed gives a farewell gesture to the body and not to the person. Is this out of protection for the human life, one that may be gone by morning? Is this because we can never be sure what is left behind after war? The second set of lines gives readers a completely different power dynamic. The speaker here has the wherewithal to choose her movements; however, the meaning is taken from her. She recognizes the posture as relaxed in one world and vulnerable in another.
The title Behind Tree Backs reminds readers that what’s vital for survival in such a landscape is often hidden. The word “shadow” appears five times, and “beneath” appears fourteen times, sending a darkness to permeate these pages. One of the final poems of the collection features this word in two prominent spots: at the end of the first line and at the end of the last line.
Newborn hyacinths scream. Carry rocks and place my eyes beneath,
swear an oath before all living things. Twist my neck and weep
through the curtain of tears. See the one who retreated and became
pure, pazuzu is on the walls. My spine stops growing and sees it all.
Embryo of beginning near a pile of rocks, my gaze beneath. (62)
This imagery is fascinating and horrifying, reminiscent of the first page’s greenery covered in brain tissue. Here, the flowers call out. The speaker’s body is contorted and separated; her eyes and gaze alike lie under earth and stone.
Mohammed ultimately takes control via careful inventions of color. She presents a rainbow from “cerise” (60) and “redorange” (55) to “the evening sky light-green” (29). One of my favorites is the series of “blackblue” (31), “bluepurple” (55), and “bluewhite” (44) interspersed throughout. In the original Swedish, the color names are similarly combined as “svartblå” (99), “blålila” (123), and “blåvita” (112). Not only is this technique an avenue to accuracy, but it also signifies a claiming of power through creativity. Mohammed determines her own reality and, in protecting herself for the future, her own memory. Other colors stand in as symbols as well. The lines “fire and black sky” and “fire and yellow sky” signify night and sunlight through a more abstract lens (48). These phrases envelope a couplet describing anguish; why not escape into her imagination and depict a version of the truth that is safer to record on the page?
By the end of Behind the Tree Backs, Mohammed commits to all she has left—life past, present, and future—in a natural progression: first she holds, an action of both effort and stillness. Then, she moves. Then, she dreams.
I hold my hands like previous generations. Move beneath the tank,
my body beneath the bed, dream and am dead in the dream, sleep
and dream living and dead, I dream and am dead in the dream. (65)
Livia Meneghin is the author of the chapbook Honey in My Hair and a Review Writer for GASHER. Her writing has found homes in The Academy of American Poets, BOAAT Journal, tenderness lit, Entropy Magazine, Tinderbox, So to Speak, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA at Emerson College, where she is now affiliated faculty and Program Coordinator for EmersonWRITES.