Sheila Black, Love/Iraq
Publisher: CW Books
2009, 78 pages, paperback, $18

SHEILA BLACK’S BOOK of poems, Love/Iraq, explores both the real and conceptual worlds of heaven and hell as they melt and fuse and eddy into each other. Poignant memories of love from first flush to full depth haunt a woman’s struggle to grieve the loss of her Iraqi lover ten years after his death. The book begins with a rich evocation of Baghdad and flashes between that cruel desert reality—where “the tar of the road melts under your wheels”—to a celebration of Paris, where, years prior, the speaker’s love affair has taken place. Paris is rendered with the soft yet intense focus of impressionistic paintings, and Black’s central love story is as bittersweet as that in Casablanca. With all the limbo of that stop-over world where vulnerable human beings fend off madness while they wait and wait and wait, Black’s Paris is a city “where the desolate pinball machines still, I believe, / stand, the round balls like impossibly dense planets / striking fire / striking the sound of your coldness.”

Perhaps the broad message of Love/Iraq can be understood simply by taking its title at face value. There is a borderline—a slash—between two wholly different states (one a political state, the other a state of being).  The concept can be viewed as a face in stark relief, with one half shadowed black and the other white: the yin and the yang.  It’s this balance that characterizes the experience of reading Love/Iraq, as the collection offers a narrative circularity, along with the seamless interweaving of the ethereal and the concrete. Sheila Black’s poems are heavy yet porous, racing toward transcendence then slowing down to convey a telling detail.  Consider these lines from “Holocaust of the Birds”:

Hungover, I smoke a cigarette; the waxwings
drop their feathers from the wisteria,
the wind is rising;
it takes the form of a robe of light.

It is the tenth day of the war. How long you have
been missing. I want to tell you why
I still play with my addictions like a person striking
matches, burning them out.

With similar longing, the speaker in “Survival” follows a small scar on her lover’s lip, then pulls back to trace the history of the horror he has faced in his home country:

The dead boys hung about your shoulders,
their childish arms, the backs of

their necks.  When you kissed me they
were there, those furred young

bodies with their smell of milk. How
carelessly they were scattered

over the nameless landscapes.  Nothing there but
the odd smoke rising, the buried wires

sudden flares.  Nothing we would not do.

In the midst of wars that allow us to depersonalize the “enemy,” Black’s poems present an image of “drinking from his cup […] touching with my lips where his lips have been.”

Love/Iraq reflects the struggle of anyone who has loved deeply and sought to honor that love in the difficult work of grief. In the best times, this book will enrich your awareness of that experience. In the worst times, it will help you to survive it.

—Joe Vastano