Kurdish-born Jalal Barzanji prefers to keep his political beliefs separate from his poetry. During the darkness of Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime in Iraq, which included ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Kurds, there was a demand for protest poetry in support of the Kurdish struggle for freedom. But Barzanji – who survived two years of imprisonment in Iraq, fled to Turkey in the 1990s, and eventually settled in Canada – feels that realist expression removes the poet too far from aesthetics. Instead, he prefers to follow in the tradition of modernism, his poetry concerned with the imagery of nature, the ambiguity of language, and symbolism as a veil for expression.
Barzanji, who was named the city of Edmonton’s inaugural PEN Canada Writer in Exile, wants his poetry “to create an empty canvas for readers, allowing them to use their own minds to paint on it.” In the preface to Trying Again to Stop Time, a collection of poems previously published in Kurdish and translated into English by Sabah A. Salih, Barzanji states, “I wanted to write without interference, to give expression to what was inside of me without any ideology or political grandstanding to inhibit my imagination.”
And while he is quite successful in this endeavour, one can plainly see how the darkness of his surroundings is imbued into his poetry. No Warmth, a collection first published in 1985, reads like a series of vignettes, painting a sombre picture of the Kurdish experience. Barzanji’s anger is palpable in “Midlife,” which begins: “History has made you worry too much, / but when will history be thinking of you?” In “The Most Depressing Time,” desperation pours out onto the page: “It was the most depressing time: The shadows were wrapping themselves around the earth; / fear was falling down with the rain.”
The final three poems in Trying Again to Stop Time, written since 2012, are the most transnational in the collection. “The Shadow of a Wall” connects the fall of the Berlin Wall to the divisive politics that keeps the Kurds isolated from the rest of Iraq, while “Where Am I?” articulates the loneliness of the immigrant experience. Regardless of the individual poems’ specific focuses, however, it will be easy to for readers to connect with Barzanji’s writing, because his words seep with humanity’s universal emotions and occurrences.