Thursday, 19 April 2012

At the Border, 1979

This poem describes a situation which has resulted from conflct--but also describes the conflict of feelings that the situation produces. However, it is different from most of the other poems in this collection, perhaps more obliquely related to war.

The poet, Choman Hardi, is writing out of her own experience--she was a refugee as a child, leaving Iraqui-controlled Kurdistan as a baby and returning to it as a five-year-old. The poem recounts this experience of return through the eyes of a child. The persecutions of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein led to the family fleeing again, and she was eventually granted asylum in England, where she settled, and started a career as an academic, focusing on the plight of the Kurdish people in her research about  the mental health of Kurdish women refugees.

Hardi's father was a poet, which may be why she found writing poetry a natural way of expressing herself. She says that her ealy poems were flowery, drawing on the Kurdish tradition, but that her later writing, in English, is more stark. She asserts that "Only in English was I able to write about statelessness, genocide, oppression and Kurdishness". In The Poetry Archive site, you can hear Hardi reading some of her ohter poems, and also find a more detailed biography.

The title dates the poem very specifically, and ties it to a particular time and place--it also makes it clear that the poem is autobiographical, something reinforced by the use of the first person throughout. The words 'At the border' though, are perhaps deliberately ambiguous--it does not state which border, making it a poem which can have relevance beyond this narrowly historical context.

The snatch of dialogue which starts the poem is an exclamation, emphasising the significance of 'last', and suggesting that this is why the child has remembered it. The sense of sadness, or slight regret associated with leaving throughout the poem (emphasised by words such as 'last' and 'different' is balanced by a sense of excitement about the return. At least in this first stanza, it is impossible to see whether the idea that 'everything would taste different' is good or bad.

The poem's form is that of several loose stanzas ranging from two to five lines in no apparent pattern. (3,2,5,4,5,3,5). The tone is conversational, and there is no strongly marked metre or rhyme.  Because most stanzas are five lines long, the shorter ones tend to have a sense of incompleteness, they seem to provoke long pauses. this is particularly evident in the second stanza, where the idea that 'the land under our feet continued / divided by a thick iron chain' seems to sum up some of the themes in the poem. The land is still the land, it is the man-made idea (the chain) that has 'divided' it--it is in reality continuous. It is interesting to note how enjambement is used here. the word 'continued' signals the continuance of the line across the line-break, whereas the first word on the next line 'divided' seems to be emphasised by the slight pause occasioned by the line-break. the opposition between 'continued/divided' is thus enacted as you read across the line-break.

This seriousness is then undercut in the next stanza, by the child who straddles the barrier, though the joke that she makes is making the same essential point. her ability to demonstrate the inherent connection between the two countries by standing with a foot in each shows how the barriers are man-made and therefore less significant. The border guards are clearly relaxed. The phrase 'they told her off' contains no serious threat or sense of fear, and suggests how the terrible differences between countries that made one safe for their parents to fell to, and one dangerouns, have now dissolved. As it is safe to go back, so the differences seem less significant.

A sense of yearning in introduced in the fourth and fifth stanzas. In the homeland, things appear to be better: 'much cleaner...more beautiful....much kinder', the series of parallel clauses emphasising how these beliefs of the mother are simply extrapolations of her yearning for her country: she wants to believe that everything is better there, and perhaps it does seem so in the eyes of memory. It is also a belief shared by other adults--the words 'I can inhale home' seem to suggest that the person speaking is literally inspired by the air of their homeland (this may be the most correct use of 'literally' that you ever see, children; cherish it) and here the difference between them and their children is clear: 'our mothers were crying'.

The sense of tense expectation is undercut again by the personal voice: 'I was five years old', and the poet, as a child, is seen to be more clear-sighted than the adults who wait to be repatriated. Perhaps she might be thinking, like John Agard, that a flag is 'just a piece of cloth', as she compares 'both sides of the border'. Here, the similarities are highlighted, with an echo of line 4: 'the autumn soil continued on the other side', and the repeated 'the same...the same...' creates an internal rhyme with 'chain' that links together the ideas of similarity and difference, creating almost a sing-song rhythm in the three-line stanza, as though the child is chanting this idea to her parents.

In the final stanza, this man-made 'chain' is replaced by the 'chain of mountains'. In contrast to the barrier of the border, the chain here is protective: 'the same chain of mountains encompassed all of us'. Here the words 'same' and 'chain' are again repeated, but here they are no longer in opposition, but create a harmony. When the chain is removed and the people return home, both countries appear to have become the same. The cold, official language of 'checked' and 'inspected' is a sharp contrast to the passion in 'a man bent down nad kissed his muddy homeland', the 'muddy' emphasising how much this man cares about the place where he was born--even mess does not make him shy away from the most intimate contact with it.

In some ways, this poem could be seen to be about how children see more clearly than adults--they do not understand national boundaries, they laugh about them, they see the similarities rather than the differences, and this is a good thing. At asnother level, howveer, it could be seen to suggest that the child fails to understand something really important about what drives people--what drives adults to tears, or to kiss muddy ground--the five-year-old eye of the poet does not understand what the adult poet understand all too well, that it is this passion for home, this sense of belonging, that makes us more fully human.

The poem could be compared interestingly to 'The Yellow Palms' (as it deals with the same part of the world, and sees the conflicts from another perspective, and also deals with the suffering of non-combatants), ro to 'Flag' or 'next to of course god america i', which also deal with a sense of national identity.


  1. Thank you so much for preparing these analyses of so many of the 'Conflict' poems on the AQA GCSE Literature specification. I teach in F.E. and I have found your comments extremely useful in preparing my classes for the examination. I have shown your blog to my classes and they too have been very appreciative of your work which is so well-researched and detailed.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad that it was helpful. Good luck with the exams tomorrow :)