“If I Had to Read It Again for the First Time, I Would”: Jacob Collins-Wilson Reviews Behind the Tree Backs by Iman Mohammed

Behind the Tree Backs by Iman Mohammed (translated by Jennifer Hayashida and including the full original Swedish version) is a short book of short poems that highlights imagery, nature, memories, and the strength of word-choice to create a cross-stitch of life during and after destruction. It is a book about growing up in war and coming of age in the aftermath. It explores self, family, and our relationships with nature in a way that is fun and interesting because nature is defining us and sometimes we are defined by our surroundings, or at least impacted. And it’s awesome.

No poem is titled in this book. And it’s hard on the first read to even tell when a poem begins or ends. Some pages only have a few words or a few lines and the rest of the page is blank. But it seems like poems are separated by a simple blank page, though this is assumption and the book can be read almost as a stream of consciousness piece, jumping from moment to moment, memory to memory. Though the safe bet is on individual poems. However, even individual poems will last several pages but have very few words and lines. For example, the second poem in the book begins:

Slice bread at night, star particles arrayed. My feet unsteady on the floor. Exist on an orb adrift in black ocean.

And then the rest of the page (which is an overwhelming majority) is blank. On the following page, the poem continues (and ends) with:

I see clothes fluttering along the streets, nearly animate. Evoking bygone nights and dances. now they are showing images of solitary houses. The days still feel calm, movement of feet beneath the blanket, dead, living.

As you can see, this poem, and many of the poems, are written in a prose-y form without line-breaks (but other poems utilize line-breaks). The white space does a lot of work, especially in a book filled imagery of vastness, the sky, the black ocean, outer space, etc. There is peace and openness throughout, an honesty and a faithful rendering if not of reality then of the our inner reality. However, this terseness is in stark contrast to much of the language and content of many of the poems. For example, the third poem, which is extremely short and simple in terms of structure, is packed of powerful imagery and words that feel overwhelming but provide balance to the brevity. Here is the whole poem (again, if it is a poem unto itself rather than a page in the larger context of the book):

Body is sewn into steel handed out by the water bordering the grass, in the boots such blue feet.

One thing to note is that the physical book is much smaller, a pocket-size, nearly, so the poem actually appears like this:

Body is sewn into steel handed out by the water bordering the grass, in the boots
such blue feet.

This enjambment forces disjoint. I like that. Much of the book is like that, a heavy, dense line broken by the page. Here is where we get to the meat of this book. What the fuck does that poem mean? It’s hard to parse. And as the book goes, there isn’t much clarity. These poems are disjointed, often in an overwhelming way. They move from puberty and first sex/orgasm to a drone dropping a bomb to a four-page memory of a childhood illness juxtaposed with kids playing and eating ice cream at night together. It’s like a darkness lurks in the dead space of the pages through the book. It’s odd, unsettling, and great all at once, like a well-done horror movie.

However, there are wonderful moments of beauty and gentleness in this book. Here’s the first page of a poem from the perspective of a parent remembering their child’s hair when they were younger (presumably, it is the parent of the speaker of the rest of the poems):

To hold your hair gather it from the floor see it grown, can you let me hold your hair gather it from the floor see it grow, she said to me the other day, felt like the hair never stopped growing and it made us happy, we could approach each other through different haircuts, her hair fell onto her toes, the sound of scissors lopping off with a brief but intense force, your hair is so thick how can it be so thick, when you were little I always cut your hair short, liked how it framed your jaw, when I washed your hair I gathered it into a bun and held it tight, you said it hurt and felt good at the same time, my mother taught me that motion, she said the blood would flow faster and make the hair grow stronger.

Simple and direct and beautiful. The long breath of the line works wonderfully as this section comes toward the end of a book of short poems. And it comes after poems about war and the rush and fear and overwhelming feeling of puberty and first sex.

Overall, this book is heavy and hard to hold. The weight will pull it from your fingers like an extra bag of groceries you should have made a second trip for. That sounds flippant when this book is so serious, so intense. But the density of the poems works well. It’s also a book in translation which are always fun to read and always a gamble because there’s so much lost not only in language but in culture and history fact and community. While the book is translated from Swedish, there is a history beyond Sweden in it (this doesn’t even take into account the translator’s own background). Though some people prefer to separate any authorial details from the work, which has its benefits, in this case, the greater the knowledge the greater the enjoyment because, again, there is so much energy packed into such a small package. Lastly, this book doesn’t feel like it comes directly from any school or style of poetry but rather comes from the poet, from how they feel and see and express the world, so it feels true. Props to both author and translator.

To close, here are two parts of a poem smack-daub in the middle of the book that shows the darker power of Iman Mohammed’s poetry:

The searching camera casts the evening sky light-green
airplane eye scans houses and trees, cattle
the grid, its lines create focus
shadow of a body glimpsed between houses
a missile grabs hold of the body and surrounding landscape.

Like roses so young in the ground
the ground felt gratitude in it grew the roots of sons
braided together with names and mothers
who on beds wished that tears would rinse away the sorrow
that the same earth could inhale a mother’s body
heavy with the anguish of loss
it is a piece of clothing melting into skin.

Behind the Tree Backs, by Iman Mohammed. Translated by Jennifer Hayashida. Brooklyn, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, March 2022. 144 pages. $18.00, paper.

Jacob Collins-Wilson writes reviews, poetry, and is working on a novel. He also builds furniture and homes. You can reach him at emailingjacob@gmail.com.

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