Review of Inhale/Exile by Abeer Ameer, pub. Seren 2021
your heart still beats in the place you left
Abeer Ameer was born in Sunderland and brought up in Wales. This isn’t how I would normally begin a review, but it is important to note that this collection focusing on experiences of persecution, emigration, exile, assimilation, is biographical rather than autobiographical; it derives from family stories heard as a child and from travels in adulthood to the country (Iraq) which is part of her heritage but where she had never lived. There’s more than one way of being exiled.
As one might expect, there is a lot of danger, violence, persecution, even death, in these pages. Yet for all the grim moments, they are not grim reading, because the focus is on resistance, survival and human decency in the face of adversity. A teacher tips off a pupil to escape the secret police, at the risk of his own life. A photographer “shoots everything he sees before him”, with a camera rather than a gun, to bear witness to injustice; a postman reports a house empty to protect its inhabitants; a diver searches the Tigris for executed bodies, hoping to restore them to their families:
The diver’s own family wants to leave Iraq.
They say he’s a dreamer, tell him there’s no hope left,
no point in holding his breath hoping for peace.
but he knows the Tigris has been black and red,
seen much worse than this yet forgives.
Besides, he says, I can hold my breath for a very long time.
What also leavens the experience of exile and assimilation is an irrepressible sense of humour. The situation of “Iraqi Bride in Transit” and the groom awaiting her at the airport is tense, but they, and the poet, can still see the wry side of a potentially disastrous linguistic error:
Announcement. Groom is summoned to Immigration.
Your wife says you do drugs.
He realises at that moment he should have taught his bride
the correct English term for pharmacy student.
Unusually in a first collection, this one is formally very varied; there are rhymed quatrains, variant sestinas, sonnets, a ghazal and a villanelle alongside the free verse. They are well handled, too, though it’s no criticism to say that I think with more experience she will come to use form even more skilfully.
Despite the focus on redemptiveness, there is often an edginess to these poems: promise of political change comes to little, refugees meet hostility, fugitives who should now feel safe remain wary of giving their real names. People hope for the best but prepare prudently for the worst:
There has been running water
for some years now
but they keep the well
just in case.
Abeer Ameer is a dentist by profession, which as far as I know is unusual for a poet – doctor-poets there are in plenty, but dentist-poets are far rarer. At their best, poets from the medical world have both a lot of empathy and a hard edge, an ability to distance, that stops them getting soppy and keeps their vision clear — one thinks of the late Dannie Abse. This certainly seems to be true of this poet.