Hard Damage works to relentlessly interrogate the self and its shortcomings. In lyric and documentary poems and essayistic fragments, Aria Aber explores the historical and personal implications of Afghan American relations. Drawing on material dating back to the 1950s, she considers the consequences of these relations—in particular the funding of the Afghan mujahedeen, which led to the Taliban and modern-day Islamic terrorism—for her family and the world at large.
Invested in and suspicious of the pain of family and the shame of selfhood, the speakers of these richly evocative and musical poems mourn the magnitude of citizenship as a state of place and a state of mind. While Hard Damage is framed by free-verse poetry, the middle sections comprise a lyric essay in fragments and a long documentary poem. Aber explores Rilke in the original German, the urban melancholia of city life, inherited trauma, and displacement on both linguistic and environmental levels, while employing surrealist and eerily domestic imagery.
Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, Aber's ruminative lyrical debut tracks the movements of a twice-emigrated poet in poems that are personal and confessional. "Enshrining what cannot be held/ of what went missing," many of the poems assemble memories, family stories, and news reports to offer a portrait of a young person coming to terms with leaving her ancestral home for a country that has invaded it. "How much/ of my yearly tax is spent to bomb/ the dirt that birthed me?" she asks. "Is memory a privilege?" "To miss my life in Kabul is to tongue/ pears laced with needles. I had no life/ in Kabul. How, then, can I trust my mind's long corridor,/ its longing for before?" Throughout, poems shift between stories of her family's life in Afghanistan, her father's life in Germany, and Aber's own life in the United States. One section is made up entirely of associative meditations on words in German and English, and language remains a constant locus of anxiety and inspiration: "As if an Irlicht sweet with sirens,/ language lured me in, then punished me for believing in its palace." Though not every poem here may achieve its ambition, the book engages with important geopolitical events.