Aria Aber
Photograph by Nadine Aber

“Afghan-American relations are really complicated and intense,” the poet Aria Aber said in an interview with Poetry magazine’s editorial staff. “The fact that, politically, there is still so much history and still so many things that are going on that we don’t know about, just seems very fertile to me creatively.”

Born and raised in Germany to Afghan refugee parents, Aber writes in English, her third language, and her debut collection, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Award and was published last year by the University of Nebraska Press.

I want to share Aber’s poem, “The Mother of All Balms,” in part because I love the play on words and sounds and slant rhymes she deploys in an otherwise somber poem, which reminds me a bit of how Elizabeth Bishop used similar strategies in a number of her poems on serious subjects.

“The Mother of All Balms” is, of course, a play on the name of the US-made weapon of mass destruction that was dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs,” and which was dropped over the Nangarhar Province of her parents’ native homeland, Afghanistan, in April 2017.

“English being my third language, I often mishear or mispronounce things,” Aber told Poetry, where the poem originally appeared. “And I am very interested in how that source of humiliation can also be a source of creativity.”

Meditating on the proximity of sound in which “bomb” and “balm” reside, Aber was reminded that in many religions and spiritual traditions “creation” and “destruction” often derive from the same source.

“But the balm is not necessarily something that creates,” says Aber. “It only restores and preserves something that is already there but broken.”

Here is Aria Aber’s “The Mother of All Balms”

Morning she comes, mother of all balms.

Only the news reporter says it wrong:

but aren’t you strung: little ping

and doesn’t memory embalm

                           your most-hurt city:

those yellow creeks                                of your rickety holm

where your mater: your salve:

left all her selves behind

so she could surrender to a lifetime

of Septembering: what she members most:

yellow grapes and celeries

and visiting her father’s glove

a balm, to be by absence so enclaved:

your mender

a follower, devoted

to what she cannot see. O air miles,

how can it be real?

How uncertain you should

be             if it existed, if there are no photos left

of her playing

on her childhood lawn—

burned are all the documents, or eaten—

this ink,

like memory,

an ancient unguent,

enshrining what cannot be held

of what went missing—the dog, her hat of hay,

one brother.                              She was in prism,

your mother says—and that’s how you will write her,

atoning her, just in fluorite a figurine caught

to fracture                                  her stolen years,

                                                        her brother,

all her once-upon-a-chimes.

Source: Poetry (September 2019)

Here is Aria Aber reading her poem, “The Mother of All Balms”

You can learn more about Aria Aber on her website: ariaaber.com.