This article provides a reading of the nonhuman world registered in Dunya Mikhail’s poem Diary of a Wave outside the Sea. While human rights poetry traditionally assembles a poetics of witnessing or mourning and focuses on the construction of the human person, this reading of Mikhail’s poetry demonstrates human rights discourse’s investment in establishing an idea of the nonhuman world as well. This discussion of the nonhuman dimension of lyric is developed through Paul de Man and Barbara Johnson’s ideas about lyric and law and is further taken up in relation to Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the disaster. Mikhail’s writing of the disaster of military human rights intervention depicts it as different from other disasters of the twentieth century, however, in that it destroys a way of life that is made legible only through this destruction. Reading Mikhail’s poetry, one finds this way of life registered alongside images of state changes in the physical world that are barely perceptible and that frequently get read in reference to human action rather than as an index of life made legible and thus destroyed by disaster. One image referenced throughout her poetry is that of “gasping”; for example, the speaker wonders “if there is enough space in life for all this gasping.” While gasping might signal a struggle for human life, it is also a figure of other logics of space/time, mood, internal/external states, and structures of desire that defy being understood through a logic of the human person.
Human Rights Poetry and the Poetics of Nonhuman Being: Dunya Mikhail’s Writing of Disaster
Erin Trapp teaches in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She has published articles on contemporary poetics in such journals as Cultural Critique, Journal of Narrative Theory, MLN, and Postmodern Culture. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled Estranging Lyric: Postwar Aggression and the Task of Poetry.