Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:00 AM 12th November 2023

Poem Of The Week: Bystander By Abeer Ameer


Also known as collateral damage.
The usual story for his type:
minding his own business
tending to his pomelos and pomegranates
and watering his carnations. His granddaughter watches
as he spreads his fig leaf sap to cure his psoriasis.

Guided missiles
don’t show the usual signs of guidance.
They don’t shout Hallelujah,
they don’t clap in praise of the Lord
and they don’t quietly come seeking
a Bodhi tree under which to sit cross-legged
to reach Enlightenment.

They do bring with them
an almighty blast of fire and light.
For eons
people speak of them in many tongues
and warn of the preceding hum
leaving bystanders
in eternal stand-by.

Image by Anzhela Bets on Unsplash
Image by Anzhela Bets on Unsplash
It might be Syria, or Iraq – the country of the poet’s birth. And it might be Gaza. The placing of location in Abeer Ameer’s fine and frighteningly controlled poem, is secondary to its wider impact. For the meaning of ‘Bystander’, like the immediate consequences of a randomly-lobbed missile, radiates outwards to disfigure landscape and livelihood, culture and inheritance.

The stuff we don’t see on our television screens, the stuff we hide behind cold-blooded and anodyne military jargon – collateral damage - enables a willing suspension of disbelief alongside a denial of complicity, as though to justify the resulting carnage. And if we seek an illusory finality in the percussive silence that follows an explosion, we shouldn’t forget that misdirected rockets reinforce hatred, create division, and sow the seeds of future radicalisation. On and on, ad infinitum...

Nor do they melt away, and instead, leave the bewildered bystander on permanent ‘stand-by’. The narrator of Ameer’s measured and profoundly ironic poem juxtaposes the details of a comforting, almost seductive, normality with an image of its obverse, whose sign is retribution, a perverse incarnation of Revelation and an empty promise of redemption for its propagators. ‘Guidance’, in Ameer’s clever recalibration of intention, is absent, along with any sense of humility.

Her final verse is apocalyptic, rendered in the infernal language of those, like John of Patmos in the ‘Eons’, who would be happy to restore hell on earth.

‘Bystander’ is taken from Inhale / Exile, published by Seren (2021) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publisher.

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