How Many Suns Burn Over Babel Where Poets Die
by Patrick Kosiewicz
2012 farfalla press/McMillan &Parrish
by Susan Scutti
In How Many Suns Burn Over Babel Where Poets Die, author Patrick Kosiewicz employs the popular form of interconnected stories to narrate his vision of the War in Iraq. The compelling opening chapter is of a “bibliocaust,” the burning of a library by the infidels, while a professor “clutching three archaic codices to his chest” watches and cries. Preservers of culture and looters alike attempt to save the library’s treasures while arsonists and other “bibliocidal maniacs” ward them off with pipes, sticks and even pistols. The chapter ends with a small group of men in a pickup truck; they will obtain weapons, ammunition and explosives in exchange for the ancient, invaluable books they steal, and with these ill-gotten gains, kill many other people though driver and gunner will also die “…shooting and smiling and praising God.” In the second chapter, Kosiewicz follows an unnamed American soldier who wakes in a house smelling of guns and takes a midday run along a sandy road. Through Kosiewicz’s eyes a reader cinematically observes the soldier as he jogs through an unidentified region past hummers and abandoned outposts as well as the many faithful saying their prayers. “Some respected him for being able to speak their language. Others hated him even more.” Like a despised Odysseus his return home is greeted by a dog who rushes around the corner of the latrine, teeth bared. The third chapter ascends the void to describe the creation of the Angel Destroyer while the fourth glimpses a suicide bomber as he lingers over the application of lipstick and kohl eyeliner in preparation for his moment as “death in drag.” Approaching his targets, an Interior Ministry official and a district police chief, he recalls his mother, whose pretty face resembles his own. Other chapters are peopled by a dead child and a grieving mother, bikini-clad “journalists” and American soldiers, the translator who, in his village, is rumored dead or living as a Christian in Italy, and a daughter who is raped by her own father.
Kosiewicz’s use of concise, descriptive sentences, similar to the work of Thaddeus Rutkowski, readily conveys the extreme indignities of war. Meanwhile, the separate chapters offer insightful though fleeting glimpses into often nameless characters in unidentified places; gradually they accumulate and fit together like the parts necessary to improvise a bomb. As one chapter dissolves into the next, boundaries of identity, image, religion, and mythology blur until the narrative comes to an end with the arrival of a familiar figure and familiar name. Cain is not, as some say, the “offspring of the serpent and the mother of all humanity” but a simple human born of man and woman: “the first to feel an empowering wrath flow in his veins” and “the first to say that it was he who owned, and that his was more valuable.” Kosiewicz is satisfied with nothing less than tracing the war back to its most primal origin.
Creating a cohesive novel through interlinked stories is a difficult trick for most writers (though just such a feat was consummately accomplished by Gilbert Sorrentino in “The Abyss of Human Illusion”). Although Kosiewicz frontloads each chapter with vivid enough details to quickly establish new character and new place, sometimes the drive of the narrative falters; in places this reader felt somewhat less compelled to push on to the end. No matter. The strength of Kosiewicz’s vision is rare enough to warrant a close and careful reading; even more rare is his temperament of sensitivity and bravery. (He is a veteran of the war of which he writes.) Ultimately, Kosiewicz achieves much in this minimal, sand storm of a novel that conveys all that is eternal in one specific, contemporary conflict. How Many Suns Burn Over Babel Where Poets Die is an achievement to be read and savored.