Taking Mesopotamia- a new collection by Jenny Lewis

From Oxford Poets/ Carcanet, March 2014

Tigris above Amara, 1916
Tigris above Amara, 1916

Taking Mesopotamia started with research into my father’s experience as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion, the South Wales Borderers in Mesopotamia-Iraq in WW1 and shows how the 2003 US/ UK invasion of Iraq grew out of British interests in Mesopotamia in WW1. The collection expresses the horror and despair ordinary people feel about war, seen especially from a woman’s point of view (as a mother and a daughter) and is underpinned by poems inspired by The Epic of Gilgamesh which use the narrative of hubris to structure the book. The book is illustrated with photographs taken in Mesopotamia by my father, 2nd Lt. T.C.Lewis. Arabic translations of 11 of the poems will be included in the book.

2.nd Lt. T.C. Lewis
2.nd Lt. T.C. Lewis


My face is made from yours –
your jaw, your weak right eye:
my shin bone’s from your leg,
shattered in the moonlight
as you supervised the digging
of the trench at Kut-al-Amara.

Years on, your long dead smile
watched us from walls, sideboards:
from our mother’s dressing table
casting a shadow round her heart
like your shadow in the album
as you pointed the camera

towards the Bridge of Boats
at Qurna, the army camp at Kut:
father, those splinters of bone
were your salvation, hard shards
from which I sprang with shared
ancestry, looking for you.

First published in The Oxonian Review, 2012

My father’s left leg was shattered by bullet while he was supervising the digging of a trench at Kut al Amara in January 1917, 150 yards from Turkish lines. He was invalided to India where he stayed for 18 months. Much later in his life, he met my mother and was nearly 50 when I was born. He died of a coronary thrombosis when I was a few months old.

Research at the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, South Wales Borderer’s Museum and through interviews and news monitoring.

War diary
War diary

The book took seven years of research, interviews, writing and translating to complete. The title is taken from Memories and Reflections by Lord Grey of Falloden, 1919 who said –

I think the best thing would be if, at the end of the war we could say we had taken and gained nothing. Taking Mesopotamia, for instance means spending millions on irrigation and development with no immediate return…keeping up a large army in an unfamiliar country and tackling every kind of tangled administrative question.

See here for more about Taking Mesopotamia including diary extracts, poems and quotes from peers

Lectures, seminars, creative writing workshops, talks and readings

Jenny and Adnar
Jenny and Adnan

I have been working closely with the Iraqi poet Adnan al Sayegh on a series of readings and lectures over the past six months including at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford during March/April 2013 (see here http://vimeo.com/62596630) and for PEN Oxford with Don Paterson. A pamphlet of poems, Now as Then: Mesopotamia-Iraq – was published by Mulfran Press in April 2013 facebook.com/pages/Mulfran-Press

A new collaboration between the Iraqi artist, Suad al Attar, Adnan and myself of poems, illustrations and translations from The Epic of Gilgamesh is forthcoming from Mulfran Press in May 2015. On 4 March 2014, we are giving a seminar and reading at Kellogg College, Oxford – ‘Victims of a Map: the poetry of war, exile and hope in Mesopotamia-Iraq’, and I shall be giving a talk and reading at the StAnza Festival shortly afterwards. We are repeating the programme of readings and creative writing workshops at the British Museum in March-April 2014, culminating with a performance in English and Arabic on 27 April 2014.

Jenny, Suad al Attar and Adnan al Sayegh at a meeting with the artist in London on 18 July.
Jenny, Suad al Attar and Adnan al Sayegh at a meeting with the artist in London on 18 July.

I am available for lectures, seminars, talks, creative writing workshops and readings either on my own or with Adnan al Sayegh which I should be happy to tailor to specific events.

jennyklewis@gmail.com / eleanor@carcanet.co.uk / okey@carcanet.co.uk