Many of the poems draw on the regional poetic forms, including those of the ghazal, or love lyric, and the tarana, or ballad, but with modern-day accouterments such as drones and rocket-propelled grenades. One verse might read like a combat dispatch — "We hear the noise of steel birds above our heads" — while another evokes the timeless bewilderment of loss: "Everything has gone from the world / The world has become empty again."
The collection is at times uneven in tone, with occasional awkward passages interspersed with others of startling power and luminosity. Literary translation is often undertaken by accomplished poets; Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten instead relied on two Afghan translators whose working resumes include English- and Pashto-language renditions of legal, technical and medical documents.
"They aren't poets, but they have literary sensibilities, and this is part of their culture, where practically every time someone utters a sentence, there is some kind of metaphor involved," Kuehn said. "In Kandahar, we have friends who are poets who meet regularly, and we discussed the work with them, and with professors of Pashto. So we are happy with the level of skill."
Although many of the collection's themes are those of classic battle literature — courage and futility, wrath and pride — some of the verses seem timely in the waning days of a war from which the United States and its allies are now seeking to extricate themselves.
One poem obliquely parses the guest-and-host relationship, describing a "small house / I had from father and grandfather / in which I knew happiness." But then one day an outsider arrives, and everything changes.
"You came today," the final lines read. "Be careful not to return tomorrow."