Nine Poems in English, Illustrated

Out of the blue, which is occasionally a beautiful blue, a reader of Kitab at Tughra gave me an unexpected and very dear gift: nine of my poems in English, beautifully translated. By way of gratitude and to celebrate, I spent the evening making black and white, square format pictures with the poems at the back of my mind – with the intention of producing one picture for each poem. I think of Sargon Boulus as, truly moved, I post these texts with thanks and acknowledgements to qisasukhra

***

The Angel of Death gives counsel to a bereaved parent

 

Barely a minute and you tread with dimmed eyes:

Is your patience exhausted in a minute?

Listen,

There is nothing in all the universe that will show you mercy

Nothing that will halt the saw’s stroke through your bones.

Sit a while

And do not tax me,

Don’t make your misfortune a plea to me

When you know

That I am under orders:

I bear on my shoulders Earth’s lamentations

A thousand times redoubled.

Do not assume that I possess the meaning of anything,

For when blood stains the asphalt

I see a dark blotch, nothing more,

Though I feel all that’s felt by you plus

All those like you.

I’m the one who keeps you company, moment by moment,

Unable to delight in your delight

Because I know your pain entire,

Even in your moments of acutest pleasure.

All I can promise you now

Is that when you look

You shall not find a trace of the dead one in the bed

And as a supplementary service from me,

You shall not find a bed in the room,

Indeed, there’ll be no room there,

And you will stand with nothing before you,

Nothing at all,

And all I ask in return?

Remember

That life is nothing but waiting for me,

Me, who grinds hearts utterly,

Not for a single moment spared

The sound of their beat.

 

 

Alexandria

 

For Mohab Nasr

All these years my friend

As though we’re here by mistake

Waiting until the roads clear

To drive unlicensed trucks

And face the border guards

With forced laughter and cash.

We dream of places that were they found

We’d be no good for, my friend,

Forced to mix with the statues

To swap their talk with them

To be jammed in among them

With frozen limbs, looking and not seeing,

Our heads bowed down at home

We excuse ourselves from going to the quarries

That we might try reproducing in secret,

Mourning our endangered line.

All these years plucking up the courage

To declare we are not statues

And then collapse in pieces from their plinths,

Dead with flattened heads,

With eyes bulging out like mother-of-pearl,

With holes in our bones.

How is it, my friend, after all these years

All we can utter is croaking?

 

The Angel (A god who renounced his faith)

 

You asked me what I would like to be in your eyes,

I said: God.

For a time I granted you favours and punished you.

Were you fleeing my grief, when you failed to tell me

That you had a cuckold Lord bestowing gifts upon you all the while?

How you could not accept my seal stamped on your brow

When you were so set on veneration?

And did you think creating you was such a little thing?

Son of a bitch,

Why let me plow when you meant to burn the fields?

 

 

The Angel (Your picture)

 

Sleep now, as though you’d never in your life occupied a frame,

As though your hands had never set even this picture in a frame,

As though they had not arranged cuttings that float

In an inch of water which you made a sea.

Not your crooked leg among the runners

Nor your teeth clamped on the shoulder that carries you,

Nor a victim, naturally: You’ve never in your life been a victim.

Sleep, despising those you call “coherent”,

Believing that your feet tread a path you forged.

Don’t for one moment ask about the handful of dust

You are wont to throw in the faces of those that call you to account,

Staggered by the abuse; how vulgar it was.

Forget that your air is not your own, that you breathe

With an army of respirators, that you

Are like the moneymen: every step calculated.

You are a beast in your strength; you’re in demand…

Your contemporaries really are spiteful: you are resplendent with tragedy

A pioneering presence on every screen.

Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty

That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.

Pay no mind to the frame you put around your picture

Nor that once you thought it ugly. Pay no mind

To the fact your picture was ugly, ugly

Enough—once you’d framed it—to burn.

 

 

Coffee on the way back from the airport

 

When the light blinded us, I said to you: Morning’s taken us by storm

And you were muttering, your eye to the glass.

You said: The day’s come much quicker than I expected.

You said: Here is bad, but there is worse;

No. Here is worse than there.

You said: Although I… Although she… Although all these things…

I’m optimistic, then noticed that your coffee

Was no longer crowned with steam.

You were muttering, like I was a mirror or tape recorder,

Just an old container

That traversed the distance with you

Your eye to the glass, from which the night departed

With sudden harshness.

In the 24-hour café:

Another departure hall? The seats on their heads

Legs in the air and your strained face giving out

The same feel as the empty furniture,

The furniture they flip to wash the floor.

You were exactly like the airport:

You did not want to be up at this hour

Where the chairs are flipped and the officers yawn, disgruntled

As they stamp the passports.

You said: How do places get smaller!

You said: How many stamps and visas in my passport?

How many meaningful journeys?

You said: Perhaps life’s more fun south of the equator.

This is how you were muttering when the light blinded us.

I said to you: Morning’s taken us by surprise it seems

And you said: The day’s come quicker than I expected,

Much quicker than I expected.

 

 

A homicide

 

This heavy lamp with the tapered rim

Like a medieval instrument of torture.

Have you seen it squatting innocently between our beds?

(Thus spoke my friend who is staying with me in the room

Where the sea sounds like cars on the Corniche

And in the weave of the blanket I’m sleeping on

The memory of a lifetime spent between Cairo and Alexandria

On the rails.)

I will wait until sleep overtakes you (he went on)

Then raise it high in the air above your head

(And I tried remembering

Why it was we had to take the last train

After nights of unjustified sleeplessness

So that no sooner did we reach our room

Than each lay down on his bed

And there was nothing in the world to warrant waking.)

I’ll wait until sleep overtakes you (he repeated)

And screaming the scream of a suicide bomber on the brink of the deed

Will relieve my hand of the lamp’s weight, over your head.

 

 

Stallion

 

For Ahmed Yamaani

 

A little before dawn I come out of the 24-hour café looking for a newspaper stand where I might find the magazine with my picture in it. I walk a long way through the pitch-dark streets and pass kiosks whose occupants I question, but I don’t find what I want. No one’s with me at the café: I left my laptop open on the table and in my bag hanging from the back of the chair are my house-keys and ID card. Even so, when a white taxi stops for me I get in next to the driver straight away and he drives the car down streets ablaze as if with daylight, though it’s nothing but the orange street lights that have proliferated to a terrifying extent. An hour or more goes by with neither of us speaking, then he stops in a place not pitch-black or ablaze and when I hand him the fare he opens his zipper and takes out his erect black cock. As though I had returned to the 24-hour café, I find myself in the midst of a group of young people, huddled in sixes or sevens around cars from which comes trance music, either talking to one another or standing silent. I feel they’re my friends, or that I’m one of them, but I’m surprised that we’re all males—not a girl or woman among us—and I recall that I haven’t seen a single woman, not in the café, not in the street, not even in my imagination. Then I catch sight of my bag, which has my house-keys and ID in it, on the shoulder of a munaqqaba who’s striding along on the other side of the street and the corner of the laptop’s poking out of the bag’s opening. I try catching up with the munaqqaba but she gets into a white taxi that stops for her and takes off and where I expect to see my picture in the magazine I find a picture of a naked girl who in no time is lying on the café’s table sighing, caressing my forehead, her cunt growing wet, as she says: “Isn’t it awful to be a man in this town?”

 

The claim

 

My thinnest girlfriends always complain

Of gaining weight, which confuses me

When I think of fat girls.

But then I remember

That I’ve never suffered from loving my lover,

Except when it provides a good excuse to leave her,

And I reflect that things are less important

Than they seem, if we look at them

Long-term,

Which eases my terror a little.

So I say to myself that the world is really like this:

The thin fear fat,

The fat love food,

Lovers never suffer for the right reasons

And everything does not ride

On everything.

 

Love (Marriage)

 

But you did not endure all this only to hear the terrible rap of a door closing and know how much you yearn to hide the thing before you, the awful thing that you don’t want to see. At this point, that which gives the world meaning becomes just part of the world, terror takes its own life and the same story ends or begins.

***

Poems by Youssef Rakha

Translations by qisasukhra.wordpress.com (The text may vary slightly on qisasukhra, but there is no such thing as a final draft)

Monaco Mini Exhibition-أغنى بلد في العالم

؏

ضِعتُ في طريق العودة من موقف عبود
قال لي سائق آخر وسط عطلة المرور: أنت الآنَ خارج القاهرة
كان له ملامح موظف أرشيف يطل وجهه مُضجِراً من أحد شبابيك المُجَمّع
الجوع في بطني ولا أشعر بغير الوهن
كانت الأبواق تدفعني بلا رحمة عكس وجهة بيتي إلى الأمام وكلما بلغت تقاطعاً وغيّرت وجهتي أنتهي إلى الطريق ذاته حيث السيارات مسرعة ولا أحد
عبرت “الزراعي” إلى “الصحراوي” وما زلت ذاهباً إلى الإسكندرية
بدأت السيارة تحذّرني من نفاد البنزين ولا “يوتيرن” في الأفق أو مضخة
وقبل أن يبدأ الارتجاف تذكرتُ موناكو
ذهبنا من نيس بلا سيارة وقال صديقي إن ثمة شيئاً كئيباً في محطات القطار: حتى هنا يا أخي
وكنا نركض
في محطة أغنى بلد في العالم
لنلحق قطاراً يعيدنا قبل أن نضطر إلى المبيت في المطر
لكن صديقي ليس هنا الآن ولا نيس ولا موناكو ولا حتى موقف “عبود” واللهاث ليس في الرئة ولكنْ في بطني حيث يجب أن أشعر بشيء آخر وأنا ثابت أرتجف
أضواء الطريق برتقالية وإذا وقفت السيارة فلن يأتي أحد لنجدتي

تحميل مجموعة يظهر ملاك


 

 

 

Please, God, give us books to read

A poem by Mohab Nasr

Somehow
I was a teacher;
somehow
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
books
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
books
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
books
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.
***

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?
***

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?
***

MOHAB NASR

Translation © Youssef Rakha


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Mohammed El Mazrouie: The angels fly

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—You were waiting there,

not parting from the threshold.

Neither night after night

nor morning after morning

could wipe off your eyes the elongated picture of a soul,

of the trunk of a soul.

—Did anyone drink from your mouth

except those mood swings

when the moon takes control of your body’s waters?

—You were smiling,

you were happy,

behaving like a child,

trying to stretch your head

to receive something… from me.

I

ignored you

as if I couldn’t see you.

I did not want to face your eyes

because your eyes asked a lot of questions.

You run

and (what no one sees)

your feet bump into animals

that scurry from your path.

Half of you is covered in wheat straw

and your soul is naked.

Mohammed El Mazrouie

Translated from Arabic by Youssef Rakha

How far is Mahmoud Abdelghani

A book picked up by coincidence leaves Youssef Rakha aquiver

How far is Don Quixote: the title reads much better in Arabic, but this – more or less – is what it means. The latest book by one of Morocco’s best respected prose poets, Mahmoud Abdelghani (b. 1967), Kam yab’ud Don Kishot (Beirut: Dar Al-Nahda, 2007) builds on three previous collections of poetry and a number of translations and critical theses (Abdelghani is a professor of Arabic literature in Rabat). But does the Don Quixote in the title have anything to do with Cervantes’ hero?

In common with the work of like-minded contemporaries across the Arab world – in Egypt the best known (amorphous) group is known as the Generation of the Nineties – it is a safe bet that the subject of Abdelghani’s poems is the poet himself: a central tenet of this decadent form in its Nineties incarnation is that it is, by however subtle or indirect a means, autobiographical; and Abdelghani seems to think of himself as Quixotic. Still, Abdelghani is too sophisticated to present himself directly as such; he relies, rather, on transference, and in so doing offers his own appropriately wispy take on what the Don might stand for in a poem from post-millennial north Africa: “Don Quixote slept… I saw him,/I thought I was the best to negotiate with him,/and cut deals…”

There is plenty of beauty in this work, but it is the ego-exploring dimension of a vaguely cyclical sequence of texts in a broader context of contemporary poetic discourse that makes it interesting. Here as elsewhere in the “impure” Arabic poem, the poet – a once heroic and exemplary figure who until recently spoke for more or less grand abstractions in more or less grandly rhythmic tones – reduces to self-revealing poetic matter: porous, unpretentious, subversive. In many cases this implies confession, hatred, the impassioned rejection of what status quo the poem might pit itself against or what remnants of the self might choose to align with a status quo.

When the poem sheds its surface musicality and ceases to exercise a sentimental pull, it falls prone not only to the “destructive” compulsions of confessional decadence but equally to the drive to exercise a certain kind of sapience.

In some Nineties work, the economy of means to which poets as a rule resort gives way to a fake pithiness, as if the poem’s function is not so much to distill experience as to pronounce on it. By placing the poet back on some kind of podium, however apparently low-key, this tendency immediately undermines both the poetic substance of the text itself and the central tenet of “impure” aesthetics.

In Abdelghani, somewhat atypically, what “impurity” implies is a loosely stylised sense of the real communicating not so much an emotion as an emotional charge: a mood or a perspective. This makes him very vulnerable to a position in which he might assume a wise or knowledgeable stance; what is surprising is how he avoids this entirely.

In “After a star or a thread” (translated here in full), for example, there is not a whiff of that kind of pithiness:

You followed me to the palace.

Did you follow me to the palace?

You were at the bottom of the pit,

did you read the novelists?

All their characters find guidance

in a star or a thread.

The ability of the star and the thread

regarding the lost thing

which they look for

in cities.

I will make the voice witness

when you follow me.

Of course, the question that then emerges is what such a poem means – perhaps semantic emptiness is the pitfall diametrically opposed to pithiness in Arabic prose poetry, even though it is rightly said that the poem does not have to mean anything – and, insofar as lack of meaning is a crime, Abdelghani is certainly guilty.

A more sympathetic reading would turn the palace and the pit, the star and the thread and the voice to be made witness, into a quasi-metaphorical system of (self) references where the speaker is really talking about the process of speech (one definition of poetry I like, which is applicable in particular to contemporary poetry, is that it is a mode of rediscovering language in intensely personal registers, of learning to speak). Together with the occasional Surrealist stroke – “and the imprisoned man/who waits for the dawn of things/is swept up by the sun/to my head,” for example – it is simply (but never exclusively) the process of writing, poetry being itself, that makes this book meaningful.

In “The Plum Tree”, Abdelghani comes close to expressing what his book attempts constantly to perform:

Poems are fair weapons,

said Jean Sénac.

But I don’t see people

baring them

even a little.

Poems,

all poems

do not have the appearance

of a tree branch

that a woodpecker only just left.

And so, perhaps the most Quixotic thing about Kam yab’ud Don Kishot is the way it shows just how Quixotic – but also how Quixotically inevitable – writing poetry is. Surely (and this, if anything, is what Abdelghani is saying) these poems at this time and in this place are as idealistic and unrealistic as the proverbial hero, but perhaps also as impassioned. Abdelghani demonstrates this at the deepest levels not only brilliantly but also very poignantly, and as he does he suggests that there are many ways of exploring the ego, many ways of recounting one’s own life. I would have liked to learn more about Abdelghani from this exquisite “autobiography” of his. But perhaps it has already told me enough:

Abdelghani writes.

 

Translation copyright: Youssef Rakha

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Sargon Boulus: Three Years Dead

sargon_Boulus (13)

Intrview by: Margaret Obank

Sargon Boulus has the rare experience of being an Arab poet who has been part of the American poetry scene since the late 1960s. Today he is passing this on to the new generation of young Arab poets through his poetry. For Sargon there is no prose poem, only free verse without metre, but throughout the Arab world there is no disagreement about his stature as a leading and important poet. He started publishing poetry and short stories in the 1961, contributing to Shi’r magazine in Beirut, of Yousif Al-Khal and Adonis the fundamental. When he went to the US, he was ‘lost’ to the Arab world until he re-emerged in the mid-80s with his Arrival in Where-City collection of poems.
His poems and translations have appeared in numerous Arab magazines and newspapers, including the poetry magazines and Mahmoud Darwish. Now in his early fifties, Sargon seems still to have all the energy and vibrant imagination of his youthful days in Iraq and Beirut.
Besides writing poems and short stories, Sargon is well known as an accomplished translator into Arabic of English and American poets such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden (he is soon to publish a complete anthology of his translations of Auden together with extensive notes and an introduction on Auden’s life), W. S. Merwin, Shakespeare, Shelley, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, John Ashbury, Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, John Logan, and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, Vasko Popa and Ho Chi Min.
Since the mid-80s, he has been on the move between San Francisco, Paris, London and Cologne and for the last year has lived in Schoppingen artists’ village in Germany, where I visited him in September. We spent a day under the Schoppingen sky eating, drinking and talking about his life, his childhood, discussing his views on poetic form and his endless experiments with the Arabic language. I leave him to tell his story.
I keep going back and forth into the past. The discovery which comes usually late is that most of the material that has made you and still works on you, even today, lies somewhere there, mostly in childhood, so that, in a way, I think that whatever happened to you in childhood, your circumstances, the place you lived in, the time, the happenings, these shape you up, especially if you are a poet, if you are a writer, and later on you would come back to this material and discover that that is your real capital. So I keep going, as I said, in these late poems back into that time, to shape them up anew, see them in a new way, kind of bracket in the perspective, tighten it and bring out the deepest possible meaning in those scenes and happenings and family background.

English lakes and lawns

Well, I was born in this small town of al-Habbaniya. It was all water – an artificial lake, built by the English I think – and I was born very close to the water. I think water is an important symbol to me even today and so I use it a lot. One of my first memories: I was sitting with my mother close to the water, where we had this kind of shack, small house, on the lake and we were just watching for hours and listening to the water and a sunset which still lingers in my mind, even the light, the shape of it, the form and the hues.
It is these small subtle details that can drive you along the path of your life, the rest of your life. Habbaniya was a small town and most of the Assyrians happened to live there because they were brought by the English. This is really important history for me because somehow I am involved with it, my bringing up and all that. In the twenties, I think, after the Assyrians were massacred in the north and the English took them over and put them under their protection, they moved from Henadi, which was a British air base, and brought to Habbaniya which became a military camp, a famous camp.
My father used to work for the English and one of my first and very cherished memories is when as a kid my father used to take me to the place of his work, which was a camp where only the English lived with the Iraqi workers (mostly Assyrian). We used to see these English ladies in summertime among their flowers and lawns, a totally different women from the women that I knew like my mother, my sisters and the other women in my family. Here was another type of image of humanity, let’s say, and I was like sneaking a view through the trees, from far away into these gardens. For me, I think now, that’s a vision of paradise, paradise meaning something very flowery, full of colour. I’ve even written about this somewhere, some lines in a poem. Of course I wasn’t aware at the time that they were occupying the country, I was too young.
So the making for me is very important, going back through memory, back into those details which never exist anywhere in anybody’s head except mine. And that’s what I count my small treasure, beautiful details of the world. I guess they shape up your taste in life – these things we are talking about, they make you who you are and as a poet, of course, they are very precious because what are you going to write in poetry except about the deepest things, except about delving into the far recesses of memory and through that making a vision of the world itself in every way. Yeah, childhood is very important to me.
After childhood, we moved from al-Habbaniya to Kirkuk, a city in the north totally different with almost no water. There is a river, Al-Qa’em, which has no water nine months of the year and suddenly floods the rest of the year. My latest book, being published in German and Arabic, is called Witnesses on the Shore (Shehood ala Al-Dhifaf) and is based on a poem about the flood of a river which is dead most of the time and suddenly it flares up and drowns the whole town. So from Habbaniya, from the lake to Kirkuk, a city that was dry and rocky with totally different people: mostly Turkomans, Turkish Mongolian people who have been there for thousands of years, and lived mostly in a very high stone castle. It has left such an impression on me, it’s like history is right there facing you every day.

I wrote so furiously

I started writing when I was 12: I published my first poem when I was 13 or 14 and since then I haven’t stopped. It just grabbed me this magic of words, of music. In the beginning I wrote so furiously; I have some notebooks from that time and I have noticed from the dates that on one day, for instance, I would write 5 or 6 poems, of course, short, violent ones, but 5 or 6 and that is a lot. So it was some kind of thing to do with destiny. Yes, I believe in that –in a poet’s case it is always true; that that magic, once it strikes you, you can never live without it. You always go back to that source to find out – how did this happen? Why did this thing happen to me? Why was I chosen, in fact, to see the world in this way, through words? My parents never went to school; all they knew was that I was scribbling all night, alone in my room on this paper, and my mother used to pity me and tell me as a young kid: “Why don’t you go and play? Why don’t you go to the movies? Why don’t you enjoy your youth? . . . Your eyes will be ruined!” Of course, I could never explain to her and she would never have understood. And even today, imagine – at this age, whenever I write a poem I go back to that feeling. I try to capture it.

Spirit and words

It’s like a magical drug of spirit and words. Arabic language really has that magic and once it reveals itself to you you are trapped. That’s why in Arabic they say “Adracat’hu hirfatu al-adab”, meaning “the profession of words has struck, he’s cursed”. At the same time I consider it a blessing as well as a curse, because today, if you ask me, I would say I want to do exactly as I have done. I want it all over again. I think that in poetry I have found something besides just pain and just nibbling at the bones of history.
Arab history, Assyrian history, Armenian history, all the peoples, all their languages poured into the Arabic language. The Arabic language is probably 70 per cent Syriac, Aramaic, even Sanskrit, and other languages, so there is no pure language in this sense. It happened to be the strongest so it pulled around itself, like a magnet, all the dying languages that had seen their day centuries ago. It was a powerful language that absorbed other languages. Even today I can tell you many words in which you will hear echoes of Assyrian, Hebrew, and much Syriac and Chaldean. You know, the Chaldeans had a tremendous civilisation after taking over Babylon from the Assyrians, their language was all over the Middle East.
So, when I write my poetry in Arabic, I tell you this – and it’s a secret between me and myself – sometimes I feel that I am really writing in all these languages, because I believe, finally, that any language contains all the dead memories of the races who contributed to it. When I am doing that I am delving in this great river. Like the great dictionary, Lisan Al-Arab (The Arab Tongue), it’s so huge, it’s more than 20 volumes, but most of it is dead because it is not used. However, the portion of the Arabic language that’s used today is incredibly alive; it is craving new developments, new versions of the reality which is changing all around it. So in a way we are using like five per cent of the dictionary because all those beautiful words, which are beautiful, lost their use, they were invented for another age.

Linguistic fundamentals

This brings us to something very important, even political and that is – writing is politics and in Arabic especially and specifically with the Arabic language. This battle over the Arabic language itself, it is a very sensitive thing, like no other language I know of because the Koran happens to be the source of the ultimate eloquence. Of course it’s not the source, because before it there was the language – fantastic and great – in the Jahili times, but it’s political in this sense, let’s say, not only the religious fundamentalists but the linguistic fundamentalists, too, are afraid of change. And that is what happens now. For instance, it happens only in the Arab world – the fight, the real war, about the forms of poetry.

The prose poem

In fact, till now, the prose poem is not accepted. They call it a prose poem. Why? Because the Koran suras are supposed to be written in the form of prose poems, so in a subconscious way these linguistic fundamentalists are feeling threatened by it and so we are looking at half a century whereby the prose poem is still considered like a kind of weird foreign body that’s forced itself into the Arabic language, although this form has proved itself finally. That’s one of the battles that a poet who writes in Arabic has to be involved in.
I’ll tell you, this is really crucial for anyone to understand when we talk about Arab poetry. There are three forms, three movements, starting with the great classic poetry which extends from before Islam, from the Jihalis, from Imr al Quais and the great ancient poets and then it extends even to the present – in fact the last great poet who wrote in that form died recently, Al-Jowahiri, and with him this thing is now totally buried and gone – there is no such thing we could compare it with in literature. A classic Arab poem is one which goes on for 50 to 1,000 lines and it has to maintain one strict rhyme, and there is no other thing like it in any other literature.
In the late 40s, a man called Al-Sayab in Iraq, came and suddenly, influenced by English poetry and mostly the romantics – by John Keats specifically, Shelley and of course Byron and Wordsworth, and finally Edith Sitwell, his main influence, tried something similar; and this means not free verse, not blank verse, but rhymed verse – but rhymed in variations, not just in one strict rhyme, three or four lines in the same tone, while maintaining the old metrics of the classic poetry. What happened was a revolution, an absolute revolution. Two thousand years of Arabic poetry was turned upside down. Many still kept writing, like Jawahiri, but it was finished, it was gone. At the same time, in America, the immigrant Arab poets like Gibran Kahlil Gibran, Rehani and the rest, who were influenced by Walt Whitman and the American free verse movement, wrote what we would call the prose poem, meaning no metrics, just a prose piece, blank verse, and so that one was attacked too – it was considered just prose.
Then a magazine called Shi’r (Poetry) came out in the late 50s established by Yousif Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut which carried this whole thing forward – a real giant step. Now these were people who had read the western canon, Adonis in French and Yousif Al-Khal in English. Compared to their contemporaries they were far advanced in their look toward poetry, towards Modernism, towards revolutionising poetry. Today, when you study Arabic poetry, Shi’r magazine stands at the heart of the matter. When I was in Kirkuk in 1961 I sent poems to Yousef Al-Khal, 16 poems, which were published, opening the magazine, and I was hailed in Al Nahar newspaper as a new discovery, a young poet – which was true, I was very young. And so Yousif Al-Khal and me started a correspondence and that is the start of my relationship with the magazine.

Sound and images

In fact, that decided my fate – the strong relationship with Beirut where I could publish things I could never dream of publishing in Iraq, which was strict and still did not accept the new poetry. You know, in Iraq there is a complete establishment of defenders of classic poetry, and I was a real revolutionary at that time. I wrote in metrics but in such a strange way – beyond Al-Sayab, beyond what was written then, no rhyme, just strict, almost Surrealistic sound and images but truly furious – the poems are still there. Well, I have never stopped, I published a lot in Shi’r magazine because as I say, Yousif Al-Khal and Adonis encouraged me so much, to a point where I’m dedicating the book I am working on right now (which is poems collected from the 70s to 80s) to them both. In a way, these people decided my fate. When I had this connection with the magazine I kept dreaming and, of course Beirut was there, behind the whole scene, behind the words. Beirut was for us a dream, a golden capital, especially in the 60s – it’s history now, after the war, after the ruins. Now I used to know Jabra Ibrahim Jabra in Baghdad, who worked for IPC, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, and who edited a company magazine, a nice literary magazine. I published poems in it because they paid and because Jabra was such a nice man. He had of course studied at Oxford and Cambridge and I loved to go there just to talk to him.
By then, I was reading like a madman – I had discovered the whole English language: my brother used to speak English and had a nice small library at home and my father of course spoke a little English because he worked for the English in the same way most Assyrians, I think, had some connections to it. Reading like that is what decided Me and a friend of mine, Jan Dammo, a beautiful poet found some English anthologies of poetry, sold on very cheaply on the streets of Baghdad. So we both started discovering the poets and what I didn’t completely understand, I imagined, and so my imagination was being sharpened. When you are very young your imagination is so alive, anything like that could fire it like in a crucible. I think those are the most important things in a poet’s life.

‘Your place is in Beirut’

One day Yousif Al-Khal came to Baghdad and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra called me to said: “Yousif Al-Khal is coming tomorrow and he wants to see you.” Well, I go to his house and meet the man who for me was truly not only an idol but an example of the true poet who went to the West and came back and established a magazine. He was a truly big name, a magical name with a great aura. He told me: “Your place is in Beirut. Come to Beirut. You are one of us.” And after two months I was in Beirut.
How I got to Beirut is a very long and interesting story. In ‘67 I was 22 or 23, the best age, perfect age for adventure, for cutting north, because you are afraid of nothing. No money! Nothing! You have to go! At the time, Jabra thought (poor guy, mercy on his soul), like anybody else, going by aeroplane, with a ticket and passport. He had no idea I had no ticket. In fact I had no money. I sold a few books and made about 44 dinars. And no passport of course! No-one would give me a passport!

Crossing the desert

Jabra gave me the manuscript of King Lear (his translation of it) to give to Yousif Al-Khal to be published – which I took for two months across desert. I crossed the desert to Hassaca and then to Homs and then to Damascus – and then to Beirut and that’s a tremendous adventure in my life. I’m still writing about it. It’s a very symbolic thing in the life of all the prophets and poets – what they call the dark night of the soul. Well, the desert you cross is like another world! Truly it was like that and I was living a vision. When I walked into Dar Al-Nahar publishing house in Beirut with the manuscript of King Lear in my hands, and saw Yousef Al-Khal sitting at his desk, it was like yesterday. He said: “I told you!” He looked like he was expecting me, it was incredible. I had crossed the desert on foot, with no suitcase, nothing, only a small bag with the manuscript of King Lear and some of my poems in a notebook I still have with me here today. This notebook is still the source of magic to me. It contains the poems I wrote when I was young, most of them not published. It has “Baghdad 1961” written on the cover, which is leather and indestructible, and I carry it everywhere with me, it’s like my magic icon. When I need a poem, when I’m dry, I just open that book and look at the paper and the lines, and it gives me the vision of that source.
My days in Beirut were divided between Yousif Al-Khal, the newspaper where Adonis worked, and the Horseshoe, that fantastic cafe in Beirut (which still exists!) where on an evening you’d have everybody, even international figures there like Samuel Beckett. I worked with Al-Nahar newspaper, and with Yousif Al-Khal on Shi’r magazine until I left in 1969 for America. Yousif Al Khal, especially, was thus involved in shaping my destiny.
Beirut at that time was at the peak of its golden time, that was the golden age of the Arabs, and there was really nothing like it now, no way. It was an open city and its beauty, its beaches like Long Beach enthralled us. We used to go there, Adonis, Yousif Al-Khal and I, with many other people. It was a gorgeous place, where bikinis were worn like on the Riviera. I lived there with my aunt, my father’s sister. But most of the time we were so wild, there were so many writers and poets, we’d never get home

Leaving Beirut . . .

But Beirut became too small for me. I had incredible dreams. After all I had come to Beirut with the idea of going to America – America was always in my mind, and the West. In the beginning, I started reading a book by Sherwood Anderson called Weinsberg, Ohio, it’s a classic of American fiction. And then of course, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with their fantastic, fabulous worlds that I could imagine. Whatever I read I imagine – it becomes absolutely visual. It becomes real! I even live it!
It is this dimension of my imagination has pulled me all my life. In fact, I’m here at this moment talking to you in Germany because of that. I do believe so! You see, I read Rilke and Hölderlin, and these great German poets and I always wanted to know Germany, to live there. And here we are, although I had to go to America first and it took me a while to fix things. However, before I could leave Beirut, they got me in jail in because I had no papers. One day I went to Shi’r magazine and Yousif Al-Khal said: “What’s this? There are secret police looking for you. What have you done?” But I never told him the story. I never told him that I had crossed the borders without papers. In fact, I started sleeping on the Rocha, the place where lovers jump from, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and in friends’ apartments. One day, when I was really sick of it all, I went to the police station. They put the handcuffs on me and told me: “We were looking for you!” I stayed in jail for a few days – it was full of Palestinians at the time as the Palestinian resistance movement was just starting and they were being caught at the borders. We became friends, we were about 300 in one room and they were all telling me their stories.

Out of jail to New York!

Ghada Al-Samman, who was a very powerful writer at the time, knew the Lebanese president, and through him she brought the captain of the jail in his pyjamas one midnight to release me, but there was one condition – I had to leave Lebanon, and either go back to Iraq or somewhere else. “Somewhere else!” I said.
Yousif Al-Khal helped me a lot. We went to the American Embassy and he told them about this young man who had translated two anthologies of American poetry in Shi’r magazine and introduced the beat generation of poets to Arab readers. He told the American Ambassador: “All you have to do is talk to this young man, just talk to him!”
So the Ambassador asked me about American literature. I started with Walt Whitman, and then came to the new names which the Ambassador had never heard of and probably will never hear of, and he said: “Enough! You got it.” So they gave me a paper, although I still had no passport.
That is how I got to New York. I borrowed $50 or $60 and went to New York without knowing anybody, no money, nothing, alone. Imagine that! I cannot believe even now, how I survived, nor how I got to San Francisco, which was my final destination because I had read and written about San Francisco before even seeing it. When I wrote about the Beat Generation in Shi’r, the introduction had to be about North Beach, San Francisco. When I finally got there, I discovered that all I had said was true, the way I had imagined it! And the hippies and the beats – well, I immediately joined, long hair, beads, the whole thing! When Yousif Al-Khal heard about me he said: “Sargon now is finished, lost completely, he’ll never come back.” His idea was that I would go to America and get educated, get a few PhDs or something and come back.
Etel Adnan helped me get from New York to San Francisco. I had met her one day at Shi’r magzine –this small sweet lady. She used to send her works to Yousif Al-Khal and I translated them. All her works published in Majellat Shi’r are translated by me although most of the time I didn’t put my name. She said: “Sargon, if you come to America, please come and see this beautiful town, San Raphael, where I live.” She sent me a ticket, and welcomed me at night with another lady and it was beautiful because Etel was a hippy. She thought she was Indian, in fact she is half Syrian, but she acted and thought like she was an Indian.

Alcatraz and the Indians

The first few days when I was there we sat in a famous cafe which is still there, called Buena Vista, it’s right on the bay and from it you can see Alcatraz jail, the famous prison. We were with some American Indians who were having a revolution there and trying to take over Alcatraz. Anyway, I joined the Indians with Etel Adnan. They were a dream for me. We had only seen them in movies when John Wayne used to kill a few thousands – I think in one go! On the screen the white cowboys shot them like flies, so we always felt pity for them. For me they were fabulous people, and here they were for real, in San Francisco, with feathers and blankets and beads. I was fascinated and made friends with many of them. The Indians were in real poor shape, they still are, they had some kind of vulnerability to alcohol of which the whites took full advantage, and many, men and women, were alcoholics. But I don’t blame them, do you, when you have your whole land taken away, the white man is taking over your land and he doesn’t want to give it back – they don’t want to give them that tiny rock. They beat the hell out of them and chased them out. Sure, at that time I was an Indian and felt like one.

Life in San Francisco

San Francisco is the centre of creativity in America, the centre of America. There is East Coast, New York, the publishing world, the business of literature and there is the West Coast, which is San Francisco and that is where all the new movements emerge from, always, even today, so there was the so-called San Francisco Renaissance, a tremendous movement with Kenneth Rexroth, whom I met, as master of ceremonies. Through him all the great poets of the beat generation came out, like Gary Snyder, and then Ginsberg, Kerouac, then Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I knew his daughter Mary, who became an exotic belly-dancer and was the girlfriend of a friend of mine, Gary Gach, a poet who still lives in San Francisco. We used to go and see Kenneth Rexroth, but on one condition – that you don’t say a word, he’s the one who talks. He was such a genius, such a man of knowledge. He’s an encyclopaedia. In fact he’s famous for reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover every two years – he’s an incredible man.
So San Francisco is the place of awareness because writers there are the most open. They are not like the New Yorker writer and poet, the sophisticated Europeanised type, the New Yorker. No, they are cosmopolitan. San Francisco is the city that is actually made up of all the cities in the world: You have Paris, you have London, you have Rome, and you have Berlin, in this city you have China. It is international and culture is absolutely open. I think for an artist, especially a poet, that is the city. I mean, I spent a quarter of a century, more, in San Francisco, never getting bored one minute – the readings, the fantastic trips, especially in the seventies and the eighties. It was the time for me, that is the thing that I treasure, the adventures, the open spirit, and then Berkeley which in the late sixties was THE place for revolution, for stopping the war in Vietnam. The first night I arrived in Berkeley, I saw a procession of students with candles singing against the war, to stop the war in Vietnam and what they were reading but the poems of Ho Chi Min, which I had just translated into Arabic and published in Dar Al-Nahar in Beirut. Prison Diary (Youmiat fi Sijin), it was my first book.
It was a great thing for me and in that procession I immediately made wild friendships with these students and for the first time with beautiful hippy girls, you know the ones with beads and flowing hair, with little kids. They took me with them and we lived on an abandoned ship in the bay, near San Sausalito, which is a city of the stars, the movie stars. The hippies lived in the harbour side by side with the yachts of these stars. This ship of ours was from the time of Mark Twain, you know the one with the crazy propellers and pedals, the paddle steamer. We had a juke box in it and a grill for making hamburgers. So, hippy girls, with their kids naked following them, making hamburgers and dancing to the music of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin – it was a dream, an incredible dream

This tremendous energy

The book I am working on right now is called If You Were Asleep in Noah’s Ark which is taken from two lines of poetry by Rumi, the great Persian mystic poet. He says: “If you were sleeping in Noah’s Ark, drunk,/ what do you care if the flood has come.” The book contains the poems I wrote in America exactly at this time we have been talking about. I had found out that all I knew about writing – before I came to America it was nothing – was unequal to the occasion, just techniques and ways of writing that couldn’t contain the tremendous energy I was living, so I started asking myself, how I’m gonna express this! In these violent poems in America I felt I was controlled by language, instead of me controlling the language. So I had to create this flowing rhythm, this mad flowing rhythm of language and then everything is being dragged by this fantastic current. Well, I’m reading the poems now and I feel that I’m analysing myself through them.
For me, from the start till now, writing poetry was and is a very crucial, very intimate thing and deeply connected with my inner making, my inner life. Otherwise, why would I write poetry, why not fiction, why not essays? I tried to invent new ways to force the Arab language to contain the tremendous flow of new information, of new realities, and I wrote these fabulous poems, which I am collecting right now, some of them are 25, 30 pages long. I’d never dare write a poem that long these days. I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t be bothered to publish any of these poems then. I thought no-one would publish them and so I lived immersed in this life and writing all this time, without publishing.

A Letter from Adonis

Well, one day an Assyrian lady from Beirut, Violet Yacoub, came to San Francisco, and she said: “I have a letter for you from somebody called Adonis.” “Adonis!” I said – it was like a bell ringing. This is in ‘72 or ‘73 and I was completely cut off from the Arab world. I read the letter, it is a beautiful letter and in it Adonis told me: “You are present among us, you are never absent, although you are not here and I want you to give me for Muwaqif [his magazine] all that you have, anything that you have.” I gave Adonis whatever I had and he published it all, in newspapers, in magazines, in Morocco, everywhere. Well, these poems came out and a lot of people have told me that probably they’re my best, in the sense that you can’t write things like that consciously, they just have to come out somehow.
My first collection, Al-Wasool ila Medinat ‘Ain [Arrival in Where City] is revolutionary in its style. Most of the poems were written in America and they were part of what I was trying to write about the absolutely modern situation, trying to capture it. After its publication in 1985, I started a different period and although these poems were published in ‘85, some had been written in the late 60s, 70s, 80s. I published a second book of poems in Morocco, which I wrote mainly in Greece. I tried to capture in it the Mediterranean feeling, which was why I called it Living by the Acropolis, and it is true I was living very near the Acropolis. Every day I would walk through the Acropolis, and climb there and walk through the Plaka, so the seas and scents, feelings and details are mostly Mediterranean.

Coming from Assyria . . .

Is there any influence in my work from my Assyrian background? Well, as a child I was writing in Arabic, although I have written certain things in Assyrian. But I soon realised that Assyrian is a very limited language in the sense of an audience. First of all, throughout the whole Middle East where Assyrians exist their language is suppressed – they don’t have schools, they don’t have magazines, they don’t have books, but almost secret societies. The first school I went to was in a church in al-Habbaniya where the priest used to teach us and I read Assyrian. It’s a beautiful language, it’s a great language and sometimes I feel like writing a fantastic elegy for the Assyrian language, how it’s dying and I’m seeing its death. But then I realised, when I was struck by the Arabic language, when the gift came to me, that all languages are really one. I mean, Arabic is almost like Assyrian to me, that’s strange, but it’s really true. For me the sound of Arabic is like some kind of cover for what’s beneath it – meaning all these ancient languages never really die. They are there. This might sound like an illusion but they are there, they are steamed up into Arabic and they are right there.
Of course, throughout the years I went and studied these things, I studied Turath, which is the classics of Arabic language. I found out that some of the greatest Arab poets were in fact Assyrians. They changed their names, they’re all in history. Emr Al-Quais was Assyrian and Nabi Al-Dhubiani, who was the poet of the kings, of the palace, was actually Assyrian. He was Monovesian, a kind of Christian at that time. Now who could be Christian in Iraq and not be Assyrian – either Assyrian, or Syriac or Chaldean, Assyrians considered all these people one. Then, Abu Tammam was Christian – he changed his name. Ibn Al-Abri, a great historian, is Ben Khafri in Assyrian, so he’s Assyrian. I can tell you hundreds of names like that. Ibn Ar-Ruhmi, he was in fact Greek and Christian. These things are facts in Arabic literature. So, the way I see it is that there is no such thing as pure Arabic literature. It all is from here and there, especially from Iraq and Syria where the tremendous movements of classic poetry took place, the revolutions of Abu Tammam in Syria and Al-Mutanabi in Iraq, these movements just dragged with them all the past of mixed origins, mixed languages, mixed knowledge, mixed terminology – and this past is all there in the poetry and the prose. I think that’s what most of the poets, throughout history, have done. They have done exactly that. Because what finally counts is not the language, it’s what the languages say.
In my books, particularly the last three, I have been doing exactly that. I’ve been putting in Assyrian phrases or sentences, such as “Shimmet baba bruna rukhet kutsha” (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost), sometimes without translating them. They’re obviously Assyrian, but not in the sense of being just Assyrian, that would be just chauvinistic. I want to make the language, which for me is the Arabic language, carry everything. I’m putting things from Robert Lowell, from Pavese, from Caesar Vellejo. For the first time I’m indicating that this Arabic language can take anything from the world. That is the point really, the rest is just details.
The language is not dead, it can take anything. As far as I know, no-one has done it before. They can’t, they don’t dare, and plus they can’t – as simple as that. It’s a matter of how to do it, and to do it right (not just to do it for the sake of doing it, no, that’s meaningless), but do it creatively. That way it’s necessary, it is contributing to the idea of poetry and the enrichment of the language.

Arabic is unexplored

For my own work, from my own experience of the language, I have been doing these experiments with the Arabic language for a very long time, in fact from the start, and I still feel that the Arabic language is material unexplored as yet. Let’s put it this way – it’s unmined. You know, it’s like raw material for me. I feel that this language could be extended endlessly into some new idiomatic formulations – which I’m doing all the time. Look, I have a series of poems which I have been publishing in London in Al-Hayat (The Life Arabic daily newspaper), which are translations but I don’t call them translations, I call them ”poems after the poet”.

The art of translation

I believe that the art of translation is to get into rewriting the text. For instance, I’ve published sonnets by Shakespeare, poems by Shelley rewritten into the modern idiom of Arabic, plus Haikus, Chinese poets like Po Chui-i, others plus Greek poets, classics – Sappho, all these came out through the years and they are still coming out. I am still doing experiments, in a sense. What I do is take the text and imagine how would it sound if it was written originally in Arabic. That’s the whole idea. That’s what I do. My imagination goes into the sound of it. How would an Arab poet write such a sense, write such emotion?
A sonnet by Shakespeare? What I discovered is that the power of the sonnets is in their flow – uninterrupted. In Arabic that is almost impossible. Why? Because of the line ends. They stand as obstacles to the flow.

The flow of breath

So what do I do? I establish a new kind of line, which is continuous and at the same time I do this in my own poetry. I’m working with sounds and I’m working with the line that extends into the other line non-stop to get the flow of breath. This has never been done in Arabic. Why? Because of the metrics.
So what am I doing? I am compressing the language in such a way that it takes the place of the old metrics. It would be another metrics, as did western poets such as Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes wrote what you can call syllabic poetry and before him Auden of course. Syllabic – it depends on the syllable.
Now I’ve talked about this many times in interviews in Arabic, but they can’t understand it. They don’t know what I’m really doing, so every critic who writes about me never mentions these things because they aren’t even aware of them. They don’t know the mechanics, the techniques, they just don’t know. When they do write – and they have written extensively about these books and poems of mine, they talk, of course, about the material and what I’m saying, but what I’m saying is not so important to me as HOW I am saying it. That’s the whole point.
The other major side of my activities is translation. Through translation I can penetrate and in fact I have heard, many, many echoes and reactions from people who have told me face to face, or by phone, or by letter that I’m striking something there.

A beautiful shock

At the Oman Festival in the summer I truly, personally, physically saw the reactions with my own eyes, heard them with my own ears. In such desert places like these small places in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Sharjah, even towns in the desert, I found people who knew my poems and are actually aware of what I am doing, people from a godforsaken village, in a desert. It was a shock to me, a beautiful shock.
Let me tell you something. Every poet, throughout their life, actually looks forward to something like that. It’s a fantastic moment. All these years that I have put in, thinking at the same time that no-one would be even aware of what I was doing (and it’s a fact that the damn critics are not), and suddenly you find a simple student somewhere who has been probing through your doings and your techniques and actually has grasped something of that thing that you have been trying to develop. For me it’s such a bliss, such a reward, in fact it’s the only reward. That’s enough for me. That’s the only reward a poet ever looks forward to.
When they tell me this modern poetry is too complex for this simple man, that’s all bullshit, it’s not true. Because who is this simple man? There is no such thing as a simple man, all human beings have their complications and inner depths. I believe this, and so when something touches them they know it, maybe by instinct, maybe by knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is intuitive. That’s what we’re talking about.

Arabic is always shy

When we say that about poetry in Arabic, we are talking about something very remarkable, very vitalising, because Arabic is a language that resists, a language of resistance. It’s like it’s being raped. It’s very true. Arabic is always shy, it’s a shy language. In fact, it’s a language which is almost virgin, even in its terminology. At the end of the 20th century – we’re gonna have the year 2000 very soon –Arabic language still doesn’t accept simple erotic words. They can’t name for instance the penis or the cunt, which in other literatures is just a very regular, natural thing to say.
We can’t say that in Arabic, so I try to build into the language the sense of being absolutely free and powerful in the way I handle the syllable, the meaning, the structure of the poem, of the sentence. Through that, I think you can say anything. In fact I tried to do that, you know, in the Oman Festival last summer and I put all that meaning into a few lines.
By insinuation you can do that, by sound – everybody knew what I was talking about. So I’m talking about all these things without mentioning the names. That’s how you can develop poetry – by insinuation, by sound. When I say certain sounds, the connotations are there. They know what I am talking about on another level, and that’s the mystery of poetry.
That’s why poetry is a unique language, completely separate from the language of fiction, essay, the regular prose. In poetry you can do that because every sound counts. And I’m doing that precise and very economic thing with language, with a language like Arabic which is always too full of decoration, unnecessary words and fat – linguistic fat. I’m cutting it like a butcher and I’m trying to show the bones behind the flesh and I think that’s something worth doing.
Yes, this is really mind-blowing. It is really hard. I spent nights and days thinking how, how to do it. How? What do you do as a poet, as a truly working poet, is do incredible endless experiments. And you do. Some of them fail. I’m not saying you succeed just like that, there is no such thing as that. Hundreds of them fail but one succeeds, and if, from 200 pages, you can get five pages that are good, then I consider it some kind of success. That’s the way.

A little bit of frustration

It’s long work, always thankless. After a while, after writing for 30 years, you feel a little bit of frustration because here is a whole world where idiots are taking over things and some rich sheikh or someone, with billions of dollars and oil can live such a fabulous life, and own all the papers and magazines and here is a poet sweating and labouring to advance the language. You know what that means, I think that is one of the most honourable missions in life, and they’re totally neglected, so sometimes a poet, if he gives up, he is really justified. But then you try to fight against despair.
We try all the different ways we can to push the wheel of poetry into the future, the real future in that sense. For me, that’s the true revolution – from inside. Not from outside. Not shouting, but working silently and seriously with such a prolonged effort from inside – and that’s how things are to me, that’s my belief, it’s what keeps me going in this fantastic solitude in Schöppingen.
Sometimes I find oases like this sweet small German village, or anywhere else in fact, just to pursue these fascinating, complex ideas of mine.

August 1997, Schöppingen, near Münster, Germany

سر المكان

معنى أن تغادر…

موضوع قد يستغرق الأبد.

أن تغادر المكان الذي ألفتَ زواياه كأنها في

خبايا فكرك انعطافات الحلم الذي لا يلوي على شيء –

المكان الذي سره أبداً لم يُستكشف، لأنه صار أليفاً وأنت

لن تقبل إلا بما لا تعرفه، قابلاً لما تعرف لكن عارفاً أن هناك

شيئاً خبيئاً وراء بابك، شيئاً لن تطاله الأضواء التي

لن تعرف سرها ولن تراها…

أن تغادر المكان الذي يلتف سره بالأحاجي

لأنه صار أليفاً، والأليف حين يُستكشف يُطرح جانباً في العادة؛

قد يحدث هذا، ذات يوم، عندما تركب قطاراً

إلى الريف أو المنفى:

أن تجد كل طريق، كل حقل، كل بيت

مغتسلاً برونق بهاء ليس سوى بعضاً من ترنّقه

في مرآة الترف: اللون، والشكل، زوايا التظليل، إطار المتعة

الباذخة في العين – حصان يرعى في المخيلة.

جسر يتجسد فوق ضفتين، ما وراء النظر

لكنك ترى في غفلة

ظله العابر.

وإذ تعبر بالبركة (في أية قرية!)

وتحجز في نظرتك الماء الساكن، وباحات البيوت

والقارب المقيّد بالحبل

إلى رصيف المرفأ، وتفكر، ولا تدري أنك فكرت إلا فيما بعد:

«كم ساكن هذا الظل وأسود في الماء»

فإنك تدرك، في الحال، أن المرأة الملفعة بعباءة

سوداء في الحديقة، تبكي لأن أحدهم أجبرها

على أن تقبل بالحقيقة.

ولستَ متأكداً إن كان هذا جزءً من الحلم، أو شهادة

سمعت تفاصيلها ذات مرة

لكنك تدري أن ما جاهدتَ أن تدريه في تلك اللحظة

شيء يمكن لك الآن، في عمرك هذا، أن تعرفه أكثر

لأن الخليقة وضعتك في هذا الموضع بالذات

حيث ترى، وتمتلك الرؤية.

إنك آنذاك، حين يتقمصك الوضوح، وتكون في

حال من فرط انجلائها، أنك لا تفكر حتى بأن تفكر:

آنذاك قد يحدث أن تحدس السر الذي لم تستكشف طواياه

في المكان الذي غادرته، ذلك الشيء الخبيء ما وراء أستار وأبواب

ذلك الشيء الذي لن تطاله الأنوار التي رأيتها في منامك.

تلك التي لم ترها سوى في منامك.

(نص قصيدة سركون بولص من «عظمة أخرى لكلب القبيلة»)

Obituary, The Guardian

Sargon Boulus

Iraqi poet who joined the Beat generation

In 1967 a penniless 23-year-old Iraqi, with no documentation, applied to the American embassy in Beirut for a visa to enter the US. A writer, he claimed an intimate knowledge of American poetry. He was called to meet the ambassador, who asked him about poetry. He started with Walt Whitman and referred to many contemporary Beat poets, of whom the ambassador had not heard. But he was impressed. “Enough!” he said, “you’ve got it.” The young man went to New York, and on to San Francisco, which became his home for the next 40 years.The young man was Sargon Boulus, who has died in Berlin aged 63, after some months of poor health.

Sargon was born in al-Habbaniyah, on the Euphrates in Iraq, to an Assyrian family. The British had provided the Assyrians, an ancient but threatened Christian sect, speaking its own Semitic language, with a safe haven near a military base. His family moved to Kirkuk, where Sargon had his secondary education. He started writing poetry aged 12. His first published poem came a year or two later since when, as he wrote, “I haven’t stopped. It just grabbed me, this magic of words, of music.”

It was an exciting time for Arabic poetry, with a rejection of classical forms that had held sway for a millennium and more. Beirut was the centre of experimental poetry, especially the magazine Shi’r (Poetry), edited by Yusuf al-Khal. When he was 17, Sargon sent some poems to Yusuf al-Khal that were immediately published. He was encouraged to go to Beirut and made the journey from Baghdad with no identification papers, avoiding public transport and official border posts. He was warmly welcomed by the innovative poets based in Beirut and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, gathering at the Horseshoe cafe with other writers, and writing for the newspaper al-Nahar. He was picked up by police as an illegal immigrant and jailed. Friends intervened and he applied, successfully, for entry to the US.

In San Francisco, he became part of the Beat generation. Sargon lived on the edge, running a Middle Eastern restaurant, writing and translating, demonstrating for native American rights and against the Vietnam war. He introduced Arab readers to Allen Ginsberg, Carl Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He became intoxicated by the classical English poets and translated Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as Shelley, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. At his death, he left uncompleted a major study and translation of the writings of WH Auden.

He wrote his own poetry, feeling savage about the limitations of Arabic and the upholders of formal classical traditions. He talked about “linguistic fundamentalists”. Arabic, thought Sargon, “is always too full of decoration, unnecessary words and fat – linguistic fat. I’m cutting it like a butcher and I’m trying to show the bones behind the flesh and I think that’s something worth doing.” He wrote poetry in Assyrian, Arabic and English.

He spent time in Athens and Germany, where Iraqi publisher Khalid al-Maaly helped promote his work. He was also a journalist and translated romantic novels into Arabic. From 1998 he was a consultant editor of Banipal, a London-based magazine of Arab literature, and a prolific contributor, translating a range of contemporary Arab poetry into clear and concise English.

Sargon worked hard, played hard and travelled hard. His last years were dogged by ill-health, but he was working and writing to the end. He is survived by his partner of several decades; she shares a name with film star Elke Sommer.

· Sargon Boulus, poet, born 1944; died October 22 2007

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