The formalist: a ramble
Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm (A land isolated by sleep), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2007
Manzil al-ukht as-sughra (The little sister’s house), Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2009
The body confronts the world. It is alive, it comes forth, it has burst into consciousness. That is borne out when the senses operate, the brain processes perception. Instantly, objects take on meaning. Thus “The Truth About My Knee” from Manzil al-ukht as-sughra: It occurs to me at the height of darkness/To jump out of bed and smoke/But instead I place my knee on your back which like you is asleep/And thinks my knee is a dream/Get up/The eyes are more beautiful than the night you lock up in your head/Darkness is one thing/Night is another thing/Get up so you can see my knee in reality/Bent in walking and in the fancy of walking. Hence one of several possible prognoses of the moment of confrontation – the only one that interests me, really – in which the meaning that objects have taken on fits into some narrative of the self (an oversophisticated side-effect of language, arguably: this omnipresence of a self). As in the text just cited, translated from Arabic in full, meaning becomes the subject’s meaning, which the subject can formulate but only within a commonality of experience: a space – like Manzil al-ukht as-sughra, like Fleurs du mal, like The Illiad – where it can be shared, where it works with supposedly similar confrontations of the world: darkness, dream, back, eyes, night, knee. Inevitably – and this is the sad part – so long as it remains in language it will be shared through a finite set of abstractions, generalisations, signs or signals in a system so independent and predetermined it tends, in the act of communicating, to obscure what is being communicated. In the extremely short “Small Words” – Words so small/I can place between them/The fingers of my lover/And all my suspicions. – something complete is communicated but only against all odds. Inevitably – equally sad – meaning is shared in time; to be communicable at all, an experience must also be an occurrence which, however immediate- or recurrent-seeming, has already happened, has entered into some level of history; it has to have become part of the self doing the communicating. That is how it becomes fixed on the page. Even in the most dramatic or epic situation, by the time such fixing can happen, the moment has already passed; in its specificity, what is being talked about is irrevocably gone. The body, once the bearer – whether it has evicted that which it bears or not (yet), is either at rest, in suspension – or it is elsewhere. Nearly always, sleep has intervened; in one sense the perceived is already a monument or a relic, the perceiver dead. And this momentary cycle of birth and death, the bursting into consciousness of the body and the passing of the moment at which the body bursts, is all that an occurrence like the truth about a knee or fingers that may have touched another’s body amounts to in context, whether or not someone decides to talk about it once it has manifested to them. There is another text called “Harvests”, more striking for seeming to emerge directly from the body of the speaker with no “mental” intervention whatsoever: Stretched on my back/On my stomach/On my side/In all the directions that are painful when the floor is. And another (the title may be translated “Interrogating Noon”, but it literally means making noon utter: istintaaq adh-dhahirah), which is perhaps more telling: The world is clear at noon/No sound/No branch/No step/The sun alone wanders the earth/Leaving behind the silence/That follows every perfection/As if noon is its own mask. Nothing in the world can be more straightforward. A dynamic of contact and termination in, as it were, language-ready perception on the verge of becoming language: this could well be a definition for human consciousness itself. So far as poetry is a description or “embodiment” of that dynamic, then – and I am at last revealing what I’ve been thinking of since the start of this ramble: poetry as a very particular kind of utterance – that kind of utterance is ideationally nothing at all: a (non) experience of the world in language, neither cognitive nor emotive, neither information nor opinion (though perhaps, and to varying degrees, all of these things at once). By this definition, which is not only mine and the Lebanese poet Nazem Elsayed’s but, as adopted from mostly English and French writing through the 20th century, also that of the significant majority of Arabs interested in poetry in our times, metre and metaphor are both more or less extraneous to the poetic (with that last, quasi-Zen insertion of a name, I have just made my revelation more specific, incidentally: I am thinking of two short books by a Lebanese poet called Nazem Elsayed, who happens to be the 10th of 11 siblings, born to illiterate parents the year the civil war broke out, only months before I was born; and it is these two books that I am discussing and partially translating here). Along those lines it may not be insane to suggest that the liars, as Plato called poets, have conventionally misled us in at least two ways not in the realm of speech at large but within poetic territory itself as we think of it. They have made us picture things in terms of other things – the homeland in terms of the mother, for example – and they have fobbed our ears with drum beats, our sense of the subtlety of a statement with its in-your-face rhetorical ring; whereas in fact what they should have been doing was to bring the minutiae of perception, of the body’s multifarious connections with the world, into a shared space made possible by language, a language: a way, as Wittgenstein describes it, of picturing the world. Nazem Elsayed commits neither of the two sins in question, or he commits them both but with such originality that it seems as if he does not commit them at all, or else he does something altogether else that transcends them while they are being committed. The central and in more than one sense the eternal reference point for Arabic literature remains the Quran, which Elsayed learned by heart for some time as a child. But the Quran, like Plato, dismisses poets as hustlers followed only by al-ghawoun: the misguided, those who have lost their way (to truth). As perhaps the most classically rooted of his generation of liars, I should therefore point out that Elsayed was nonetheless among the ghawoun almost from birth. At school he performed badly at everything but Arabic; one out-of-touch teacher advised him to pursue higher education in Cairo, a centre of language learning no longer so central, as he eventually discovered from Egyptian newspapers. He started writing traditional verse at secondary school, learning the ‘aroud or metrical compendium of Al-Farahidi initially with help from an elder sister. Elsayed knew the Umawites and the great Abbassids by heart. He remembers picking up shrapnel and empty bullet shells to resell, he remembers showing talent as a footballer, but mostly he remembers his family’s orally transmitted verses and the long pre-Islamic classics known as al-mu’alaqat. The point at which he stopped reciting his work to Syrian migrant labour to whom his father would show him off because it was no longer classical enough to be appreciated marked a major early departure. Elsayed refers often to the zajal and the songs his parents recapitulated and listened to. He distinguishes between a folklore that was solely Lebanese and connected with small communities in Mount Lebanon, and the tarab – an appreciative term sometimes translated as enchantment – associated with the wider Arab world. Tarab is slower and more elaborate, more structurally challenging; he was always more interested in tarab. To arrive at what he calls a modern understanding of poetry, breaking free of the iron grip of the fuhoul (literally, studs) of the past, it took Elsayed some ten years of conflicts, debates and encounters, notably – in person – with the Sidon-based poet Hamza Abboud. He read the Egyptian Romantics and the Lebanese Mahjar poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammad Afifi Matar. He registered the influence, as he wryly points out, of “minority figures” like Youssef Al-Khal (Christian), Adonis (Alawite), Mohammad Al-Maghout (Ismaili). He took in Bassam Hajjar, Paul Chaoul, Wadie Saada, Mohammad Ali Shamseddin. Where Arabic was concerned, he initially thought of Abbas Baydoun and Shawqi Abi Shaqra as the apostate and the ignoramus, respectively, eventually to realise his mistake. Elsayed speaks of interest in language that made structure possible. He speaks of an intensity not of emotion but of cadence, a capacity for building, an awareness of language that is poetry. And this is why poetry is a name we feel justified in giving to the following, very strong passage (No. 3) from Ard ma’zulah bin-nawm, Elsayed’s book-length text about his father, a baker who died, as his son says, before he could overcome his fear of death, about growing up underprivileged in the constantly makeshift circumstances imposed by war, about war and poverty, poverty and knowledge, knowledge and the prospect of plenty, the slow discovery of the physical world, the preternatural wonder of things, but principally about his father. The wall suddenly. And the always smiling entrance to the building. And the pipes that raise the water in their thin frame. And the stairs that count the steps of ascenders. And the darkness of the first floor. And the myth of the last floor. And the circling, wound around like nostalgia. And the pavement that lies panting on both sides of the road. And people for the sake of people. And provincial malice. And they tell of the grandmother who went with her bones to the grave. And the boy who used to hate the night and now loves it. And once he thought night ascended from the head, the way morning comes out of the eyes. And the trees that scurry past like a herd of madmen. And the isolation of corners. And the solitude of pathways. And the frankness of roofs. And patience in the larynx. And the missing step. And the put-off step. And how walking repeats the feet. And the flaccid fist in the chest. And heavy bodies in the imagination. And burnt shadows on the floor. And miracles in the head. And abrupt whiteness. And silly whiteness. And the man progressing and falling down behind him. Land wherever he goes. And the drowned sea being more than one person drowned. And all those who are born suddenly and die at leisure. And his eyes which transport across the air without a face. And people seeing him through them. And they shining cheerfully like new shoes. And dying while open. And dying too late. And coming out of the face like a scream. By we (in the we that calls this passage poetry), I mean Elsayed, his publisher and I – never mind a coterie of appreciative commentators, never mind a readership that must exist – as well as a discursive space shared by, among many other parties, the Egyptian Generation of the Nineties: poets who wrote originally but not as it is sometimes thought unprecedentedly in prose, most of them only slightly older than Elsayed. Their vernacularly nuanced standard Arabic – as Egyptian as it is provocative – could not possibly have influenced him. Within a discursive space that includes them, I am saying, Elsayed stands out for his connection not with the English, French and eventually Arabic writing that informed contemporary practises but with a tradition of Arabic verse (to be distinguished, as such, from our particular kind of utterance) from which the Generation of the Nineties were eager, emphatically, to tear themselves. One cue to Elsayed would be to say he transports the aesthetic intricacies of that tradition into a relevant – urban, living – idiomatic space; but the interesting thing is the way he does that. In hadathah (a word used, confusingly, to denote both modernity and modernism) – in the theorising of Adonis, for example, or in the free verse movement also known as the modern poetry movement also known, by its innovative approach to rhythm, after the metric unit it depended on as the taf’ila poetry movement – tradition is present in undifferentiated chunks: in an overriding theme, in an abundance of references, in a mode of composition. This is both a cause and an effect of hadathah coming across as a compromise or a copout; and while it is counterbalanced by equally whole chunks of the modern or the then contemporary, tradition turns into an obstacle, a burden ideally or eventually to be rid of, like Eliot’s boring hanger-on. In the present two books, by contrast – the one a single poem, the other a collection of very many extremely short poems, reflecting tarab and folklore, respectively – tradition lives in the structure of the composition and the movement of the language, the writer’s understanding of structure as an original possibility inherent to a particular language. Tradition lies low and by so doing it energises and animates what is being uttered, Elsayed’s confrontation with the world; it hosts it in the way the skin hosts muscle and bone. As it turns out, once tradition becomes an organic constituent of the text as world view, as literary style, as mode of perception – this happens with varying degrees of success, of course – it renders hadathah irrelevant. There is no need for either theory or reference. There is no need for an overt position on the poetic, which Elsayed says makes its mark simply by being what it is. There is only poetry, or would-be poetry (a noble enough accomplishment). And there are all the questions that the text itself raises in its capacity as an interaction with the physical, not (like much of the early work of the Generation of the Nineties, for example) in its capacity as a response to the social. That is only one way of showing what Nazem Elsayed stands out for, but stand out – in however subdued and unpretentious a way – I think Nazem Elsayed does.
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha