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
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
even a little.
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:
Translation copyright: Youssef Rakha