by Jessica Sequeira
Incomprehensible Lesson in versions by Anthony Howell
Fawzi Karim and Anthony Howell
Carcanet, 96 pp.
Things you do not know:
Not even you know what illumination you are seeking in the pubs of London, where the women lightly mock you. “To find solace in stupefaction / from the dregs of its dark wine / in the varnished dark of all its bars? / And so I have slept on the sidewalks of my maze.”
Not even you know if you truly identify with the vagabonds, scavengers by the Thames and solitary individuals whom you notice and describe in your search for compatriots. “Their exile seems a good deal worse than mine.”
Not even you know if you want this translation (or version of your self-translation) to forge you a new personality, cutting your lines in a different way, rendering everything in a key of tired elegance.
Things you know:
What irritate you are the star poets of the Arab world, Adonis and his ilk: the bestsellers, the headliners. “A book of poetry is no longer the standard in the evaluation of a poet. The festivals of poetry and access to the cultural media are what confer esteem to the poet, and put him or her under the spotlight, as far as the public at large are concerned.”
These others spout clichés while you are trying to find a myth, or make one. They are prehistory, or simply history, while you do not believe that history is what matters most.
You, of all people, can say this. “I see my country starving, / All the pollen floating away in the wind. / There, the palm trees might as well be gravestones / For those who cling on, / While those who migrate. / Are skeletons swinging on the line.”
Baghdad (1945) to Lebanon to London (—). “I returned to Baghdad, after the 2003 war, and after the end of the dictatorship. It dawned on my vividly that my time there had completely faded, leaving hardly a mark.”
Things your reader does not know:
Your translator, Anthony Howell, is also a poet. Why has he chosen to remain in the shadows, with no introduction or afterword to reveal how much he intervened, what changes he made? “Tossed into the folds of blue cold.”
What are you searching for? What divinity is this? “Here is the god, hunched over, blasted by time.” In what ways do you wish to seek, in what ways to create? You make reference to Gilgamesh but not deeply; you are interested in fragments of the present with tangential references to the old stories. “Severing words / from the things out of which they were born.”
This modesty is pleasant; it makes you interesting. “I have nothing to go on but hoof-prints.” You do not want to rehash the same slogans as the rest; you want to release new ashes into the wind, to make new treasures. “I hope to reach the sea as did my father, / to scatter proof of how we were.”
But what, exactly, lies behind the intensity of your decisions and the emphatic nature of your declarations? “I free myself of the past, that flightless pack / that weighs my shoulders down.”
And I have a question about the amulet for exile that you keep near your heart, or on your wrist. Do you believe that you made it with your own hands, or do you think that the stone came to earth in a comet, four billion years ago?
Things your reader knows:
I know sometimes things attract me because I cannot fully understand them. I cannot stop thinking about your book title What the Poetry is, but a Slip of the Tongue.
More things you do not know:
You are also attracted to things that you cannot fully understand, a coded language that is always just slightly out of grasp and indicative of the end, an image that stops time. You transform all of your visions into literature, in order to be able to turn the page on them, to forget. Moments of stillness, specific scenes like “The Isle of the Dead” in the version of Arnold Böcklin, accompanied by the music of Rachmaninoff, seduce you. “Trying to grasp the whole from the splinter.”
These are poems of the self, a turn toward not just the past but the deep past, the past of myth. “I prefer my own blurred reflection.” Loss results in a search. You are not in any hurry, and your writing is accompanied by a kind of lethargy that never completely arrives at a conclusion. “I came to London on the run from a nightmare (…) London finally brought with it the opportunity to read English, and this raised a window on the poetry of the whole world. So vast did this ocean of poetry appear that I sensed myself shrinking, until I became no more than the atom of Lucretius.”
Despite renouncing sensual poetry, women are everywhere in your writing. Mostly they are whores, dancers or lovers. You do not know what are you trying to find or figure out in their company. “And the answer comes that ‘home’ / is a catwalk between abysses, / And he who puts out to sea / Seeking another shore may lose the coast.’”
You were the one who painted the couple on the book’s cover. They do not touch, and their eyes are mere black points. They are not alone, and the hope always remains of the turquoise backdrop. Yet both are overwhelmed by the horror of existing. What is she thinking? “Darkness / Wobbles like a wagon’s lantern on a uneven road.”
You do not have that bourgeois desire for violence that pulls you from yourself and changes everything, orgies, paganism, the madness of Rimbaud. But for some reason that you do not know, neither do you want stability. “My feet, their clumsy wanderlust.”
More things you know:
The preface is well-written and clear, and spells out your ideas. “The poem is written from an ethical obsession not a political one. It belongs to myth, not history. The poem sings, but it is thought also.”
Current Arabic poetry is both too political and too sensual for you; you want to restore a metaphysical dimension, closer to the Persian, Indian and Chinese traditions. “In London, it is pre-Islamic poetry that takes hold of me and makes me thirsty. My lips crack, and therefore I anoint them.”
You want to vanish into inner poetic time, to be a “poet of the maze”, not knowing what you will say ahead of time but discovering it as you go along, interpreting signs. “The poets of the maze are few, and they live in the shadows, in the way that al Ma’arri used to live in the past, or as al Sayyab, al Brekan and Abdul Saboor exist in the present.”
You have experienced violence already and you know that now you want a woman made of not apricot-firm skin but words, not too rational, not too intelligent, at least until afterward. You know that the metaphysical and the physical can be connected through not just the senses, but through linguistic description.
Things you desire and fear:
You want to make your life a book with scorched edges that you can pass to someone else. This person will open and close it without noise, without drama. “You will never be able to put it down, this book.” A note of irony enters your voice, since for the reader the book is a distraction, while for you it is life: “You will read my poetry / And it will be your dwelling for a while.”
You are terrified, and who isn’t, of the end. You express this in a painterly key: “All we were is yellowed now, / powdered by the turmeric of death”; an understated key: “Already I’m a poet in my prime”; a feral key: “All too soon, the sharp-clawed hawk will snatch me.”
You have your moments of doubt. “Why put faith in any of these images?” You recognise that your decision to keep silent about the past is not avoidance, but survival. “And I have a date up ahead, / with the backstreets / of my childhood.”
But you are fascinated by the dream or legend that will someday incorporate you completely, the great banquet where you are just another diner.
Things your reader desires and fears:
From out the window, far below me and out of reach, I see a half-empty swimming pool. The untreated water is a clearish grey and about a metre high. A tennis ball floats and a dog circles and circles, trying to get at it. There is no set of stairs, no method of access. I wish that I could help him to reach it, to find happiness. But this is not possible, and he will be unable to fetch it himself until it floats towards him, perhaps, during the next rains.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira is a writer who lives in Chile.