Listening to the Arabic

To say that the transcendental is historically constituted amounts to saying that universality cannot be assigned to it; it is necessary to think of a particular transcendental. But after all, there is nothing more mysterious than what is collectively called a culture.  — Guy Lardeau, “L’histoire comme nuit de Walpurgis”

In such manner Guy Lardeau invites us to contemplate a contradiction – the particular transcendental. Contradiction, because one of the attributes of the transcendental is held to be its universal grounds. Contemplation, because that is what the mind does, at least one committed to both a cognitive process and a mode of thought that goes beyond the simply analytical. One concept that may occur to us here is “strategic transcendentalism”: one holds a condition to be transcendental or necessary to perception itself for specific political or tactical purposes. Another phenomenon that may come to mind here is that of the lyric poem: the lyric poem is a construct capable of maintaining equilibrium among contradictions and as such is singly able to accommodate the needs of such a slippery imperative (“negative capability”). Surely the allure of the poem is partly this, and the concomitant promise of mystery without belief. Our texts are the living evidence of an ethics of ambiguity.

I positioned the transcendental lyric in like manner in my essay from the 1990’s “A Flicker At The Edge Of Things.” Things here — “here” variously meaning in what passes for my mind, the room in which I sit and write, America, the shifting continents — flicker, and poetry is still the flicker at the edge. What the language needs at any given moment shifts. The more things change, the more things change. You can never put your river into the same flume twice, because that would already be water under the bridge, and so on and so forth. A fluid foundationalism is always sensitive.

The particularly violent moment that provoked a necessary literary response in the years I started CCP was the Western recoil against the Arab and Islamic worlds. “Orientalism,” so utterly exploited by European colonial powers and so carefully dissected and exposed by the late Edward Said, found a new bloom of its own in the Bush Administration’s version of what we are at war against in the Islamic world. Paid pundits speak of a “clash of civilizations.” The White Man’s burden, which was to civilize the native, was reconstituted as the necessity to bring democracy to those in the Middle East yet too primitive to know this sacred form of government. We know all too well what violence has been unleashed in our names on the basis of these and other related ideological precepts. At the edge of things we watched with horror. In 2001 Andrew Joron wrote in his “The Emergency of Poetry”: “What good is poetry at a time like this? It feels right to ask this question, and at the same time to resist the range of predictable answers, such as: Poetry is useless, therein lies its freedom. Or, poetry has the power to expose ideology; gives a voice to that which has been denied a voice; serves as a call to action; consoles and counsels; keeps the spirit alive.” For Joron, none of these functions suffice. There is only one function that was efficacious. That was the lament. “The lament, no less than anger, refuses to accept the fact of suffering. But while anger must possess the stimulus of a proximate cause – or else it eventually fades away – the lament has a universal cause, and rises undiminished through millennia of cultural mediation. Unlike anger, the lament survives translation into silence, into ruins.”

For me Joron’s lament is resonant, at least of one phase of our writing under the current imperative. The other phase has involved a working with language that might undermine the nauseating dichotomies that underpin the justification of Empire, the clash of civilizations, and the erosion of civil liberties. Poetry is language, and in poetry false dichotomies can best be dissolved, since the false dichotomies themselves are only frozen language.

In my own “Apple Anyone Sonnets” I set out to write a series of poems using only English words derived from Arabic. Later that seemed a further segregation, and I collaged those materials with Shakespeare cut ups and rewrites — the name “Shakespeare” conjuring up the conservative pride and core of “English” — and I kept doing this until I had the “Apple Anyone Sonnets.”

                         Apple Anyone 5


Why is it my words always touch this particular?

I stay afloat on language I’ve plucked from Sufi summer,

my trysts with words the same one wooed, mascared, talced.

Though the lute of a genii is as outdated as last year’s atlas,

though a belated troubadour sings of checkmate move by move,

yet no monumental rock shall outlast these our silly constructs:

that which glints brightly in such tariffed compositions

is a gazelle among orange groves, a mecca in the mouth.

Here comes a tabby whose scratch will leave a lasting mark,

or else a taffeta from a quarter of town recently hit by bombs,

or all the cotton ever picked, the laborious wizard enslaved inside you.

Why is it my words always touch this one particular?

As the sun is daily both bouncy and flat so we transact

only what we can minaret, darting among damasked ruins.


Sufi    mascara    talc   genii   atlas   troubadour   checkmate    tariff   gazelle    orange   mecca    tabby   taffeta   cotton   wizard    minaret    damask

Languages are interdependent, as are cultures. The texture of one can be raised up and felt in another. Some of the words I used later were discovered to be of Persian origin, or of contested origin. (As for example the word “mulatto”: of course the word “mulatto” would be of contested origin.) That isn’t the point. The point is the one Lardeau makes: there is nothing more mysterious than what is collectively called a culture. Robert Duncan’s observation (since confirmed by many medieval scholars) that the figure of Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy, presumably the very pinnacle of Christian literary art, is in fact drawn from Islamic Sufi sources, might also be offered as a particular material evidence of the strangely synthetic nature of all culture. Or else Ron Silliman, who writes: “the words are never our own. Rather, they are our own usages of a determinate coding passed down to us like all other products of civilization, organized into a single, capitalist, world economy. Questions of national language and those of genre parallel one another in that they primarily reflect positionality within the total, historical, social fact.”

If it is a privilege to be able to allow one’s brain to travel in thousands of directions all at once (and it is), then part of the responsibility of that privilege remains the imagination of positionality in relation to a proposed total grid, just as Silliman argues. Of course this move is dangerous, because it bears a structural resemblance to the imagination of Empire, in which all points are united or yoked into a single system, around a center. This danger is only heightened by the circumstance that “English” is the imperial language. Yet there is no backing away. Consider, then, the direction Kamau Brathwaite takes when exploring the possibilities of Caribbean poetry: “Nation language is the language that is influenced very strongly by the African model, the African aspect of our NewWorld/Caribbean heritage. English it may be in terms of its lexicon, but it is not English in terms of its syntax. And English it certainly is not in terms of its rhythm and timbre, its own sound explosions. In its contours, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, would be English to a greater or lesser degree.” (“History of the Voice.”)

Thus the work remains a question of defamiliarizing language as a natural condition, of allowing poetry, a language within a language, to open like a sluice, of changing the language from the inside, of being aware of the silence within words that allows for such liberating motion, of arriving at a new language by way of an exploration of the old. That is to say, American is a post-colonial language too. Individual consciousness liberates itself from the colonies English establishes within it by burning a new language within those very social cities so established by history. If the idea of the transcendental, which implies a detachment from the immediacy of the social, and the idea of the lyric, which implies an ecstatic upswell, still speak to us, it is because they allow us not a greater social mobility (obviously not!) but a mobility in the preconditions of the social, which are dialogue.

Let us resolve to think of transcendental mobility — as a mobile. The poem as a mobile of words and signs, dangled over the crib of the culture, as to stimulate the mind to imagine new combinations. Patriarchal poetry? Perhaps. Matriarchal intentionality? No doubt. Childhood, that deep alembic, crawls to maturity in floods of light. Names of fruit nourish unusual bits of unconscious truth. Attabi was a neighborhood in Baghdad where a certain kind of patterned tapestry was made. The word that named that neighborhood traveled to English as “tabby,” which became a kind of cat that bore a similar pattern in its fur. A tabby has wandered into the room just now. It is the ghost of my former pet. It stares at me blankly, its black nose still black, its expression as empty as when it was alive. That gaze is without meaning until I begin to write. Quite suddenly a real being is gazing back, not a ghost, not a cat either, but a being that overflows its name. A pair of eyes fill with signature and lament: broken, silent, resolute, voiced. They anticipate suns. The words are never just our own.

What this means for me is that one of the imperatives of CCP has been to sustain a conversation with poets writing in the Arabic world, or writing here in a way deeply informed by Arabic language and background. A key publication in that respect has been Banipal, a journal publishing Arabic Literature in translation based in the UK; editor Margaret OBank has appeared in #91 and #50, and co-editor Samuel Shimon on #238. When we haven't had a speaking language in common, it has meant we can still do readings together, the Arabic original followed by my reading of the translation. In that mode I have called and read with the extraordinary Gaza City poet Soumayo el-Sousi for shows #194 and #232, and the equally astonishing Tunisian poet Lamia Makadam #134 and Syrian poet Halla Mohammed (#230). Two of Mahmoud Darwish's translators have appeared on CCP to talk about their translations of the celebrated poet's work: Ibrahim Muhawi (#226) and Sinan Antoon (#189), and I’m only sorry the opportunity slipped through me to call Darwish before he passed away. The Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury appears on #106 to talk about his novel The Gate of the Sun; the Arab American journalist Asra Nomani appears in show #61; Palestinian-American poet Nathalie Handel appears in #21 to talk about the anthology she edited The Poetry of Arab Women. Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa read from his book on show #61, while Egyptian born Maged Zaher, who I wrote about several columns back, appears in shows #195, #91, as a guest host in show #81,  and, with Egyptian poet Mohammed Metwalli, in show #1. Michael Sells talks about his translations of Ibn Arabi  (#21); Victor Reinking talks about his translations of the Moroccan poet Abudallif Laabi in show #4 (it is true that  Laabi writes in French, not Arabic). Ammiel Alcalay's discussion of his classic book After Jews and Arabs is for me a crucial one to CCP's self-identity (#200). Although, obviously, neither Afghan nor Pakistani worlds are Arabic worlds I'm going to mention here Zohra Saed's appearence to discuss her anthology of Afghan-American writing by women One Story, Thirty Stories in #227, Afghan-American filmmaker and artist Lida Abdullah's appearence on #32, and the Pakistani-born British intellectual and novelist Tariq Ali, who appeared to discuss his book of essays Protocols for the Elders of Sodom for show #214.