Abdellatif Laâbi's 'In Praise of Defeat'
Archipelago books — maybe right now the finest US press truly turned toward and tuned in to the world beyond these Benighted States — has just released a gorgeous eight-hundred-page bilingual tome of the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi’s Selected Poems under the title In Praise of Defeat. The choice of poems is the author’s own, and the excellent translations from the French are by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Rather than “review” and laud the book here now, I’ll own up to the fact that it was my great pleasure to write a foreword for the book, which I’m reproducing here below. Enjoy, and then buy the book — don’t let the heft make you hesitate: the book — in Archipelago’s usual square format — rests well in the hand, is a pleasure to handle and read.
Abdellatif Laâbi : So many betweens!
I’m not the nomad
searches for the well
the sedentary has dug,
I drink little water
apart from the caravan.
In 1966 the great German-language poet Paul Celan, an exile living in Paris, France, called his new book of poems, to come out the following year, Atemwende, compounding the nouns for breath and change; that same year, a young Moroccan poet by the name of Abdellatif Laâbi (born in the city of Fez in 1942) called his newly founded magazine, Souffles, meaning “Breath” in the plural. I translated Celan’s title as Breathturn, i.e. a turning of, a change of, the breath. Something — poem, movement, event — that wants to bring real change, does, has to, take the breath away in order to effect this change and in the same movement, it — poem or event — gives new directions to one’s (next) breath – one’s pneuma, the systole/diastole that is the one certain way we know that we are alive. In Morocco, Laâbi and friends wanted and needed to draw many free, new and unsettling breaths, des souffles — and the magazine by that name indeed did just that and was immediately and has remained until today the great North African avant-garde poetry magazine of the period. In Paris, Mohamed Khair-Eddine showed me a copy just before I embarked for America in late 1967 and I realized immediately that if poetry in French was to be again of essential use it would need to be retooled there, in a Maghreb struggling to create itself as a new, independent, and revolutionary society, far away from a Parisian living on its pre-war modernisms. Souffles took one’s breath away, heralding the changes being made in Maghrebian poetry while proposing changes that needed to be made in the life of the people — that is, it could not but be a politically revolutionary magazine too. The absolute seriousness of Laâbi and his friends concerning this need for change, for an Atemwende at every level, did not escape the notice of the powers that be, and the magazine was eventually censored and in 1972 Laâbi was jailed, tortured, and submitted to all the humiliations a dictatorship will submit its opponents to. Abdellatif survived, kept writing poems, letters, prose, essays, producing a continuous and courageous witnessing to his and this society’s fate. In 1980 he was released and in 1985 he moved to Paris, France, where he still lives most of the time, in that permanent exile that seems to be the lot of so many of the century’s best poets and doers – a poet, from Greek “poesis” to make, to do, is or should be, and in Laâbi’s case is, indeed, a doer, an activist. In recent years he has been able to return and live part of the time in Morocco, though this is not without its dangers, as some painful misadventures two years ago prove.
Abdellatif Laâbi is without a doubt the major francophone voice in Moroccan poetry today. It may — and does, especially for some of the arabophone poets of the Maghreb and the Mashreq — bring up the question of why should a Moroccan author write in the colonial language after his country’s independence? The most forceful way I have heard this question answered is by the Algerian poet and novelist Kateb Yacine who, when asked by journalists after Algeria gained its independence in 1962 following an eight-year war, if he would now write in Arabic, responded: “We won the war. We’ll keep French as the spoils of war.” Kateb went on to say that for a Maghrebian to write in Arabic would simply be to submit to an earlier, if more acculturated, colonial domination, given that the autochthonous cultures are Berber with their own languages (Tamazight) and writing (Tifinak). Be that as it may, the multilingualism of the Maghreb has made for a very rich, multilayered tapestry of writing and, as I have shown elsewhere, it is exactly in those ex-colonies or ex-protectorates that an enriched French has made for a poetry more impressive than the relatively pale “metropolitan” version. Abdellatif Laâbi’s language is proof of this.
He writes with a quiet, unassuming elegance that holds and hides the violence any act of creation proposes. Every creation is of course a breaking apart, a making of fragments — making is breaking — something Laâbi states ab initio in his poem Forgotten Creation: “In the beginning was the cry / and already discord.” And this poem — as does most of his vast oeuvre — follows the movements of this cry, tracing its starts and stops, circling its essential enigma, descrying all the false mysteries and hopes and fantasies it gives rise to, despite itself. Creating itself, the poem learns that “where nothing is born / nothing changes,” and that eternity is but “an impenetrable jar / no magic will open.” But the poem, Laâbi insists, will get us inside this act of imaginative creation. It is exactly the processual nature of his poetics, demanding a close listening to both inside and outside worlds, and the will and courage to follow changing meanders as the outside historical situation and the personal ecology of the poet’s world evolve, at times clash, but always inform — taking careful account of both the “in” and the ‘“form” the word proposes — his work.
If the one constant in Laâbi’s life has been writing — in the early prison volume Between the Gag, the Poem he framed it thus: “Write, write, never stop” — it is however also clear that there has been an evolution throughout his writing career. The earlier work shows all the outward projective force and explosive power the discovery of revolutionary possibilities immediately succeeded by the experience of injustice, jail, and torture under a profoundly flawed and paranoid political system entails. The drive; jaggedness; mutilated syntax; dissociative, near-surreal, and explosive verse associating a sharply analyzed exterior world and an internal turmoil and questioning is not without reminding the reader of some of the writings of the American Beat poets: this is indeed a Maghrebi “Howl.” It is interesting to note, as Laâbi did on the occasion of a meeting earlier this year, that at that time he and the Souffles writers were unaware of the American poetry scene, and thus of the Beats and other “protest poetry” which they were to discover only some time later. They were however knowledgeable about avant-garde traditions in European and especially French poetry from Rimbaud on through the surrealists, and, given their political readings, of some of the Russian avant-garde and of poets such as Pablo Neruda and Nazim Hikmet.
If over the years Laâbi has also produced a range of prose works — from novels, memoirs, tales, and essays to plays and several volumes of interviews — poetry has clearly been the guiding light of his work. It is in following the changes the decades brought about in his poetics that we can trace Laâbi’s development, which has morphed from the early work described above to a quieter, lyrical voice — quieter, but in no way less searching, less demanding, less questing. The volumes of the last ten years may look deceptively simple at the level of their lyric line and language at quick glance (though the multi- or at least double-cultured metaphors remain often stunningly potent), but don’t pre-judge: this is in no way a self-satisfied Altenstil; this is, rather, the calm, easy-breathing simplicity of achieved yet always again questioned wisdom, after a life of struggle. Maybe one should think about Laâbi’s achievement here as Blakean, at the level of both poesis and lived life: it is the clarity of an innocence regained, with much exertion, after having gone through all the experience a human can take. It is the achieving of alchemical gold after many decades of labor in the double pelican of life and writing.
My own attraction to Laâbi’s work over the years has been rooted in my fascination for what I’ve come to call “betweeness,” that state of exile (voluntary or not), of one’s de facto multi-lingual (and thus non-linear) space in a post-colonial situation (and I’d argue that we all are post-colonials to some extent). Here is how he defined this space of betweenness some twenty years ago:
I truly feel myself located on this hinge of being between life and death … between a sun that is dying and another one whose rising has been confiscated, between two planets, two humanities that turn their backs to each other, between the feminine part in myself and my status as a male (which however has no desire to change gender), between two cultures that don’t stop misapprehending each other, two languages that speak themselves so continuously in my mouth that they make me stammer, between the madness of hope and despair’s just returns, between a country of origin that dribbles away and another country, an adopted one, that isn’t able to firm itself, between a “natural” tendency toward meditation and an irrepressible need for action, between belonging and non-belonging, nomadism and sedentariness … So many betweens!
And Laâbi, in his life and in his work, has shown us the elegance and graciousness it takes to accomplish this task. What it takes to reside in this betweenness is negative capability, i.e. (in Shelley’s word) “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For Laâbi that means, for example, to see the question of “identity” as something that is “more of a project than something acquired at birth.” Culturally and ideologically this is of great importance in his world — where the culture given at birth is a knot of religion and politics that cannot be untangled — and in which “identitarism is one of the oldest and most insidious forms of integrism,” which makes “voluntary servitude the price of belonging.”
What makes this path in-between so many in-betweens walkable, livable? How do these many doubleness not end up simply becoming a permissive fog in which one gets lost, voluntarily or involuntarily — or act outside the view of the world? Laâbi has been clear that his essential battle has been the one he fights against the hiatus between discourse and praxis, between thought and action, between the work — including that of poesis, of poetry — and the man. As he puts it: “For me ethics is the basis of politics as much as of literature or thinking.” It is this struggle, what he calls his “solitary-solidary struggle,” deeply committed, deeply political, yet situated outside any ideological system, a struggle toward the construction of an ethics able to equal the complexities of our world, that has been his compass.
The rest is poetry.
Pierre Joris, Brooklyn-Paris /May/June 2016