Poets of the twenty-first century: 'moving out' of Arabic
Because this is the last installment in this commentary series, I allowed myself to exceed the word limit to which I held myself in earlier posts. I have shed light on stations in the Arabic prose poem project. Although the imagined thread I’ve been tracing doesn’t end here, this is where I will stop tracing it for now. Poets of earlier phases were more aware of themselves as writing against the grain of Arabic poetry in general and the earlier Arabic modernists in particular. The poets of the later phases do not have to make the same effort to breaking away. The prose poem which was a blatant announcement of rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s is now the form adopted by most young contemporary poets. The debates around form are no longer as pressing as they might have been before. The open space/text the prose poem has created in Arabic poetry now poses new questions and reveals new imperatives which inform the Arabic poetic endeavor in the twenty-first century.
Tracing a thread from Muhammad al-Maghut through Wadi‘ Sa‘ada to the third generation of prose poets reveals an Arabic poem whose investments are becoming exceedingly extralinguistic. The stakes of this generation’s poetry are outside the exercise of language, or rather the exercise of one language. Arabic is one medium for expressing poetic ideas or ideas about the poetic; it is not where the poetic impetus grounds itself.
This poetry is a disembodied poetry, released from the hold of language. It takes on adjectives such as universality, philosophical, transnational, migrant, and subsumes other languages and various registers of language, to communicate a mood or a state of mind that is not a product of language thinking of itself but rather precedes or bypasses the engagement with language all together.
For the Arab poets of the twenty-first century, the launching is a point of traffic between languages. Even if some of them only speak and write their mother tongue, it remains a language infiltrated by other languages at its most basic phases of acquisition. I describe their stance and posture towards the poetic engagement as exophonic, using the term metaphorically, to signal a degree of divestment from Arabic as a singular linguistic stratum.
The Palestinian (Lebanese-born) Samir Abu Hawwash (b. 1972) is one poet of his generation. He is a prolific writer with two novels and nine poetry collections. He has also translated and edited over forty translated works, by authors such as William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bokawski, and Ann Saxton among others.
Hawwash’s most recent collection This is Not the Way Pizza is Made (Al-Mutawassit, 2017) is not poetry as much as what can become poetry. The found phrases, words, quotations, conversations, passing thoughts become poetry by direction and orchestration. He arranges Google search results, recurrent conversations about weather, imitations of other writers and poets into poems. In the following piece titled “After Bob Dylan,” Abu Hawwash is not only suggesting to us that imitation, parody, and paying homage can pass as poetry in their own right, but also that the reading of others work carries in itself poetic potential. This here is his reading of or listening to Bob Dylan, framed as a poem:
After Bob Dylan
I saw a man pulling a house. He said he wanted to place it at the edge of the sea. I saw a beautiful limping woman dragging behind her a population of limping children, and barking words, and different levels of silence, all drawn by horses. I saw black plastic bags flying in the desert and a blond with long hair, raising her breast to God and weeping. I saw a friend who died in his sleep, smiling beyond the rain. I saw the rain too. I saw trains crash into bedrooms and shiny mirrors shattered by glances, and glances shattering by themselves. The boy in shorts was jumping up to touch a butterfly he thought was a cloud. Old black men were rehearsing their “rap,” constantly grinding their teeth. Philosophers were trying, in vain, to explain coconuts. I saw clay erect a tent and mud dig a secret dungeon. I saw the Sixties run towards me with open arms, on her shoulders two black crows cawing. I saw Happiness naked, jumping rope. I saw my grandmother swimming in a cup. I saw my father grow on a wall. I saw the Nineties, a kite melting in the fog.
One does not feel anxious about translating this poem out of Arabic. The setup which makes it a poem carries over. Written to be read in a different language or to be received outside language, translating a piece becomes the sincerest way of reading it.
The assumptions we usually make about the original text and the target text do not hold here. Translation as creative process is present in the make-up of the original from its earliest stages of inception.
Golan Haji (b. 1977) is another poet/translator from this generation. He is a Kurdish-Syrian poet, translator, and physician, currently based in Paris. He is the author of five books of poetry and an accomplished translator whose translations include works by Mark Strand, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alberto Manguel. With translator Stephen Watts, Haji co-translated a selection of his own poetry in a volume titled A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2017). He has also participated in a unique coauthoring project with Arab-American poet and translator Fady Joudah (b.1971).
In a sequence of poems included in Fady Joudah’s collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (Milkweed Editions, 2018), Haji and Joudah write poems together! They cothink or coimagine in Arabic but the poems are ultimately formulated in English by Joudah alone. Haji’s poem “In a Cemetery under a Solitary Walnut Tree that Crows,” is one of the poems in this sequence. The poem exists in earlier iterations, or rather on earlier planes of imagination, in Haji’s Arabic collection The Balance of Hurt (Al-Mutawassit, 2016):
بئر في مقبرة بعيدة
تحت شجرة جوز زرعها غراب
بئر حفرها مجنون بإبرة
تتأرجح باتجاه الورقة
مثل فانوس يهبط بئراً مطلية بكلس
.حبله في يد طفل
And, in an English version Haji cotranslated/coauthored with Stephen Watts in 2017:
A Well in a Distant Cemetery
Under a walnut tree planted by a raven
there’s a well that a madman dug with a needle
so that ink gushed forth.
The word was.
Swaying inward towards the page
like a lantern descending a white-washed well
Its rope in the hand of a child.
While the above English version remains guided by the Arabic, the version below, reimagined with Joudah, strays off. The poem is expanded, literally stretched out so that larger fissures appear in its body, cracks that reveal more than the “original” had initially communicated.
In a Cemetery under a Solitary Walnut Tree That Crows
had planted and whose seeds are hollow
I found a needle and with it
I dug a well
dug and dug until I struck ink
The needle wove fabric for bodies it had injected with song
I painted the well’s walls with quicklime and couldn’t climb out
There was sun there was moonlight that came into my sleep
I stored leaves and bark but rain washed away my words
A lantern came down on a rope that a girl held
I sent up the part of me that was light
“Every writing is a translation of some sort,” Haji declares; a statement many writers have made, especially regarding poetry. Here, however, in Haji and his generation’s stance vis-à-vis Arabic, it gains more urgency and pointedness. The Arabic of their poems is not an original anymore; it is only a previous translation of poems originally “imagined” multilingually. The partnership with Fady Joudah opens up the purview of Arabic poetry beyond the exercise of the language. Joudah is engaged in the Arabic poetic endeavor as much as other poets of this generation who write in Arabic. Joudah, Haji, Abu Hawwash, and others of their generation are the Arabic language’s readers, interlocuters, hunters, salvagers … They are its captives, its survivors, its deserters … its translators.
Circling back to the first installment in this series, if Unsi al-Haj had set out to write “a poem in Arabic, not an Arabic poem,” poets of this generation set out to imagine their different Arabics in other languages.