Nouri al-Jarrah
Nouri al-Jarrah
BOAT TO LESBOS

 

Elegy to The Daughters of Na’sh*


Translated by Camilo Gomez-Rivas

 

I saw lightning in the east

in a wink

then west

I saw the sun dripping

in its blood

and the sea agitated

and the past robbed of its books.

 

 

GREEK TABLET

(The Call of Sappho)

I

 

Suffering Syrians, beautiful Syrians, Syrian brothers fleeing death. You won’t reach the shores on rafts but will be born on beaches with the foam.

Lost gold dust you are, melted gold dust, scattered, dulled.

From abyss to abyss in the hollow of the sea of the Rum, with the star fish and her brother, the roving squid, the waves convey you under the light of Ursa Major, the Daughters of Na’sh.

• • •

Like mermaids born in the quivering light, beautiful Syrian women set tender, wounded soles on the rocks and grey sand of Lesbos.

Come down from the fruits of al-Sham

to the rocks of pain.

• • •

Brother Syrians, rolling on waves, killed on the beaches, feverish, gasping on dark shores with morning-like faces, here, in Lesbos that Troy made cry.

Come, let me kiss your cheeks, rosy with fear.

• • •

Come, friends. The sand of the shores gleaming in your eyes, the East rippling golden ears of wheat in the copper of your faces. Rise as the high mountains rose in your smooth cheeks. You swing in my mind as the poplars swung in the wind of your days and the apple blossoms scattered in the gale of your crossing. Come into the darkness of Lesbos, you Syrians who emerged from the broken tablet of the alphabet.

• • •

Come down, be the blood of light and the alphabet of language.

• • •

How, my child, did you not make it into my arms? How did the wave ebb away with you from me and leave you there on the shore of Izmir, an angel without wings?

We carried in skins the best wine from Lattakia. The best wine. Grapes in the boats of Cypriots, on the shoulders of sailors from Crete. Grapes from al-Sham, from Darayya, Douma, and Wadi al-Shamiyyat, sweet balm on their hands.

I sent my neighboring sisters carrying water. They took it to the beach and returned with a boy they said was sleeping. When they laid him out on the sheet we saw he had no face.

At dawn, I was turned inside out by thoughts of green and blue light. Cold waves carried the spoils of sailors and travelers drowned in a distant sea.

You fight for life on the boats, and the sea swallows you before you land in Lesbos, while I die in Sicily fleeing home. Don’t believe Poseidon or Ulysses’s ship. Don’t believe the letters and don’t believe the words. Nothing is left of Cadmus fleeing with his sister from Tyre in flames but shards on a boat.

 

 

VOICE

 

I escape death on death’s carriage

the sky casts me with ripped wings to flounder in my blood

and in

hers

I flounder

and all I gain is absence.

• • •

And now, in Damascus,

I have two images:

A fist smashes the door,

bleeding,

and an open forehead, knocking.

As if I were shrouded

in

what

I see

going into my fate.

 

 

VOICE

 

Is this the door to the house,

or are the shadow and I a door to the fantasy of the house?

The sun that was here

one day

on the down of youth

yesterday

and this door

a shadow standing

in the sun of my song.

 

 

VOICE

 

I return to open the door I shut

years ago,

I walk in a terrible emptiness

and the shadow that the house door gave as a gift to the sun

oscillates

in the shadow

and shatters

leaving my footprint soaked in the silence of my song.

 

 

VOICE

 

You want me in the clothes of a martyr

stretched out

in the water of your silence.

It’s your command

that I be

a flower

in the button hole of the shirt.

 

 

VOICE

 

Had I another fate

I’d go by no name

but the one you gave me

Oh Sham.

My little sister, you are

light

of the butterfly

in the winter of the world,

blood of history.

 

 

TABLET

II

 

In the constellation of Taurus I read my fortune,

I watched the bow that shot the arrow, as it passed the mysterious and hit the ankle of fate.

On the edge of the cliff

at the moment of the suicide’s cry

I waited for the Daughters of Na’sh to appear.

I saw shooting stars

falling

and thought the mail was for me.

• • •

On a dark terrace of yesterday’s surah,

I sat

ten nights

watching

but no caravan brought a companion

nor any bird brought back my message.

 

 

VOICE

 

Traveler in the dessert

my goal

is to get lost seeking the right path

and return from an eternity I imagined to a day on which no fruit perishes

or gold deteriorates.

 

 

VOICE

 

My blood doesn’t want me alive

my blood escapes me

leaks out of my veins

shows me my trembling

My blood fills my hand

it spatters the rocks and the windows and the trees.

My blood

doesn’t

want me

my love.

• • •

I’ll tell my mother

I, the one afraid

of the depth of my blood:

Why did you give birth to me inside this book and leave me wavering in my fate

growing

inside its cradle?

 

 

VOICE

 

I stand in the Umayyad courtyard

and flagellate myself with chains

and keep flagellating until no part of my body is without a wound that cries for Hussein.

With the sword Zulfiqar2 I bleed my skull.

Who am I?

• • •

In the Umayyad courtyard

finally

in the Umayyad courtyard

my body slices history in two

and allows the blade of the comedy to find the descendants of Muawiya and his son Yazid.

 

 

 

TABLET

III

 

Let’s walk under the silent sky whose tongue is stone

walk over the years

walk and walk and become habituated

walk and send words from tongue to tongue.

Let’s open the dictionary and greet the words

Let’s open the papers and read on their pages what the poets wrote.

Let’s walk barefoot on this silence, so no word is wounded.

• • •

Whose shirt is this, with the bloody collar

Whose jacket is this, on the peg

dripping blood

this footprint at the door

and this strange smell in the flower pots

the scream suspended in the sky of the house

Whose scream is it?

• • •

I’ll walk with you and with myself

hear my footsteps on the corniche

one step in the shadow and one in the injured light

the shattered light, frayed at the edges

those who crossed yesterday are ghosts wandering in the burning light.

 

 

VOICE

 

In see-through nature I make you walk, in thorny nature

inscrutable and frightening

death advances gradually over laughter

happiness

is an earring glittering and lighting the esplanade

cry of March

his shirt and forearms.

 



TABLET

IV

 

I was waiting for a letter from another city

I was waiting for the sun and the moon in separate letters

but shadowy figures, dusty figures, veiled your day

and dispersed.

But now it is a dead night in a drowned night

and the sun and the moon are dying brothers.

• • •

If you were the boy of my gaunt hand, if you were my drowsy eyes

Who’ve seen and lowered their look

I’d be the silence of your repose on the grass

You’d be the puzzlement of an instant.

• • •

Your day is fate crying

destiny

and your life is water in the night.

 

 

VOICE

 

Leave the thorns on the crown

and the wood wounded

Leave the linen wet

and the twilight baffled by the blood of the one stretched out.

Your voice in a sea shell

a light emitted from the terrace of the past, the rose at night.

Leave me the pebbles of the beach

and push forward

so I can see the sea

wave after wave

the sail on the sea as the scream of the drowned.

 

 

 

TABLET

V

 

Next week

the week that came but didn’t arrive

then arrived and found nowhere to sit

the week that

looks around

its shapeliness and demeanor triggering the craving of those waiting

I’ll sit with you on the bench in the garden.

That’s an old song.

• • •

I’ll sit with you in the garden and you’ll sit with me in my dream.

• • •

The garden I pulled from the book of things preserved sticks its tongue out at my little flower patch

forgotten in the corner of the picture.

My burnt little garden in burnt Gota of Damascus.

And Damascus is the terrace of Nimrod

a chasm in a body.

• • •

I’ll write to you, Damascus, imprisoned behind the sun, a torn book in your shackled hands, your forehead split open by a rider’s axe, blood screaming my name.

Blood that names me

and dies

My blood doesn’t want me

Oh Damascus.

 

 

VOICE

 

Thank you

Thanks to this sea

to sad Izmir

to the virgin wave

that bore me from my mother’s arms

to give me back the earth

for the earth, all earth, from this day, to be my grave.

• • •

Thank you,

Thanks to my gods who died on the ramparts

to Troy that burned

to the Greek ships

that didn’t see me.

• • •

Thanks to happy Europa

with the bracelets

that glittered for the teeth of slaves

her hands shackled by ideas

bleeding out

gold and silver.

• • •

Thanks to the people of beautiful Izmir

to the colorful fish and the quivering seaweed.

Thanks to the Asian gulfs that send me on biers on the waters

wrapped in my letter.

• • •

Thanks to the song of the singer

I have no face

for history to read its traces

or what Paul said to Peter

or what the exegete wrote in the margins of the massacre.

• • •

On the coast of the Aegean I saw my image clouded by others

I heard the gasping of the wave and the cry of the crab.

Thanks to the sea foam

to the flag

the jelly fish

and the squid.

Thanks to the sadness of the sand

on the shore under the sky of Troy

as the Greek ships sailed calmly on.

• • •

Thank you

Thanks to this silence

I heard the seaweed singing

to me

The bubbles snatching along with the laughter

at my old face.

Every face is a mask and every mask a lost soul.

 

 

TABLET

VI

 

And what if I had stayed that boy with the brown sandals and the yellow shirt and the sun in his words washed and pinned on a clothes-line.

What if I had lived sheltered with mothers filling the pitchers with mulberry juice and the corners of the house with whispers:

Let him sleep . . .

while the sisters listen and laugh

Was I going to live all that time, with an eye watching the world obliquely, the dark descending with axes.

• • •

How I renege in width and how I have fallen in height.

The television fills the house with images. My life is a silent reel.

• • •

Had I stayed, had I remained with myself, now, in the morning, in what night laid down in the house,

in the quick and the silent, the multiples and the units.

The heresy of the one who lay down in summer and dozed off and doesn’t know how to get up, or how to return.

Because I am here, in this pit, my hand numb, as if the entire world were in winter and I its single inhabitant.

 

 

VOICE

 

I won a strange day on the sea

I won the light of an idea

a thin thread

to follow

in the dim light of your room

and my idea

but lost what the evening said.

• • •

I won a sun in the shade

and a maze

a step in your day, a flower in your sleep.

• • •

I won your voice startling

a mountain goat

on the roof of my day

wounded like a sun brought down by an arrow.

• • •

Between distractions

I saw a drop of blood

drip

from a planet

and the arrow in the river’s heel.

 

 

VOICE

 

By your god, old stone,

By your god, oh moon, suspended from the depth of a pass

over the bay,

by God.

The ships aren’t visible from here

the breeze said

the banners were folded in secret.

By your god, oh dusk, wrested away to distraction

in flames

gods slept on the images of their dying heroes, the sleep of herders dozing in the sun.

By God.

Who strewed the walls with burning linen

and toppled the talisman with the blood of the virgin?

 

 

TABLET

VII

 

Goodbye adorned carriage

goodbye to the almond wood, to the Damascene mother-of-pearl in the almond wood,

to the wind and what it withered in the Antioch summer

to the virgin hiding behind her charm.

Goodbye to Damascene purity, to Syrian bashfulness so brash in its embroidery

to the handkerchief

in the virgin’s gasp.

Goodbye to the young peeking from high walls

and seeing fathers and brothers falling in tumult and shadow.

The gates close shut. Cawing vultures hover over the arches.

• • •

Goodbye to the blind man’s stare into the scent of oleander, to the shadows,

to the mulberry tree in the burning dew

to the waving of the cripple at the gate of the souk

Here charm dies in its sleep and youth withers in the light of the spear.

 

 

VOICE

 

I say goodbye to the north. Burnt citadels, crops left to the beasts of the wilderness,

villages behind hills lefts to vagrants

the blood of livestock spilled along the coast

for the soldier to march

with his sword.

Pity Syria, lost like an anthem torn by a wind storm

pity her children in their nightly chat

pity the thirst of girls, the pain of voice

pity my anthem

with

no

end.

 

 

VOICE

 

I came down from a mountain in Damascus

I came down

in the sun of Jupiter

and in the joy of the children I saw the laughing ribbons of blood

the city had no god to describe the smile of the crescent.

• • •

I came down into the skin

 

of the screamer

I made the stone speak your feminine name.

• • •

The plants on the marble arch in the sun’s cry

they too leaned down

and presented their offer to you.

• • •

The wish set the hour

and the traverser

pained the shade.

• • •

With hammer and chisel and a map of your back

I came down

Barada had no name, nor had illusion a lover.

• • •

And now, in the setting and darkening, in the slanting shadow, in the laughing, in the sun at the end of the day, in the water’s scream, in the coquetry of youth, the pages bleed and the words leak out along with nothingness – take me by the hand and let the breeze tousle my hair

let me see

what’s in the eyes

and let me ask

I’ll be capable of nothing but this silence

gift from my heart to what’s left of my step.

 

 

VOICE

 

And in another tablet, the fugitive said to the sea

leave me a handful of air inside a clock

a tower cracking in a beat

a strike of blind

luck

so I can be

on track every . . .

In what time has shed

and in what

never

was

neither in the north

nor in the south

nor in the true east, where the ibex’s blood darts.

The shadows spattered eternity in bloody sheets.

There a woman seer said what the one with closed eyes said to the sleeping woman

and what was painted in the picture

without pain

or words.

 

 

VOICE

 

I came down yesterday from the mountain

Cain wasn’t there

yet

nor the crow’s wing

Abel, heedless, was looking at himself in the river’s smile.

• • •

I came down the mountain, I came from the north,

the Euphrates was an idea

and so was the silt

and the traverser was, if only in the imagination of the listener, the idea of one sleeping in earth.

• • •

 

 

 

GREEK TABLET

(The Call of Sappho)

VIII

 

Dying Syrians, trembling on the shores. Syrians wandering across the earth. Don’t fill your pockets with dead earth. Leave that earth and don’t die. Die in metaphor not in reality. Let language bury you in its epithets. Don’t die and be buried in earth. The earth has no memory, just silence. Set sail in all directions. Win the tumult of your souls. And after the storm and the damage, rise in every language and every book and every appointed time and every imagination and surge in every territory and rise like the lightning in the trees.

 

London, summer 2015 – winter 2016

 

 

From the poet’s collection Qarib ila Lesbos,
published by Dar Al-Mutawassit, Milan 2016

 

 

Notes:

1 The Daughters of Na’sh, Banat Na’sh, is the name given in Arabic to a group of seven stars in the northern constellation known as Ursa Major (or, more commonly, al-Dubb al-Akbar, the Big Bear). In ancient Arabian mythology, Canopus killed Na’sh, and his orphaned seven daughters swore not to bury their father until they had taken their revenge on the killer, who fled to the southern hemisphere. The four virgin daughters are still carrying their father’s coffin, and the three other sisters follow them – the first pregnant, the second carrying her infant, and the third limping behind. (One of the English names of the group of seven stars is the Bear, but it is commonly called The Plough or The Big Dipper.)

2 “The One with the Vertebrae”, is the name of a sword believed to be one of the Prophet’s swords, given as a gift to Ali, the father of the martyred Hussein, whose death is marked every year by the Shia in a ritual alluded to in the poem.

 

Published in Banipal 57 – Syria in the Heart

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