Stephen Watts reviews poetry in translation


Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone?

by Mahmoud Darwish

translated by Jeffrey Sacks

Archipelago Books, New York, 2006. 197pp, pbk, ISBN 0-9763950-1-0, $18.


Lebanon: Poems of Love and War

by Nadia Tuéni

ed. Christophe Ippolito trs. Samuel Hazo, Paul B. Kelley

Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2006. 122pp, pbk, ISBN 0-8156-0816-0, $14.95.

Co-published with Les Editions Dar An-Nahar in cooperation with The Nadia Tuéni Foundation


Born Threatened With Life



Mahmoud Darwish is the most widely translated contemporary Arabic poet and in a number of senses: in terms of books published, in terms of the period of time over which translations have appeared (they have done so regularly since the 1960s) and in terms of the number and range of voice of his translators. All told there have been fifteen separate books and chapbooks in English, not to mention appearances in anthologies, and since the year 2000 four books have appeared in the USA from both University and independent literary presses.

His translators and co-translators have included Denys Johnson-Davies, Rana Kabbani, Abdullah al-Udhari, Munir Akash, Carolyn Forché, Jeffrey Sacks, Ibrahim Muhawi, Stephen Kessler and Ben Bennani, although he’s not had a separate book in the UK since 1973.

Darwish published Limadha tarakta al-hisan wahidan in 1995 and its bilingual publication here by Archipelago is a complete edition of the text. Archipelago also, incidentally, publish translations of Witold Gombrowicz, Julio Cortázar, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Robert Musil, Marguerite Duras, Henri Michaux and Elias Khoury, so Darwish is in good and interesting company. A book-length poem – in this it is like other long poems and sequences by Darwish and resonates with other long poems in contemporary Arabic poetry – Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone ? is in six sections, each subdivided into 6/5/6/6/5/4 individual poems: there is therefore an implicit music in the poem’s very structure. If in his earlier poetry Darwish introduced “liminal travellers”, such as al-Mutanabbi, in Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone? the poet himself becomes the traveller who knows absence by absence, the one who is liminally but emphatically placed within our lives. It is Darwish now who makes of himself the space between: and in that space, like al-Mutanabbi (or Imrul al-Qays), Darwish confronts political power with poetry. This is not an easy achievement, but it is an essential one.

In this confrontation Darwish points his readers to the possibilities of a different existence through the trauma of distinct absences: “ – Why did you leave the horse alone?/ – To keep the house company, my son/Houses die when their inhabitants are gone …”. And he returns poetry to one of its real homes, the lyric place where we both are and aren’t. There is a return in this long poem to concerns and motifs from his earlier work – to the testimony of the sacrificed singer, to the stranger in the house, to the Psalms (echoing his book of that name), to memory and forgetfulness (echoing one of his prose memoirs).

But what Darwish achieves in the sequence of ‘Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone?’ is something new: the extended autobiography now be-comes Palestine and, as Elias Khoury says, “becomes the map of the human soul”. The harshness of the loss of memory, home and mind is both terrible and great. The lyricism of the poem is deeply cultural, in ways that much English lyric poetry has long drifted away from or has never managed to be, and this cultural lyricism is key to understanding the range and qualities of the poem.

Already in the poem that is prologue to the whole sequence Darwish sets out his intentions: apart from the immediate presence of al-Mutanabbi, the poet “looking out like a balcony” asks “Is there a new prophet/for this new time?” and “What would happen, were I to return /to childhood?” But he is also immediately capable of the straitened tenderness of “I look out on a woman sunbathing within herself …”, of mentioning both Tagore and Aeschylus, of invoking metaphysics amid the realities, and of ending this first poem – as a survival of betrayed memory – with “I look out on my ghost/coming /from/a distance …” Throughout the poem that ghost (and its double), memory, landscape, metaphysics and language become his country, become “what lies between a between”, inhibiting the return promised by the father at the poem’s outset.

If memory and loss are embedded in the narrative of the poem, Darwish’s mother is at its heart – “She’ll be able to joke with me/whenever salt touches my blood. She’ll be able/to comfort me whenever a nightingale bites my mouth!” – able to root him with his country’s past in ways his father almost can’t. But the most intense and I’m tempted to say ‘real’ language of the poem pours forth when tropes of the ghost or double come from the poet’s mouth. Superbly real antinomies such as “There’s salt rising from the sea/There’s sea rising from the salt”, “Descend, so I’ll rise. Rise/so I’ll descend. Oh sparrow ! Give me light’s/bell” or even “I know what the dove says when it lays an egg on the mouth of a gun” give the poem greatness. The poet then becomes the poem and the poem becomes his country’s memory : “I don’t know the desert/But I planted words at its edges.”

Through the length of the poem Darwish is able to interleaf and cross-relate and round off many intricate references and it is very important to be able to read the complete poem in one book. Thus it is like a contemporary piece of great classical music: moving, intense, open-ended, tragic and complete – at once, culturally many and spiritually acute.

A number of individual poems have been translated before and indeed 17 of the 33 were included in Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’s 2003 selection of Darwish’s poems Unfortunately It Was Paradise. The slightly earlier Adam Of Two Edens also includes seven poems from Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone?. But the new translations by Jeffrey Sacks of the complete text are supple and translucent, ably conveying both the complexity and clarity of Darwish’s work, his narrative and his subtlety. The translations are never too wordy and their lyricism is clean.

And this is also an elegant edition, made with clarity and perception. My only reservation is the lack of an introduction to provide a context for the intense lyricism of the book or of notes to provide wider access of the detail in English. But perhaps this is shy of me: after all it is a bilingual edition and will be read and used by many readers well-cognisant of the contexts. And in the proper zones of contemporary English poetry, some understanding of the realities and traumas of Palestinian lives ought to be a given, ought to be there already and not have to be pulled out from some space of unknowing or dispute.

At first sight the bilingual edition of Nadia Tuéni’s Liban: Poèmes d’amour et de guerre bears few comparisons with Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone? either as a translated text or as a book. Both are bilingual for sure, but Tuéni’s of course has her French original, both are very recently published in North America, but one from an academic press and one from a ‘fine literature’ one.

Tuéni was a Lebanese poet from a Druze tradition, a poet who owed much to Gibran and to the changes in poetics established by Adonis, to the traditions of French surrealism, to the poetry of Andrée Chedid and Salah Stetié. In her poetry Nadia Tuéni was very much a Lebanese woman and – though she was born in 1935, seven years before Darwish in fact – she died almost twenty-five years ago, and her work translated here thus both reflects the earlier part of an abrupted life and also the late work of a mature poet at one and the same time.

As a text ‘Liban … /Lebanon …’ comes with a weighty baggage, a substantial introduction from the editor and two post-face essays as well as a biography of the poet. And yet the two books show similarities that go beyond their seeming differences, and share a timeliness in the face of contemporary power struggles in both Palestine and Lebanon – similarities that go deep into the language of their poetry and the identification within each book of personal poetry within a savaged space.

Nadia Tuéni’s book consists of the complete bilingual text of Liban: Vingt poèmes pour un amour (1979) followed by a selection from Archives sentimentales d’une guerre au Liban (1982). It is worth noting, particularly as the translators engage in different approaches to their work, that the two sections are translated by different translators working quite separately. Lebanon: Twenty Poems For One Love is translated by the poet Samuel Hazo with some, often very appropriate, freedoms from the literal, while the poems from Sentimental Archives of a War in Lebanon are the work of Paul B. Kelley and tend to be more literal. In the balance of the book this does not jar, in fact in a strange way it improves or expands it: here the work of the editor is vital and there is a good sense in which this is also his book.

Samuel Hazo’s achievements as a translator are strong: “fountaining water” for “comme l’eau des fontaines”, “his shadow sparrow-hopping behind him” for “son ombre sautille comme un gros moineau”, the deftness of “the sourcing sun”, the translation of the thrice repeated “chatoie comme une fête” first as “gleams like a festival”, then as “gleams like a feast day” and finally as “gleams like a feast” which gives to the English just the buoyancy and air that the translation requires and that the original already has: there are many such felicities in his translation.

Kelley’s language is more straightforward, less risking, paradoxically perhaps because the French of Archives sentimentales is more intricate than that of Liban: Vingt poèmes: his translation risks less and adheres to the meanings. Or to put it another way, Hazo’s risks open out the English while Kelley’s risk-control keeps the intricate text of Archives from becoming too loose or frayed in English. It maybe goes to show that different strategies of translation have to be adopted to achieve equivalence, though I would love to see a riskier translation of Archives sparkling with energy and sap. Unlike Pablo Neruda’s similarly titled but much earlier Twenty Love Poems & A Song Of Despair, Tuéni’s poems of love in Liban: Vingt poèmes are not to the individual and erotic body but rather to her country as body and beloved place; but as in Neruda’s book, Tuéni has sustained a tone of language throughout, in her case a heightened one, its colours unexpectedly sky-bright, its tenor high.

It has a contained language of beauty that however does not thereby betray her or its political and human pain. Throughout Liban: Vingt poèmes her own language (I am quoting just the English for reasons of space) evokes calm in the face of pain and hurt memory: “You have a savage tenderness/…
/ You last in the breath of time,/in the musk of orange trees” or “with basil at your every window/you still know that living is the worst passion of all.” She names, and writes about, the places of Lebanon – cities, towns and villages, trees and mountains – with a truly tender yet sanguine language: of Tripoli “It is where the orange tree inherits history”, of the Lebanese Mountains “remember – a town on a sheer cliff/set like a tear on the rim of an eyelid” or the Bekaa where it is as if “a flight of seagulls/has landed in acacias,/or is it a white steamship/in a slumber of poppies.” In a way it is deceptive to cherry-pick extracts since each of the twenty poems holds its own in calm wholeness and linguistic beauty.

Archives Sentimentales
is not, for some reason, given in its totality, with only about half of the forty poems included. Like Liban: Vingt poèmes, the sequence was written towards the end of the period of the Lebanese Civil War and when Tuéni had been fighting her own cancer for over fifteen years. Archives was the last of her books published in her lifetime and its language has a greater complexity and brittleness, is more broken and sharper than Liban: Vingt poèmes. Again it is deceptive to quote extracts when whole poems speak so clearly, but the tone of the sequence might be sensed from some of the individual endings “the land has died of beauty/killed by a burst of laughter”, “Listen./There lie on your shadow paths of tranquillity./Absolute.”, “So in the heat of the sun/I die of incoherence/in bursts”.

Late poems from the sequence state explicitly her concerns : “Was I born of a lie/in a country that did not exist?” or “We are born threatened with life,/and remain so,/until from us jointly,/life and threat depart” or “If death is not contemporaneous with madness,/who shall tell of the terror of blood relations,/reduced to nothing more than hordes,/where the winds meet?” These poems are more stark and broken, refer more, and more directly, to the daily realities of war and to the poet’s own impending death, and were written at a time when both she and her country were experiencing dying: yet they are also poems holding extraordinary warmth in the themes of love and life.

Tuéni’s two poem-sequences, written in 1979 and 1982 respectively, show their time-frame clearly. In his introduction to her book, Christophe Ippolito makes the point that “as Tuéni’s individual quest becomes a collective one, it seems that her voice is replaced by that of her country.”

Something similar is surely also happening with Darwish’s Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone?. If 1980 marked a sort of final severing of traditional poetic values, then Darwish’s 1995 poem is clearly written through the aftermath of the destruction of memory following the Oslo accord. As Anton Shammas memorably puts it “but we, the survivors of that mnemectomy, the readers of this Horse, will always know there are two maps of Palestine.” Tuéni’s poems here were written through the time of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Both books now in translation came out, as it happened, during the time of the summer 2006 Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and half a year after her son Gebran Tuéni was assassinated in Beirut. They make sanguine reading for us now, but I would want to finally emphasise the high quality not only of the original texts, but also of the translations, and to thankfully celebrate their claims on freedom.


From Banipal 27 - Autumn/Winter 2006

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