Stephen Watts reviews

Without An Alphabet, Without A Face: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef

Translated with an introduction by Khaled Mattawa

Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2002. 86pp pbk, ISBN 246897531

A poet of light, earth and sea

Saadi Youssef was born in the village of Abulkhasib close to Basra in 1934. This Selected Poems includes work from almost the whole range of his poetry.

The first poems in the book are dated Basra 1955, 1956, 1957 – very much to the point in the war days that followed this volume’s publication. But more than this, they show the poet’s lifelong concerns were there from early on, love, companionship, migration, home and shifting homes, personal relationships and social responsibility, landscapes both interior and exterior.

Think of Basra,
think of what we love
and what we sing of from the heart
sun, bread, and love

– this when you’re thrown from your room. These early poems are already full with lyric action:

smeared with mulberries and silence
he doesn’t even glance at my door.

They also show another aspect of the book from the outset – the quality of the translations. It must be said that Khaled Mattawa has frequently brought these poems over as real English poetry. The introduction also is very fine, giving us as good a brief overview of the poet’s life and work as could be hoped for. It is, in short, excellent finally to have such wonderful poems accessible in such English; and surely Saadi Youssef has much more to give. This is superbly achieved poetry and very good translation. I keep wanting to ask as in an early poem he asks himself:

. . . Saadi,
my reasonable sir,
what are you writing tonight?

And this though the lyric action of writing will at times have no palpable reason:
I saw a girl weep
without an alphabet, without a face

When you arrived snow was swirling/around the city’s throat …

At night they awake,/their white eyes forever open wide.

The entry of L’Akhtar ben Youssef into Saadi’s Baghdad poetry – marking his return to that city at the beginning of the 1970s – announces the expansion of the poet’s voice in ways that have continued to overflow and to out-fill his work ever since. From L’Akhtar’s first appearance it is clear that this is the poet multiplying:

A prophet shares this apartment with me//…//I see dark circles around his eyes

When the murderers came/my master L’Akhdar was not in his shelter …

We are the children of this madness. Let’s be whatever we wish.

There are surely echoes here of Cavafy or of the heteronymic Pessoa, and also of the suffused lives of Ibn Arabi – or indeed Yehuda Halevi – in their Mediterranean journeyings. This theme of warm vision as elemental to both expression and survival is key to the poetry’s lyric blending of personal fate and social concern. In the poem “Enemies” Youssef has the line The sea-sun falls into the head aching underwater and this both describes the exacted restraint of his own nomad life – shared with so many others – and concentrates centuries of wider history into a few words. He is both the poet of sea-travel and migration and a poet set firmly at the centre of his own land. He thus holds within his voice the varied meanings of the words “medi-terra”.

In one way this vocal expansion extends to the personification of place – to the frequent and fecund naming of people and places throughout the poetry – as in the very beautiful poem “The New Baghdad” which dates from the same period as the appearance of “L’Akhtar”. In this poem the poet personifies his city during the last years in which he was able to live there:

She comes to me with a bowl of soup// …//In the market she sells cheese/and buffalo livers.//…//At midnight/she returns to her enchanted chamber/behind muddy streets/carrying the bread of the dead//…// At dawn she stops by all her houses/…

But throughout the poetry, places, people, actions, climates, intricate detail and overwhelmed feelings are constantly named and such lyric-rich naming is all too rare in contemporary poetries.
If his first poems yield beautiful words and concise phrases to quote, the works from the appearance of L’Akhtar on asks to be quoted in full, or in other words to be memorised and recited. In the case of shorter poems (“Sparrows” for instance, or “A Moment”) this may be possible even in a short review.

This morning I saw a sparrow
on a thin stalk of yellow corn,
the only plant adorning
the seaside hotel.
The sparrow cleaned itself;
the stalk shook.
Another sparrow came;
the stalk bent.
A third sparrow;
the stalk bowed quickly.
Then suddenly,
and in unison,
the three sparrows took off,
leaving the hotel.
And under my shirt
a thousand sparrows

Concisely a lyric poem of life, journeying, loss and love. Saadi Youssef is a poet of subtle, daily, lyric-rich freedoms in the face of intense unfreedom and, as Khaled Mattawa points out, in terms of both his life and his poetry “the absence of disappointment is remarkable”. His poetry matters to us greatly.

Translations of poems by Saadi Youssef have appeared in many journals and anthologies, increasingly so in recent years, and there was one, albeit small, selection in English published in Nicosia in 1995. However the present volume is the first wide-ranging and inclusive one.

Moreover, its publisher Graywolf Press is one of the best independent press publishers of poetry in North America and the volume is published within the prestigious Lannan Translation Selection project for exceptional literary works. There is no need of special pleading either for Saadi Youssef or for contemporary Arabic poetry more generally, and the publisher is not engaging in any such. But it is undoubtedly true that not enough Arabic poetry in good translation has been published by larger presses in English in ways that would afford a wide distribution – no criticism is meant here of the often superb and committed work many smaller presses have done and still do. It is good to see this situation changing and to have had in the past few years large selections in English from, for instance, Mahmoud Darwish (University of California Press) and Adonis (Marlboro Press). It is completely appropriate that Saadi Youssef’s poetry, with all of his very different and important qualities, has also now become available to us in English.

Saadi Youssef is – being from Basra and born in a village near that city – a poet of light and earth and this is lucidly expressed in his language. He is also, though, a poet of the sea and I would want to say a medi-terranean (even at times a Mediterranean) poet. In the particular richness and timbre of his voice I find warm closenesses not only to a number of Arab poets and certainly to the Arabic traditions of Iraq and beyond, but also echoes of such poets as Oktay Rifat or Melih Cevdet Anday, to Garcia Lorca, Yannis Ritsos and, indeed, Cavafy, all of whom have engaged Mediterraneans in their work and all of whom Saadi Youssef has translated into Arabic. (As well as Walt Whitman, it ought to be said, whom he addresses in the long 1995 poem “America, America”.)

The sense of geography in Saadi’s poetry is superb, almost always being both locally precise (place names matter a great deal to the poet, as even a cursory glance at his titles will indicate) and at the same time opening continually to wider worlds. This is a quality of the spirit of the man, quite natural and I think unmediated, and which therefore shows through in the honesty of his language. Honesty is not always enough, but it may help, although Saadi is honest through lyrical realism and that is a rare achievement. He names the villages of his childhood and his first city Basra, he names the cities of his exiles and wanderings – Amman, Damascus, Aden, Cairo, Paris, Algiers, Beirut, Nicosia among them – he names many cities, towns, villages and fields of Iraq. Baghdad is a constant named and unnamed presence.

Intricate debates

He names classical poets he is close to or in discourse with – al-Mutanabbi, Imru ul-Qais, al-Hallaj – and also contemporary writers from the Arab worlds and beyond : Adonis, Darwish, Khalil Hawi, Ghassan Kanafani, Tahar ben Jelloun, Adbelatif Laabi, Walt Whitman, Garcia Lorca, Cavafy. To name is often not enough but in Saadi’s poetry these acts of naming are both lyric celebrations and intricate debates through fertile language. They become celebrations in the face of immense stress and represent warm affirmations of individual expression.

This is superbly achieved poetry and very good translation. Indeed if the translations are anything to go by, the poetry in this volume is one of the high achievements of lyric seriousness in the contemporary world.

From Banipal 17 - Summer 2003

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