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Richard McKane reviews
Miracle Maker: The Selected Poems of Fadhil Al-Azzawi
Translated with an Introduction by Khaled Mattawa
BOA Editions, Rochester, NY, 2003
144 pp, ISBN 1-929918-45-3
A blast Against Tyranny
This is the first book in English of the Iraqi Arab poet, now in exile in Germany, Fadhil Al-Azzawi. It is a wonderful book of poems, poems of defiance, of prophecy, a rewriting of tales in modern fables.
It is a timely book covering the volatile time span 1960-2002: these are “Poems of Massive Creation” what some of us have been searching for: a blast against tyranny, a poet struggling not only with wars but with the archetypal views of Biblical and Qur’anic stories. This book contains selections from two books before he went into exile in 1976. Look how he handles the Garden of Eden theme in the poem “Defiance”:
Eve came down from heaven followed by Adam …
Where is the first mother biting her apple
refusing to obey even God?
I will kiss her on the lips and tell her,
“Thank you woman
creator of freedom.’
Fadhil Al-Azzawi was a member of the Sixties Generation writers’ group centred on his birth city, the multiethnic, Kirkuk, which Khaled Mattawa in his useful introduction describes as the origin of his use of the “carnivalesque”. In 1963 he had been sentenced to 3 years’ prison on trumped-up charges after the Ba’athist coup. The selection from the first book [Rising to the Spring] contains “The Teachings of F. Al-Azzawi”: though the poet is a teacher he is never didactic, though a prophet who uses Biblical language: “‘Let whoever dies rise. This is my voice crying in the wilderness”; he says: ‘I am not a prophet who walks on water’. But he is a “miracle maker” with words and ideas and when he calls himself “the flock and the shepherd” I remember Mandelstam with whom Donald Revell equates him on the back cover: “I am the gardener and the garden”. The good shepherd has to shepherd himself and the flock, black sheep and all. In a terrifying poem the Archangel Gabriel confronts the poet on a bus in Germany:
He pressed his pistol against my chest
and said threatening, ‘Next time,
O prophet, I shall shoot.
Now recite! Recite
in the name of the Lord who created them!
In a useful note at the back of the book (I would like to have seen these notes expanded) the translator explains that these last lines are “the first command given by the archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad”.
There is a poem full of pathos: “A Man in Memory” tells of the poet’s support for the spook, turned alcoholic, who persecuted him. There is also a verse in another poem:
‘Man is nothing but a torturer weeping,’
said a donkey grazing in the field.
And I too said, ‘What my soul needs is a torturer weeping.’
The donkey appears again in “A Donkey at the Mill” where the character Abdullah who runs through the excellent selection from [The Eastern Tree] is reminiscent of the wise fool Nasruddin Joha.
Again reworkings from the Bible include two mentions of the Magi/Three Kings: “Ah how unbearable this journey has been!/ How unbearable this false prophecy.’ The Magi even appear in the poet’s house (elsewhere he even invites God in for a chat):
The Magi have come at last
Salima says: ‘I’ll make
an angel’s breakfast
for our guests.
We change places and go
to the living room
and wait for our coffee.
This is a rare, loving, homely touch. Often Fadhil Al-Azzawi is expert at leaving out the heart of the matter, like the silences in a deep coffeehouse conversation.
And what of his advice to the people who drop the bombs? He turns it into a literary litany: ‘You bombs, you poisoned gifts, I send you back to America, without spite or hatred. (My Italics, RMcK) I return you to Walt Whitman, to Robert Frost, to William Faulkner, to William Carlos Williams, to Henry Miller, to Anais Nin, to Allen Ginsberg…”, the list continues.
Ariel Dorfman on the back cover exhorts us: “Let yourself be invaded and occupied by the words pf Fadhil Al-Azzawi.” This is the sort of struggle the poet puts before us. It’s not an easy book with easy answers but these are timeless poems, fables for our time, challenges that we ignore at our peril.
The translator Khaled Mattawa, who has lived in the States since 1979, in choosing to translate this poet and in rendering him so well into English, has performed an important task. Do get hold of this book, join the parade searching for the light:
If you see the parade, Abdullah, I mean you, reader of my poems,
on the street or in your house,
now or on all days,
follow it and do not ask where it is going.
Perhaps you will enter
the history of man.