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Sunday, June 13, 2021

‘Home’: Nine Arab Poets Explore Interior Spaces in a New Bilingual Anthology

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Damaged Bodies, Damaged Homes

Homes are also unstable in the quick-burning poems of Syrian writer Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein, here co-translated by Rana Issa and Suneela Mubayi. In his long poem “A Marseillaise for the Neutron Age,” homes are damaged, as are the era, the bodies, the dreams, and the fruit. Here, the everyday is perilous, and homes are unsafe. It’s an age where there are “spies that serve you coffee / With morphine / The age of planes that feed bombs and toys / To humans[.]”

Al-Salih al-Hussein died at 28. He was beset by health problems, including kidney failure, hearing loss, and side-effects of a botched surgery. Yet his poetic voice remained clear and resonant, a Cassandra warning of future Syrian disasters. He published three collections, the last of which—Simple Like Water, Clear Like a Bulletcame out in 1982.

In the poem included in this collection, he seems to expect his own end. It has “Saturday burials / And sadness on Sunday / With pigs on Monday / And madness on Tuesday / With machine guns on Wednesday / And handsome death[.]”

Rusted Memories

Memories have dissipated in an untitled poem by Ahmed Shafie, co-translated by the author and Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Neurnberg. Most people have memories, the poem’s narrator tells us, but he has “two arms / held wide open[.]” All that remains of his distant village is “animals, relatives / tales of the dead, / and gossip.”

Here, the after-echo of memory is in search of home. The poem’s narrator asks his “noble friends,” who are liberating the homeland, to leave one small fraction of it unliberated.

It won’t hinder the construction of your triumphal arches,
but it’ll be enough
for my own father’s soul
to find its way home.

Memories are rusted in Ines Abassi’s “The Key,” co-translated by Neurnberg and Koen de Cuyper, where the poem’s narrator carries a key to a home to which they no longer belong. Although the poem uses contemporary imagery, it also evokes the longing of pre-Islamic poetry, where an abandoned campfire covered over by sand often signals loss.

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Here, the house that “won’t be our house tomorrow / is rusted with memories / and coated with the desert sand we left in our wake[.]”

Abassi’s house, like many throughout the collection, is less a physical structure than a site of relationships. At the end of the poem, the narrator takes “the key to the house that is no longer our house / that won’t be our house tomorrow / I threw it out with a heap of memories.”

Memories Lost, Memories Returned

In other poems, lost memories are brought back to life. In Samer Abu Hawwash’s spare, evocative “One Last Selfie with a Dying World,” translated by Rawad Wehbe, we stand in a bathroom and resurrect those who are gone:

It’s enough
once the bathroom fills with steam to exhale onto the mirror
the way you’d blow on hot soup
to give back to all the silent faces nestled in the forest of your head
their lost voices.

In Abu Hawwash’s poem, the kitchen, too, is a site of intermingled present and past, banality and philosophy. Here people enter into discussions: “about the customary shortage of bread, / water, / or happiness.”

In “The Unknown Man” by Fadhil al-Azzawi, lost memories are also returned. Here, translated by William Hutchins:

We always leave our days behind us. We drop them in a well
Like a pebble
Falling in the night.
A wet, unknown man always climbs up,
Sits on the wellhead,
And gives us back
What we have lost.

Although the anthology ends with poetry by al-Azzawi, who is the elder statesman of the book, the poets are not organized chronologically. Instead, their poems speak to each other across time and space, in two different languages, constructing an idiosyncratic look at meanings of “home.”

Coolidge said she hopes that, after reading the anthology, readers will continue in their journey with Arabic poetry. “Like all books,” she said, “it’s a jumping-off point.”

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