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Four Legs and One Smacking Mouth:
Six Contemporary Arab Poets
Chosen and translated from the Arabic by Tahseen al-Khateeb, with editing by Linh Dinh
YOUSEF AL-KHAL (Lebanon, 1917-1987) was a poet, critic, playwright, journalist and translator. He is the author of more than eight books, among which are: Liberty (1944), Herodia (1955), The Deserted Well (1958), Modernity in Poetry (1978), and The Second Birth (1981). He is also the translator of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1958), Selected Poems by Robert Frost (1958) and the anthology, The Divan of American Poetry.
Prayer in the Temple
The stone speaks. It becomes wine, becomes bread, it becomes.
The stone is a sky, blessed is he who has wings.
O how I love you tonight.
I embrace you like this for the first time. I undress in you, for the first time I am this stone-sky.
Your eyes, your whole body is a child swimming. I love the child and the water; the water and the child.
And in this wasteland, with but a stone to get along with, which bolsters and comforts despite its hardness.
Let this moment be for the two of us. The stone is a sky and we are its wings.
When I awake, the river awakes and flows and fills the plain. I’ll hoist the day’s mast. Alone. The companion I wait for has not come.
When I awake light sits before me. Why don’t you rise up O foolish wound and carry your bed and walk?
The walls are vanishing. The air flutters its eyes. The feet are stomping the street’s waist. There’s no whispering in the light. Screaming is the only password.
When I awake, my love awakes with me.
My legs are of reed, I’ll find myself a cane.
I found it: a thread of blond silk.
Now I’ll walk to the end of the earth. In the plain, in the mountain. In the night. In the day. I’ll walk like a dream fulfilled by wakefulness.
My love is with me. My whole body is with me. My God is with me. Rise up O destiny and make room for me.
From afar my oak shades me and takes care of me. Stretches out its arms to me. In its branches a nest with two sparrows.
Here I am singing. In the temple’s courtyard an apple tree, its fruits are oil for my throat.
I’m crazy about my oak. For it I am here. For it I am singing.
During the day I dream of my shadow, and in the night I embrace it and slumber.
I’ll raise the sun on my wings. I’ll nail it down, so it won’t move. The oak’s shadow is my only bliss.
Tonight, I climbed the ivory towers. Your blue hair is my ladder.
Ah, and on your altar I offer sacrifices: a pair of doves, and an ewe fattened to be sacrificed. And here I am ascending the slope with my only child. The wounds of joy scream, my days are as silent as a hand.
At dawn, I will shepherd my sheep, and, in the evening, I will sing to them the songs of return.
Let me now scream.
My body departs me. Leaves me like a stranger, like a knight I’ve never seen.
Your eyes are two creeks beckoning. How sweet is your child-mouth. Your tongue makes the body, and your panting gives the breath of life.
Ah, what a god you are. Your paradise is not leading astray. All its fruits are for me. And I am its first man.
Embrace me O felicity. On your body I steer my boat. Its oars are of eternal desire.
Let the tempest blow as much as it desires.
I am an ancient mariner and my boat is a cedar of love.
Embrace me O my little god. Close your horizons on me. Love me more than love. My history is a deep, bottomless wound.
Don’t shut your dress like this. Let it enter. Let it ascend. Your breasts are two summits. Their descending is tempting, opening the dreams of the body.
In your garden, I’ll plant a stem of rose.
And if I lived until autumn, I’ll pull down the hedge of boxthorn and erect one of wind and light.
Let’s be happy today.
For a long time my tongue didn’t swarm and crawl around honey. My nails are still blunt.
Stand naked opposite me and I will show you the keys of life.
O let it enter!
The light of life is small. Its presence is an eternity of posterity.
The window by your bed is stuck in the cloud. Do you open it, like this, and disappear?
Who sets the table today, spreads the cloth of happiness, embraces my solitude in the shadow and protects me from the blackness-of-the-face?
My presence is a wave of mystery your strange body unfolds.
Neither odalisques in my ships nor slaves. Nor pines. Nor jewelry of glass and stones.
In my ships a word and one little deed.
And here is the city, surrendered. Its walls begin to fall down.
And I am like July. My blood is a salvation from drought, and my body a feast for lovers.
We are all hungry for the body, and thirsty for the juices of the soul.
MOHAMMAD AL-MAGHOUT (Syria, 1934-2006) was a poet, dramatist, novelist, and essayist. His first book of poems, Sorrow in Moonlight, was published in 1959, followed by A Room with a Million Walls (1960), Joy Is Not My Profession (1970), and The Flowers’ Headsman (2001).
from Stars and Rains
In my mouth another mouth
and in my teeth are other teeth.
* * *
O my kinsmen . . . O my people!
You who have shot me like a bullet out of the world,
hunger is beating in my bowels like an embryo.
I’m nibbling at my cheeks from the inside.
What I write in the morning
I get sick of in the evening.
Whoever I shake hands with at nine
I wish to kill at ten.
I want a flower as big as a face,
a big hole between the shoulders,
so all my memories could pour forth like a spring.
My fingers are weary of each other
and my eyebrows are opposing enemies.
* * *
I want to vibrate my body like a string
in a distant graveyard;
to fall in a deep well
of beasts, mothers and bracelets.
I’ve forgotten the shape of a spoon and the taste of salt,
moonlight and the scent of children.
My guts are filled with cold coffee
and blind water.
My throat is jammed with scraps of papers and chunks of ice.
O old water!
O raw water . . . How much I love you.
* * *
With solid collars that reach to our chins,
with sticky lips, and wrists strangled by buttons,
we rise to eat
we rise to desire
with poems and handkerchiefs we pounce on flies,
so we could glimpse a tree or a bird leaving.
With merciless little feet
we rest on the ground
and scatter the landscape’s ribs onto the streets.
* * *
I ascended the winding stairs a hundred times–
clean as cotton,
bright as myrtle.
I ascend and descend, like a killer’s dagger,
with shoes of fame and shoes of hatred
Hanging my misery from nails on walls
planting my eyes on distant balconies
and rivers returning from captivity.
I’ve seen them all under the yellow sky:
the rich and the meek,
the poor and the bestial,
millions of teeth colliding in the street
millions of sullen faces
lowering their eyes under thunder.
I’ve seen the hastened funerals,
reins of barbarian horses blazing in the street,
laborers falling from upper floors
and entombed under the sad rain
with their tobacco and packs of food
and nothing storms through the desert.
Wind is whistling over the black blood,
and the small tombs
fall like dew on hats and overcoats.
As longs as there are twenty-thousand miles from head to pillow
from nipple to nipple
I won’t return with broken fingers to the theater
and ink bleeds from my hair onto the walls and halls.
I will live like this—
a flower watered by blood and crushed by wind,
to quench my deep thirst
for sand and madness
and to take revenge on a sad country
whose teeth are swaying like strings at the doorway of History.
As long as there are twenty-thousand miles from branch to bird
from spike to spike
I’ll pack my words like titanic teeth
and make my addresses long and tangled like ibex horns.
But as the ebullient breast
needs pagan fingers,
and arms with skin rolled up to armpits,
needing something unknown has
the softness of breasts and the ferocity of the eagle
grabbing my wrist like a thief
and surrounding my table like a glue bridle.
But. . .
I lack clear eyes
and hair draping my back;
the ability to shape words
and prune them like arms emerging from the grave;
life and faith;
the blue cottage I dream of
and the humped table I desire,
where there’s no home for elbows
and no dwelling for tears.
But. . .
Some words are bluer than they have to be,
hard and wild,
and their taming is like that of a beast.
But I’ll struggle without mercy
without flowers or drums
leaning on my table like a blacksmith
lying on my back like a homeless person,
until I feel all of life,
life, love and destruction;
honey, wind and lashes,
fly apart and blaze
fly apart and fall like autumn leaves in the forests.
Because the last words will be said one night
because my hand
an unlit ship between two paths of stars
I’ll forsake rain and wind
and let hunger pile up between my teeth
as snow piles up on wings of sparrows
for the strange eyes
and the worn-out stars like toes
I’ll wear leather coats
collars of red fur
put on the shoes of dead laborers
and eat in their rattling restaurants
I’ll be noble and lost
having the bloom of Gods
I’ll let grieves pile up on my lips
as ice piles up on the mouths of ancient caves
I’ll let the dust of brooms and trains
fill my ears
and gather around my poems like a tail
I won’t hear a thing
neither rain nor music
neither the victim’s voice nor the executioner’s
I won’t hear but the poems cracking in my pockets
And suitcases knocking against my back as I move from one place to another.
ABBAS BAYDOUN (Lebanon, 1945- ) is a poet, novelist, critic and journalist. he studied Arabic literature at the Lebanese University and the Sorbonne. He is the author of fourteen books of poems, among which are: Tyre (1985), Critique of Pain (1985), Rooms (1992), Brothers for Our Time (1993), For a Patient That Is Hope (1997), Uttered in the Cold (2000), The Body Without a Teacher (2004), A Woodcutter-like Tree (2005), and P. B. B. (Paris, Berlin, Beirut) (2007). He is currently the cultural editor of As-Safir daily newspaper, in Beirut.
Terror is an angel in Potsdam Square
Destiny is a clock over Potsdam Square
The pirates of the future won’t be the first to arrive at Potsdam
Oblivion carries us, snatched off, faster than any ship whose oblivion is stolen
after a long mourning, after an atomic bombing of the memory
Without a flag we arrive at Potsdam
Under the sunshade the time travelers’ tin ghosts
The white smoke of ourselves in the holocaust
The traveling tin sheen of our absence
And the dead thought that reigns and thinks on a glass surface
The dogs of Hell don’t bark in Potsdam
Heroes are not born from their mothers in Potsdam
And crime is without teeth in Potsdam Square
Destiny will have two snipped wings in Potsdam
The future will be without guilt, gods and the dead in Potsdam Square
We suffer without feeling in Potsdam Square
We talk without language in Potsdam
Happiness is a peddler in Potsdam
Hatred is without thorns in Potsdam
And love doesn’t hurt in Potsdam
Things leave no traces in Potsdam
The dogs of Hell don’t bark in Potsdam
Heroes are not born from their mothers in Potsdam
Terror is an angel in Potsdam.
AMJAD NASSER (Jordan, 1955- ), real name Yahia al-Naimie, is a poet, essayist and journalist. He is currently the cultural editor of the London-based daily newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. His first poetry collection, Praise for Another Café, was published in Beirut in 1979. Subsequent volumes include Since Gilad He Was Ascending the Mountain (1981), The Shepherds of Loneliness (1986), The Arrival of Strangers (1990), The Ascent of Breaths (1997), Life Like a Broken Narrative (2004), and Whenever He Saw a Sign (2005). He also published two travel books The Beating of Wings (1996), and Under More Than One Sky (2002).
No! Not the blue bruise on your upper lip
that will lead the guards to me,
but the whine of the Sumerian lute under
Standing under your watched tower,
between the arrow and the commanding eye.
A sign causes me to die,
a sign brings me to life
and bewilderment, alone, is my certainty.
A hand shorter than a sister’s joy stretches to me
and I left my hand, like this, to a day
In the morning
in the moment of doubt
before life creeps into the body
with its four legs and smacking mouth.
In the morning
in the happy moment
when hands stretch out to fumble the birthplaces of limbs.
In the morning
in the second before the roaring
in the twitch of eyelashes
in the inhalation
in the last glance
nothing is left on the balcony overlooking the sea
but the taste of coffee
and the echo of a shredded sentence,
but blood spreading on a white sheet
flapping on the clothesline.
It’s what falls down from the walls
clinging to a huge loaf and fava beans
It’s the tree that hoists two names up
into a heart pierced with an arrow
It’s the smell of soap brought by the night travelers
It’s the spreading scent of a young widow’s underwear
It’s the secret water
that moistened the legs at first touch.
It’s this window that doesn’t change its view.
when walls start to breathe,
and concrete clouds spread
between fingers, under nostrils.
we look for creased faces,
and rutty hands.
in sealed rooms, we shriek
and there’s no echo.
we raise our hands
and falls no shadow.
the door is never knocked,
and no one passes beneath the window.
We hear no woodworms in the closets,
nor cries of love in the next rooms.
we rush to the drawers,
unable to find the family photo album.
we look for a gun,
or a noose,
but finding only wall plaster,
cracking in dead silence.
we look for our names
but fail to remember.
all this happens,
in a sealed room,
what shall we do?
ABDO WAZEN (Lebanon, 1957- ) is a poet, novelist, critic and translator. He is currently the cultural editor of Al-Hayat daily newspaper. His first full-length book of poems, The Closed Forest, was published in 1982. Subsequent volumes include: The Eye and Air (1985), Another Reason for the Night (1986), The Doors of Sleep (1996), Lamp of Seduction (2000) and The Fire of Return. He has translated Nadia Twueni: Twenty Poems for a Love (1987) and Jacques Prevert: Fifty Poems (1997).
The apple is not our sight’s sister, but each time we gaze at it, it trembles and grows cloudy.
Each time the apple falls between our hands, it roars with colors, like a rainbow, and, from its wound, the flower of its past streams.
The apple that we gained was not but an illusion of the fruit whose night has not come.
The drowned woman didn’t tell of what she saw at the bottom of the river.
As the water carried her stature like a rose
A light broke from her bewildered eyes
She was motionless–without melancholy or memories,
Her face was white like the morning.
We’ll break the night’s vases to smell its scent, to spill the water of its stars, to capture its silver ring.
We’ll break the night’s vases to kidnap the angels who plant our sleep with coos and mercy.
We’ll break the night’s vases to capture the trees that shine in our dreams like pearls.
The bit of oil oozing from the wall had the smell of her sleep, the moisture of her open hands.
The oil wetting her wall was the grass of her absence, the grass of her unsmothered sight, the grass of the night she hid in the vases of her eyes.
The sparrow awaits the tree of his dream
The tree awaits her sparrow
Like a fruit she didn’t bear.
MOHAMMAD AL-SALEHI (Morocco, 1963- ) is a poet, translator and critic. His first book of poems, I Dig a Well in My Sky, was published in 2000. His second volume, I Stumble With Gold, was published in 2004, from which these poems are taken. He lives in Rabat, the capital of the Kingdom of Morocco.
Murmur is not
the sound of water.
of the stone.
The horizon is
the sun’s pillow
and the night
Did the bird lend
to that tree?
Whenever the wind blows
are the ashes
of the embers
of his dreams.
is a long
Like death, poetry
is a terrible idea.
Note on the translator:
TAHSEEN AL-KHATEEB was born in Zarka, Jordan, August 6, 1968, to a Palestinian refugee family. His poems and translations have appeared in Sentence, To Topos, The Monthly Review, QLRS, among others. His translation of Charles Simic’s The Worlds Doesn’t End is forthcoming this year from Afaq Publishing House in Egypt. He lives in Amman.
Tahseen al-Khateeb is also a poet. Although I didn’t ask him for permission to publish the terrific English-language poem below, I’ve decided to post it anyway:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb!