Translator's Note: Tigris Song

by Michael Sells


Muhyiddin Ibn al-Àrabi was born to a prosperous family in Murcia in 1165 CE and studied in Seville and Córdoba. He adopted Sufi mysticism at a young age and devoted himself to a life of constant wandering, from Marrakech to Fez to La Marsa, near Tunis, to Cairo and farther east. By the time he reached Mecca, he was on his way to becoming known as al-Shaykh al-Akbar (the greatest master) of Sufi thought.

In Mecca he also composed a collection of sixty-one love poems entitled the Turjumán al-Ashwáq, "The guide/translator/interpreter/biographer of longings." Criticism prompted by the erotic nature of the poems led Ibn al-Àrabi to explain that all the beloveds in the poetry were references to Nizám, a young woman from Isfahan he encountered in Mecca; and that love for Nizám was an allegory for the love of God. When his preface failed to quell the criticism, he wrote an allegorical commentary (similar to John of the Cross's commentary on his own poems, to Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Song of Songs, and to later commentaries on the love poetry of Hafez). Nonetheless the poems themselves artfully avoid placing the love within any bounded category, human or divine.

The Turjumán places the poet persona among the Bedouin of ancient Arabia; no reference is made to the cities of Granada, Seville, Córdoba, Marrakech, Tunis, Cairo, Mosul, Konya, or Damascus. Instead, the poems evoke the world of the Morínga (the bán tree, a graceful tree of Arabia with delicate blossoms), a remembered world of Bedouin camel drivers like Ánjash whose riding songs lured his camels into a fatal frenzy, and the ruins of the campsite made by the beloved during her journey away from the lover. Yet three of the poems, including the final one, break with the pattern and touch upon a more settled landscape. They evoke the flourishing city of Baghdad in counterpoint to the nearby ruins of the palace of Sindád in the pre-Islamic cultural center of al-Híra, an emblem of civilizations long past.

The two poems presented here (the fifty-sixth and sixty-first in the collection) employ an identical rhyme and echo one another lexically and thematically. Like other pairs or sets of poems within the Turjumán, they form variations on a theme and respond to one another even as they speak to other poems both earlier and contemporary.

The sixty-one poems of the Turjumán caught my attention twenty-five years ago. In them light flashes, fades, or illumines objects standing as apparitions between past and present, real and unreal. Voices emerge, merge, and die away. Doves mourn the loss of their mates, serve as messengers between the poet and the lost beloved, and rustle up forces within the poet that shatter his enunciated stances.

In translating these poems, I use the play of syntax against line breaks to recreate the rhythmic play of syntax against the meters of the original. At the same time, I employ assonance, alliteration, and sonic echoes to compensate for the tonic provided by the monorhyme in the original. However, of all the challenges these poems offer to the translator, none has proved more captivating than the difficulty of fusing the popular and classical voices of love lyric.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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