Return to the poem

Translator's Note: SAID

I first met SAID in Munich in May 2010. The occasion was a poetry reading held in the city’s old RathausAn attentive audience had gathered, filling every seat in the spacious ceremonial hall; above us, carved shields ornamented the wooden ceiling, representing the towns and cities of the medieval Bavarian kingdom. Thereading featured contributors to a volume of poetry entitled Die Hoffnung fährt schwarz, which literally means “hope rides black,” an idiom slighting those taking public transportation without paying. To describe hope as such a freeloader would startle a proper German, though it is no stranger or less suggestive than Emily Dickinson’s description of it as

                 the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

Midway through the evening, as the invited poets stood one by one to read from their work, the writer who goes by the name SAID came to the podium, a thin volume in hand. As he began to read, I recognized a depth of voice resonant in the poems, though I had never heard him before. He had selected a handful of short pieces from his Psalms; I chose the five poems translated here from that collection.
In keeping with the genre, his psalms function as a kind of one-sided conversation, that ancient gesture toward transcendence we call prayer. In one of these, this son of a secular Iranian family who had immigrated to Germany as a young student in 1965 begs to

remain true to the god of [his] childhood
who offers light and comfort
and hears us in that no-man’s land
between arriving and fleeing.

What kind of “god” does the poet turn to in these psalms? Not the formal deity worshiped by Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others, and not the elaborated god staked out in speculative theological discourse. Rather, this herr or “lord,” the ancient biblical ascription used in most of these poems, is the one beyond names whom humans have turned to across the spectrum of religious cultures in their anguish and fear, in celebration and gratitude. And we, dwellers in this “no-man’s-land,” find ourselves unhoused of certainties, wandering like migrants in a barren and uncharted borderland where—as he puts it—love implores us “to bring forth a harvest.” His psalms lure us to yearn for such a harvest.

But these are not psalms of ease. As with many of the ancient psalms in the Hebrew scriptures, SAID’s poems find their voice in the situation of exile, one that is often existential rather than geographical. Is his choice to include ninety-nine poems in this collection an allusion to the ancient Muslim tradition ascribing this number of names to Allah? Perhaps, though the herr SAID addresses in these poems, consistently refusing every capitalization, seems unbounded by the ordering of religious convention. His “lord” conforms to Feuerbach’s conviction, so influential on Nietzsche and central to the modernist critique of theism, which views religious language as projections of our human nature. As he concedes in one of these psalms:

look lord
you and i
we are one truth
and when we whisper with each other
so we become a bridge
for the feet of lovers.

SAID’s psalms call for “whispering” of this sort against the rising noise of intolerance so dominant in our world. His invitation that we “become” such bridges over the wastelands of human hatred and fear, so much of it sponsored by religious absolutists, offers a welcome alternative to the reigning violence of war. The hope that “rides black,” for dwellers in this “no-man’s land” we inhabit, promises nothing less than this, and demands nothing more.  —Mark S. Burrows

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2012

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.