Khaled Mattawa Reads "The Boat Merchant's Wife"

January 2, 2019

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of January 1st, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Khaled Mattawa is a poet and translator. His latest book of poems is “Tocqueville,” published by New Issues in 2010. Mattawa is a MacArthur Fellow and the editor of Michigan Quarterly Review. 
Lindsay Garbutt: His next chapbook, Mare Nostrum, is a series of poems about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and will be published by Sarabande Books this June. The poem we’ll hear today, “The Boat Merchant’s Wife,” is from that series and is set in the Libyan coastal city of Sabratha. 
Khaled Mattawa: Being from Libya, and Sabratha is a city in Libya, I wanted to look into that side of the story, which is maybe one of the more horrific aspects of it, and how the people of my native land had become involved and implicated in this. They are the ones who run the boat business, they buy these flimsy boats and gear them up for people to get on them—try to get to Europe in them—they pack them with hundreds of people. And many drown, because these boats are not meant to carry as many people. And the boat that is being used is a brand called Zodiac.
Don Share: Zodiac boats are made in China, and that’s key to the way Mattawa thinks about migration. His poem alludes to another poem, “The River-Merchant’s Wife,” that also travelled from China by way of a series of translators.
Lindsay Garbutt: Most famously, Ezra Pound. The original poem was written by Li Po.
Khaled Mattawa: The Pound poem is a translation, I mean, it was attributed to him basically because he claimed it, but it is a translation nonetheless. I’m a translator that doesn’t claim poems that are not his. But I think in some ways, with Pound, the claim is so strong because it ended up being a transformative poem for modernism and for imagism and for breaking away from the fixed forms or the metronome, as Pound had said. So in a sense, even if you bring a poem that is so central, even if it’s only a translation, you know, you’ve done a good thing. And actually, Pound sort of congratulates himself for having done that, for having changed that tradition, partly, not only through his poetry, but also through his translations.
Don Share: Mattawa is writing about two parallel lineages. One follows the characters in the poem, and their often unacknowledged connection to the global migrant crisis. The other follows the poem itself, and how it also travelled, like the Zodiac boat from China. Mattawa describes poetry as moving sideways from language to language, and he wrote “The Boat Merchant’s Wife” with this in mind.
Khaled Mattawa: So it’s all in the Chinese emphasis or technique, or a very understated voice telling us about a life experience with utter, if you will, objectivity. But it’s the objectivity that ends up being the most horrific thing about what some aspects of life are. 
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is Khaled Mattawa reading “The Boat Merchant’s Wife.”
Khaled Mattawa:

He started out making feluccas;
an Egyptian taught him how.
Then he opened a shop by the beach,

sold ice cream, parasols and chairs.
He asked for my hand when I was
in teacher college, first year.

Time passes like the Ghibli here.
I was 7 months with my third baby
when someone sought him

for a Zodiac. He traveled all the way
to Guangzhou, brought back a dozen,
has been selling them ever since.

One night I asked how strong
they were, how many they carry.
“It’s all in the booklet,” he said,

“no reason for what keeps happening
to them.” He sipped from a glass
of bokha and explained how

from this same jetty, long before
the Arabs and Vandals, even before
the Romans and their famous theater,

boats filled with people and goods
and sailed off. A day or a week later,
the sea sends back the drowned.

His long-lashed eyes closed when
he spoke, his face unchanged by the years.
His fingers moved so carefully

putting out his cigarette. He saw me
looking, nodded, then pulled me toward
his manhood to help him sleep.

Don Share: I suppose the first thing you notice if you do make the comparison to Pound’s famous poem, is the shift in the title. Pound’s title for his version of this kind of story is “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” and in Khaled Mattawa’s poem, that shift is from the river to the boat, “The Boat’s Merchant’s Wife” and in the Pound poem, there is a kind of back and forth on the river, where someone is waiting for a lover to return and maybe the lover doesn’t return. But here, there is not so much a back and forth as a kind of outflowing of people who don’t come back, or don’t come back alive: “the sea sends back the drowned” this poem says. To me that’s a very powerful shift in the way we can think about not only endless global migrations, but poetry itself, because instead of kind of imitating or sort of rewording the earlier poem, it really pushes away from it. And it never goes back in a sense, too. I mean, there is that figure of the wife, but to me, it’s a very strong counterpoint to Pound’s romanticizing of the transitions of poetry around the world.
Christina Pugh: Yeah. I’ve just been marveling at how much this poem does, and how beautifully it preserves poetic language, while making that very critique. I think one thing that the two poems have in common is the separation between the husband and the wife. In Pound’s poem, it’s a geographic separation that takes the river merchant away from his wife. But in Mattawa’s poem, it seems as if the two are together and yet there is this drowned population that she’s asking about that the husband cannot or won’t answer to or for. And so when the husband pulls the wife “toward / his manhood to help him sleep,” you get the feeling of incredible sexual, physical proximity but an emotional chasm between the two of them, because she’s asking why: how strong are the boats, how many can they carry. And he can’t answer to that. At the same time, I think the poem is just so beautiful in the way that it uses that lyric language to, as you were saying, Don, to be a counterpoint to “The River-Merchant’s Wife.” 
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I love what you were saying about that emotional distance, Christina, because I think this poem does that so deftly. There is sort of the passive voice that the husband takes on when he’s talking about the boats, he says: “no reason for what keeps happening / to them.” There is no clear language about what has happened to them, although everyone infers, and there is no ownership of why that action is happening. And then even earlier on, the wife says: “I was 7 months with my third baby / when someone sought him // for a Zodiac.” So there is no, even, ownership of him going to get these boats: well, someone sought me for them, and I just fell into this sort of trap. And I think in terms of the comparison with the Pound poem, there is a really interesting treatment of time in Mattawa’s poem as well. The wife says, “Time passes like the Ghibli here,” which is a word for the Mediterranean wind. You know, all of a sudden she is seven months pregnant with her third child, and yet her husband, his face is entirely unchanged from all these years. So while her body has quite literally changed multiple times, he’s in sort of this no-man’s land where time doesn’t seem to affect him and he is somehow isolated from these terrible current events that are partially his own making.
Christina Pugh: Hmm. Yeah, that’s interesting. In the Pound poem, he’s referred to as “My Lord you” and that unchanging quality that you were just talking about seems really germane to a kind of lordliness of this male figure, who is really terrible and terrifying in a way, but also, as you were saying, at the mercy of circumstances and forces. What you just quoted, Lindsay, “when someone sought him // for a Zodiac,” is again one of these beautiful phrases that on its own, without the context, would just have such a resonant lyricism and still does, and yet here the Zodiac has such a more sorrowful, horrifying meaning, knowing that the context makes it into a proper name, a brand name.
Don Share: One of the other things, since you mention the wording in the Pound, “At fourteen I married My Lord you.” Which is a kind of famous line from the poem and has inversions in it that work even though Pound is sort of against those things in certain ways. But what’s also dramatic in this comparison that you could make, given that the Zodiac is sort of the changing of constellations, and there is so much movement in both poems, one thing is constant, and that is the idea of manhood. In “The River-Merchant’s Wife” he is lordly and he goes off and he does his thing. And he can’t really be questioned,     and that is true now. I mean it’s sort of shocking how little about this idea of manhood has changed, that in this poem this husband, you know, the implication is, well, this is what I do, it’s kind of none of your business, that’s how I support us, don’t ask questions. And in both poems, there is that relationship where there are questions to be asked, but the man sort of … is supposed to have the last word on that. And that leads to tragedy, heartbreak, and violence.
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah. I mean, the husband is literally closing his eyes to these events as he is speaking about them. So he is sort of trying to ignore this thing, and yet the poem makes it clear that it is bothering him because he has trouble sleeping, and it’s the wife’s job to make sure that he can sleep. So once again, this woman is implicated by her own relationships into this sort of scenario that she is very willing to question, and yet she is not allowed any answers.
Don Share: Well, his conscience isn’t keeping him awake.
Don Share: You can read “The Boat Merchant’s Wife” by Khaled Mattawa in the January 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all January episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Curtis Fox and Rachel James.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss Khaled Mattawa's poem "The Boat Merchant's Wife" from the January 2019 issue of Poetry.

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