Tuesday, April 24, 2007


In the distance fires break

Some lines from the poem "The Other Person" by Saadi Youssef:
In a restaurant in winter, I heard him cough,
watched him wipe his hands with a handkerchief
and muffle a laugh in the depth of his eyes.
I watched him notice me for the first time,
mocking me without letting me hear a vowel,
or even stirring the silence that dozed.
The windows of the winter restaurant were wet.
Then suddenly, he left,
wrapped in his pale coat.
(From the book Without an Alphabet, Without a Face: Selected Poems of Saadi Youssef translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawa, published 2002 by Graywolf Press. All quoted passages here are from the above book.)

Saadi Youssef was born in Iraq in 1934, in a village near Basra. He received a degree in Arabic from Baghdad University in 1954. Baghdad University was a center of much left-wing political activity at that time, and Youssef became politically active during those years, and started writing poetry as well. He was imprisoned for his political activities for a time during the 1960's, left for Algeria, then returned to Iraq in 1971 where he worked for the Ministry of Culture. In 1979 when one of the C.I.A.'s "assets," Saddam Hussein, became head of the government, Youssef left Iraq again, and has since lived in exile in various countries mostly in the Mediterranean region, working mostly in publishing and journalism, and of course writing poetry.
They will not steal any of your flowers
because you're lost between the thing and its image.
Your names are lost,
lost like water.
Forgotten citadel, your locks are deserted.
You stand stubborn between
carriage horses and black shoes,
raising your red flags in the square.
(From the poem "Oleander Tree.")

Youssef's poems move easily among details and commonplace objects, as though holding onto solid things as a kind of grounding. A bowl of soup, coffee grounds, a sparrow on a stalk of corn. From the details, worlds emerge, the push of history.
This is how these sour mornings pass,
living tissues leavening,
the sun a muddle,
the sea fogged up,
and the record spins around itself
like the newspapers,
like the PLO,
like Sinnin water,
and civilian planes
and anti-Marxist think tanks
and the ideal methods for two bodies to join.
The tree near my window doesn't want to spin.
The sea has no wish to soften into green.
The passersby have no desire to walk on.
And I stutter here in secret like a swing
seeking the water in the trees,
hoping the sea will soften to green,
the sea that will rise to my window.
(From the poem "Days of June," written in July, 1982, in Beirut, during the seige and invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli military.)

Living and dealing with daily survival under extreme and dangerous conditions can affect one's perceptions of the most ordinary things and events. The line may blur between common reality and hallucination. Simple description can transform into something resembling surrealism.
On the radio, yesterday, I heard a voice:
Maryam's voice.
Is she living among the "explosions" between Lailki and Sullam?
Beirut, against whose stones I rest my back,
Beirut is startled like a seabird
and the lovers swing their machine guns
and the sea calms.
The children listen for a treacherous sound
and in the distance fires break
and planes gyrate in a leaden horizon.
For you, Maryam, lovers and explosions.
(From the poem "Maryam Comes.")

A quiet stubborn persistent hope repeatedly emerges in Youssef's poems, even those written out of the bleakest despair or in the longing that can grow from exile. In this respect his work sometimes reminds me of the poetry of Yannis Ritsos, the great 20th century Communist poet of Greece. From silence and mystery, in the most routine scenes, a shout of life comes forth in Youssef's poems, a strength subtle and unbroken. This, from the poem "The New Baghdad":
At night
she roams among houses abandoned by the poor
and churches where a muffled mass fades
and huts where poor girls faint.
At midnight
she returns to her enchanted shelter
behind muddy streets,
carrying the bread of the dead,
myrtle flowers,
slivers of buffalo liver
and two bones for a bowl of soup.
At dawn she stops by all her houses,
waking all her children,
dragging them to the street,
the thousands waiting to march on Baghdad.
Without an Alphabet, Without a Face includes an informative introduction by translator Khaled Mattawa, and a few endnotes illuminating various literary, political, historical and mythological references that occur in some of the poems. The poems of Saadi Youssef speak with passion and clarity about the world and the times in which we live, and in which we continue to find our own voices. We are the makers of our history, and we will not be silenced.
On the third of May I saw six walls crack.
A man I knew emerged through them, wearing
workers' clothes and a black leather cap.
I said: "I though you left. Wasn't
your name among the first on the list?
Did you not volunteer in Madrid? Did you
not fight along the revolution's ramparts in Petrograd?
Weren't you killed in the oil strike?
Did I not see you in a papyrus thicket
loading your machine gun? Did you
not raise
the commune's red flag? Did you not
the people's army in Sumatra?
Take my hand; the six walls may collapse
at any moment; take my hand."

Neighbor, I believe in a strange star.
Neighbor, life's nights echo: "You are my home."
We've travelled wide and long
and the heart is still aimed at home.
Neighbor, don't stray.
My path leads to Baghdad.
(From the poem "In Those Days.")

A recent monograph on Saadi Youssef:

This is a very interesting post.

It's kind of sad that he's still in exile.

Great excerpts. I'll have to add this poet to my list. Thanx!
Quite a wonderful post about a poet I want very much to read about reading your short piece by him. Thanks for this post
Ahmad, Sheryl, Jenni, Julia, thanks for your comments.
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