Wednesday, September 08, 2010


So that they might become flames

A little while back I came across Rain Inside, selected poems by Ibrahim Nasrallah, translated from Arabic by Omnia Amin and Rick London (published 2009 by Curbstone Press). I wasn't familiar with Nasrallah's poetry previously. As I read his poems I found myself moving through a world of startling immediacy, a world in which literature and myth arises from plain speech, and commonplace objects rise toward life.

Nasrallah, who is Palestinian, was born in Amman, Jordan, in 1954. As a result of Israeli occupation, he and his parents were forced to go to the Al Wehdat refugee camp in Jordan, where he grew up; he spent the first 33 years of his life there. Through a United Nations relief agency he attended school, and later a teacher training college, and has worked as a teacher and a journalist. Since 1996 he has worked at Darat Al-Fanoun, an arts and cultural center in Jordan. He has written thirteen books of poems, also novels and literary criticism, and is also a painter and photographer.

Who are these songs for?
When they break the silence of the night
spreading warmth and life over the snow,
when they fall on the jasmine and carry it to water,
when they pass by a dim window, secretly embracing a lover,
when they spread over the grass, wrapped in clouds?
Who are these songs for
when they free the flowers
and the hidden flame of passion in women,
when they come to you with their flowers,
when they come to you with their secrets,
when they embrace the sun or a bouquet of flowers
or anything abandoned on the road?

(From the poem "Our Songs" in Rain Inside, from which all of the quoted passages are taken.)

Nasrallah's poems read as though all of his senses remaining perpetually open to the wonders and sorrow of the greatest and smallest things, the slightest passing moments. A river of humanity, of human experience, seems to flow through his poems, a river in which each of us mingles. The surge and jostle, as in the poems of Whitman, or Neruda, or Nazim Hikmet.

Flowers, songs, chants...
A memory from antiquity...
Saturday's dawning sun...
An orphan is late...
A widow comes by embracing another widow...
A singer...
Verses from the Qur'an...
A flute on the outskirts of a neglected village...
Ancient soldiers...
Battles, defeated ages...
Thirty wars announced by daylight...
Another thirty still hidden in their sheaths...
Little ones dressed up for a feast...
Horses filled with the joy of their riders...
A procession coming from far away...
Ululations reaching the sky, a commotion...
Men emerging from darkness...
from yesterday's newspapers, from the inkwell.

(From the poem "The Celebration." All ellipses are in the original.)

From time to time during the past twenty or thirty year, one poet or another will quote the remark by the twentieth century philsopher Theodor Adorno, to the effect that after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible. I haven't read Adorno's original statement, or any of his writings; poet Adrienne Rich (in her essay "Poetry and the Forgotten Future") says, among other things, that Adorno later retracted the statement. Clearly, poets haven't stopped writing; the evidence of history suggests, if anything, that writing poetry has become even more essential in the aftermath of the horrors of the past century; that the greater the struggles and difficulties of life in the world, the greater the need to speak out. Poetry has not (if it were necessary to say so) become impossible.

From the poem "Possibilities":

Maybe silence has grapes for a tongue
and flows inside us
and spreads us out like colored garments.

Maybe the dust under siege
in our flesh is a marble horizon
to which birds have long prayed --
but it has never responded.

Maybe fire's ancient sorrow is ashes
that torture it with our annihilation,
then leave it to moan.

Maybe when water yearned for fire
it invented waves
so one day they might become flames.

Rain Inside includes three sequences of short fragement-like poems, titled "The Chairs," "The Hours," and "Mirrors of Dust." Though it's difficult to convey the movement and interconnections of the poem groups, here are three sections from "The Hours," to give at least a little feel of them:

The hour of arrest

Usually, a solitary gazelle prepares songs for its young
and at dawn lullabies the question's wound.
But suddenly they cross the streets -- in great numbers --
and a woman asks:
What are they doing with those guns?
Have they come to arrest the mountains?


The hour of execution

Silently, soldiers go round in the barracks
and famished dogs rush out.
There are the monotonous sounds of footsteps
in chains
and in darkness.
Silently, a knotted rope swings
in a rush of bullets and death.


The twenty fifth hour

Nothing can catch it,
not advancing time or chains
or the security forces,
as it dwells in us a ravenous spring
in full view
in our light and tender songs.

You wake up in the morning. You walk outside, keeping in mind that walking outside may be illegal today, that waking up may be illegal. Maybe the bus is running today. Maybe the bus will be permitted to pass the police checkpoint. Maybe the people on the bus will be permitted to stay on the bus as it passes the police check point. Maybe the building at the end of the street will explode, maybe because of bombs dropped on it from the air, maybe because of bombs fired at is from the sea. Maybe the knock on the door is your neighbor. Maybe it's the police. You walk along the street. The people you see may be back on the same street tomorrow. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll be taken away to some place from which they won't return for a very long time. Maybe the people on the street will press on in the face of despair. Maybe they will pull together in an act of open resistance. Maybe you will join them. There are many things to consider, when considering the nature and circumstances of a life.

He silently browses through a book of clouds
and reads the heavy day,
then sears me with his gaze.
I say: life is running across the sky and the pavement,
as he hands me the daily paper.
Water blurs the lines
and burdens sleep.
He whispers: Never mind.
Here one becomes familiar with the look of sorrow on the faces,
the whirl of time,
the incantation of silence,
the closed roads.
When I stretched out my hand to him
he became perplexed.
He shook my hand with his left hand
and hid his tears, his pain,
his wooden arm.

(From the poem "Rain Inside," which includes a sub-title, "(To a man in front of the Scheherazade Cafe: passed by many ... but seen by few).")

What an extraordinary poet. Thank you for this appreciation of and introduction to "Rain Inside". I've put it on my book list.
I've added him to my book list too, Lyle. Thanks for ringin' them bells (as Dylan puts it)....
Maureen, Joseph, thank you both for coming by.
Haven't heard of this poet but will sure be looking out for him. Really powerful thought-provoking poetry. Thanks for sharing.
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