ADONIS COMES TO MICHIGAN

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introduction by Khaled Mattawa

(photo by Shadi Enbashi | juxtapoza.com)

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The poems “War” and “Ruins” are from Adonis’s latest book, Warraq Yabi‘u Kuttub al-Nujum (Printer of the Planets’ Books). Largely composed of leisurely prose meditations interspersed with lyrical flashes, the book draws on the poet’s memories, especially his childhood in Qassabin, Syria. Adonis adroitly recaptures a child’s sense of wonder, as well as a child’s anguish and fears. The books seems also a tribute to the villagers of Qassabin, to a dignity that seems to emerge from a naturally philosophical outlook and a practical resourcefulness that compliment each other. Tender and poised, the poems never veer into nostalgia or sentimentality. Perhaps the counterweight to Qassabin are the poems from a sequence titled “Dictionary” including the two poems presented here, where the dictionary serves as a context for the poet’s memories and provides a premonition of future violence and destruction.

The poet Lawrence Joseph has stated that Adonis has guided Arabic poetry “from where American poetry was in the 1850’s, before Walt Whitman, through the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan, avant-garde forms of twentieth- and twenty-first century modernism and postmodernism.” Such achievements are too much to give to one man, but in truth Adonis was a major actor in all these evolutions in Arabic poetry. His secret, in addition to the gifts that all great poets have, has been his unflinching alertness and his belief that the lyric is the greatest synthesizer of thought and feeling, future and past, love and death.

The University of Michigan hosted Adonis for a week in early October 2010. He gave readings of his poetry to full houses at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and at the Hatcher Library, among other appearances on campus. Genuinely interested in dialogue, he fielded questions ranging from the esthetics of free-verse poetry to the treatment of women in sharia law. His appearance coincided with the release of the first career-spanning collection of his poetry in English, which I have translated.

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Adonis and Khaled Mattawa in conversation (20 MB mp3)

Selected Adonis Poetry

translated from Arabic
by Khaled Mattawa

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from BEGINNINGS OF THE BODY,
ENDS OF THE SEA

Maybe
there is no love on earth
except the one we imagine
we will win, some day
.
Don’t stop
Go on with the dance, dear love, dear poetry
even if it were death
.
.
I imagine I am the sound of singing
rolling in waves among the bending reeds
I mix with light in the sun’s chamber
            in the tents of the trees
I hide
among springs sometimes
and sometimes I descend the slope
of depths I cannot see
.
Ah love—a spring
falling aslant from the heights of fatigue
.
.
From nothing
where meaning
wanders in the wilds
love comes, and remains strange
wider than we had pictured, and higher
.
Is there a refuge among these embers?

.

WAR

War—time walks on, leaning on a cane made from the bones of the dead.
Lead holds its feasts on rugs woven by human eyelids.
Skulls pour blood, skulls get drunk and hallucinate.

War—chains proceed in a festival of broken necks.
History is feet, the days are shoes.

War—heads are flung in a dusty field without a goalkeeper or goal. In ash draped on the streets, in streets dressed in their severed limbs. Not even the sun can illuminate this body that bleeds darkness. And the sun almost says to its light:
Dazzle my eyes so that I do not see.

War—dawn rusts in an alembic filled with lead, in an air that rots on a horizon of black magic, in blood that walks the book of dust, in dust that wears human faces.

War—minds collapse, ideas are rags fluttering their flags. Who can say where mankind lives now? Who can confirm that this is our mother earth? In every moment, one more of love’s offspring dies. The rose forgets to release its fragrance. War-resurrection writes. Death reads, the corpses are ink.

War—Will we make paper out of death on which to write our days? Have we begun to understand the silence of stone, the intelligence of crows, the owl’s wisdom?

War—the heifer of damnation is adorned with the knives of piety, as if life were a mistake corrected only with murder.

.

RUINS

The moon breaks its mirrors on the ruins as Beirut makes crutches out of blood and ashes and hobbles with them.

It’s true. The sky has chains around her feet, and the stars have daggers strapped to their waists.

The day rubs its eyes, disbelieving what it sees.

Weep, Beirut, wipe your tears with the horizon’s kerchief. You wrote the sky again, but you were wrong, and now your wrongs write you.

Do you have another alphabet?

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This is a featured article from the Fall 2010 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. For purchase information, or to learn more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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