Featured review

Alphabets of Sand

Alphabets of Sand

By Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Translated by Marilyn Hacker

Carcanet Press, 232pp, paperback, £12.95, ISBN 978 1 85754 977 5
Series 3 No. 13 - Transplants

The dead and the living coexist in a world of irreligious mythology from which linear time is banished, as discontinuous events are narrated and assembled in the poems like fragments of mosaic.

Review by Rowyda Amin

Although Alphabets of Sand draws together work from three previous collections by the French-Lebanese writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata, the style of the poems, which are all free verse narratives predominantly in long, loose lines, and the thematic preoccupations which are developed throughout this collection are consistent enough that the poems sit together harmoniously. The collection is composed of six sequences which engage particularly with the themes of death, the correspondences between the author’s two languages, Arabic and French, and the questioning of the nature of language itself.  

Three languages are present in Marilyn Hacker’s English translation of these poems. Khoury-Ghata writes in French, although Arabic is her mother tongue and she has described Arabic as the ‘original language’ of her work. Khoury-Ghata’s poems are hybrid in both subject matter and style, blending the fabulist narratives of traditional Arabic storytelling with a European-informed surrealism and a bucolic magical realism which recalls Marquez. The dead and the living coexist in a world of irreligious mythology from which linear time is banished, as discontinuous events are narrated and assembled in the poems like fragments of mosaic.

The collection starts with ‘Widow’, a surreal evocation of the process of the unnamed protagonist’s grieving over the space of ten days. In a realistic domestic setting, fantastical scenarios occur: ‘The first day after his death / she folded up her mirrors / put a slipcover on the spider web / then tied up the bed which was flapping its wings to take off.’ The days are marked by the appearances of animals and people, intrusions of the natural world and by the strange rituals the woman undertakes: ‘the sixth day after his death / she painted her face with earth / attacked the peaceful shadows of passers-by.’ These rituals culminate in the mythic reappearance of the husband, surging out of his wife’s palm like Persephone returning from the Underworld. His death is a journey on which he has lost the capacity for finding pleasure in his wife’s ‘usual words’.

The theme of death is reprised in ‘The Darkened Ones’, whose collective narrators are dead yet conscious, listening from under the ground to the sounds of the living and struggling to interpret what they hear: ‘The city’s voices come to us mangled / untangling them takes a land surveyor’s skill.’ This depiction of the restless dead under the city evokes the casualties of Lebanon’s civil war who are still present in the collective memory of Beirut. The boundaries between death and life are blurred in this sequence: ‘sheet or shroud, what’s the difference’ is a repeated refrain. The dead are not departed but rather a hidden, disenfranchised mass who feel prematurely shut out from the world. Death here is associated with a loss of words: ‘without moving our hands, we write / the words which we lack, taken from disused books.’ 

In the sequence ‘Words’ the theme of language comes again to the fore. This exuberant exploded narrative is a fictional palaeontology of language which unites Khoury-Ghata’s three languages. The letters of the Roman and Arabic alphabets are given personalities in an origin myth: ‘Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds / the letter ‘i’ was the cleft of a female hummingbird.’ From a common origin, the primeval word-creatures became separated, ‘broke up into alphabets’. In a poem concerned with language, it is unfortunate that the phoneticisation of the names of the Arabic letters is awkward and creates unintentional resonances in English translation which distract the reader:  ‘‘‘Dad” is my mother said the earth / “Sad” is my stepmother/… “Sin” a slotted ladle’. As some Arabic letters have no direct equivalent in the Roman alphabet, the translator is in the unenviable position of choosing between several inexact attempts at phoneticisation in ordinary characters or utilising the International Phonetic Alphabet, which would sacrifice accessibility for precision. In this translation, Hacker has unfortunately chosen phoneticisations which not only spell out English words that Khoury-Ghata was presumably not trying to evoke in her French original, but which are also less exact than they could have been: ‘Seen’ would have been a better option than ‘Sin’. In this respect, Hacker’s otherwise excellent translation is hampered by her lack of familiarity with Arabic, the ever-present shadow language in Khoury-Ghata’s poems. 

The poems of ‘The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom’ focus on the inhabitants of a Lebanese village, with characterisations of the villagers which are frequently humorous as well as surreal: ‘In my village the sheep are so tall they graze on the bellies of clouds, chew in / the violets’ shadows while slandering Mansour the wool-carder.’ Lebanon’s complex cultural identity is touched on as well as the theme of language. The fate of a plum tree is, mysteriously, ‘linked to the country’s independence’ and the narrator asks if it will ‘answer to a name that perhaps won’t suit its branches used to/ conversing with the Arab wind’. 

Khoury-Ghata’s narratives are lively and inventive, engaging elliptically with her themes of life, death and language. Nearly everything, animate or otherwise, is endowed here with a linguistic faculty of a sort: ‘The books we browsed in came from the forest that watched us read.’ There are many voices in Alphabets of Sand and such narration resists univocal histories, making it particularly suitable for writing about Lebanon, with its complexities of religious and ethnic identity. Whilst retaining a sense of origin, these poems capture a polyglot aesthetic which is well adapted to the subject matter. The lyrical beauty of Khoury-Ghata’s surreal, sensuous images and her evocation of Lebanon as a landscape of anarchic, contesting alphabets, leave the reader enchanted by a unique narrative voice.

Rowyda Amin

Interested in sending a short review to MPT?

Pencil icon

Find out how to send a Poetry Postcard.» Read the guidelines

Browse reviews

By issue of MPT »

Contributor and student discounts

If you are a student, or if you contribute to MPT you are eligible for a great discount deal when you subscribe…» Subscribe now

Next issue…

Spring 2017

Spring 2017

No 4 / 2014

Submissions related to the open call are accepted at submissions@mptm... » Read more » Submit to MPT

Back to top
Supported by Arts Council England

Copyright © Modern Poetry in Translation and contributors
Website design ashbydesign
Developed by Code Frontiers
Powered by Storemill