Featured review

Your Country is No Longer Here.

By Adonis

Yale University Press, 2010
2013 Number 3 - Secret Agents of Sense

Review by Marilyn Booth

Adonis, Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Muttawa.

From boyhood in Syria, ‘Ali Ahmad Sa‘id Esber (b. 1930) was a poet, and it was not long before his compositions began interrogating the relevance of older literary forms to contemporary art – a questioning process that had been gathering force amongst writers and poets since the late nineteenth century – and the equally rigid notions of governance and social organisation in his own country. An early poem (1944) garnered him a government scholarship, but the young man’s relentless critique and leftist-nationalist political associations eventually meant a spell in gaol and exile from Syria.

The man who became known as Adonis combined teaching at the Lebanese University and public intellectual work with an astounding poetic output that has made him one of the best-known and most respected artists working in Arabic, with a corpus that has drawn deeply and innovatively on the ancient and continuous heritage of Arabic poetry and philosophy and on his home region’s long history.

Adonis’s reworkings of ‘local’ histories in the service of a universally focused humanism, in his poetry and through critical writings, are evident in the pen-name he adopted early in his career. The Greek name for Tammuz, an ancient deity of the eastern Mediterranean littoral and hinterlands, still remembered after Islam had become well-rooted there, ‘Adonis’ signalled the poet’s belonging to a group of poets in 1950s Beirut who called themselves the ‘Tammuzi’ poets to highlight their productive fascination with the ancient mythologies of their region as they crafted a rebellious poetry for their own time.

As part of his call for radical revisions to Arabic poetry and thought, based on thorough engagement with the Arab literary and intellectual heritage, Adonis drew on but reshaped existing Arabic poetic structures, whether short lyrical poems or the longer monorhyme ode that was the bedrock form of Arabic poetry from pre-Islamic times. He was one of the first in his generation to experiment with prose poetry in Arabic. His was a multi-pronged challenge to orthodoxy: through his own poetic practice, and his three-volume anthology of classical Arabic poetry first issued in 1964–68 when he was working with Yusuf al-Khal and others in Beirut to produce the literary magazine Shi‘r (Poetry). The challenge surfaced also in his directive critical articles (which he himself did not always follow), and (years aEer breaking with the programmatic Western-centric commitments of the Shi‘r group) his founding of Mawaqif (Positions, 1968) which published experimental poetry. ‘Feisty, contentious, articulate, and alert throughout his sixty years in public life, Adonis is a well-decorated cultural figure who has refused to rest on his considerable laurels,’ declares Khaled Ma8awa, the compiler and translator of this collection in his fine and comprehensive introduction to Adonis’s career.

Previous translations of Adonis’s poetry have tended to feature either one thematic focus or single collections. Khaled Mattawa’s collection – on which he has been working since the 1990s – draws from the whole span of Adonis’s career if not from every collection produced by this prolific poet. It represents substantially fourteen collections published between 1957 and 2008. Mattawa, who teaches literature at University of Michigan, is an acclaimed published poet, and these translations sing.

At nearly 400 pages, this collection (awarded the 2011 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation) provides a fine sense of the sweep of Adonis’s career and the continuous innovation that has marked it. Mattawa explains Adonis’s ‘cinematic’ explorations of history, his poetic documentation of politically wrought human tragedies (as in the 1985 Book of Siege, following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon), his fellow-travelling with poets of the past in and through his own imaginative renderings, and the very personal, at times memoiristic, poetry of the past decade, which returns to but retunes the voice of some of his earliest verse.

The poems of the late 1950s are startling for the times in their brevity, stark juxtapositions, affective imagery and simplicity. They convey the agony and enthusiastic embraces of youth, its passions and stubbornness. These are always about movement, a narrating persona who is ever restless, an anticipatory voice even when expressing disillusion and weariness as in ‘The Banished’ from First Poems (1957):

               On the first day of the year
               our groans said to us,
               ‘Tie the ropes of travel and aim far
                or live in tents of snow.
                Your country is no longer here.’

Mihyar appeared just four years later. Mattawa conveys its radical difference beautifully in his calibrations of language, from the prose-poetic ‘Psalm’ that begins each section to the compressed poetic lines of the interior:

He draws the unseen side of day, kindles daylight in his footsteps, borrows the shoes of night, and waits for what never comes. He is the physics of things. (Psalm 23)

               He carries in his eyes
               a pearl; from the ends of days
               and from the wind she takes
               a spark; and from his hand,
               from the islands of rain
               a mountain, and creates dawn.

Adonis’s post-1967 A Time between Ashes and Roses, with its craftily disjointed cacophony of perceptions, is much less lyrical, harsher, more declamatory than the earlier poetry, while the halts and voids of a time of utter confusion emerge in a distinct spatial regime on the page:

His majesty, the caliph issues a law made of water                 His people are broth, mud, and wan, wilted swords                 His majesty’s word is a crown studded with human eyes
Is this city a holy verse? Are the women wearing pages of the holy book?
I tucked my eyes into a tunnel that the hours had dug                 I asked, are my people a river without a sound?

In this 1971 collection, Damascus is people and homeland, but equally is the centre of power, site of treacherous contestations. Forty years later, in the wake of political and social eruptions across Arab societies, many of Adonis’s poems of place and wandering accrue additional meanings and suggest the power of his corpus far beyond the moments of its emergence. His 1965 collection Migrations featured a long and poignant poem to Damascus voiced by the last claimant to the Umayyad caliphate, known as ‘the Falcon of Quraysh’:

                 I ask her, and Damascus does not answer 
                 does not come to the stranger’s aid.
                 Of my life, nothing remains in my eye
                 except these sad ghosts.
                 Still, the trees that weep on the city’s ground
                 are lovers who sing my songs.
                 Mirror of endless wandering,
                 change the face of the moon,
                 for my beloved’s face is no longer there.

Such poems of loss, exile, defeat and yet of hope ring doubly real now as we witness the tragic disintegration of Adonis’s land of birth. As a quiet, later poem (2008) puts it,

                 At the doorstep of the café, at the beginning of the street, poetry came
                 and went in the shape of a seer
                 on a day that was like a rag wet with muddy water.

Marilyn Booth

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