Review of Modern Poetry in Translation No.19


      "Modern Poetry in Translation No.19"

      Edited by Daniel Weissbort

      Guest Editor: Saadi Simawe

      King's College London

      288 pp. $16.95




Review by Paul Catafago


If you who are citizens of the conqueror continue to conquer, what will you do with the poets you have captured? The poems you have collected? The words you have stolen?


The very title Iraqi Poetry Today, an ambitious collection of verse written by current and former citizens of the now dearly-departed"IRAQ", is problematic and deceptive. In other words, none of the poems included in the collection were written"today", let alone recently. In fact, the anthology includes work by poets who died many years ago. But by suggesting that some of these words were produced by Iraqi poets as British and American bombs rained on them just a few months ago, the publishers are attempting to capitalize on the tragedy that the words "Iraq and today", together, invoke. And the fact that the volume was published in Britian, one of the countries that have once and again colonized and devastated Iraq, is ironic. Though the book was published a few months before the sacking of Iraq, circa 2003, the deed was already seen as fait accompli. A conspiracy theorist may surmise that Bush and Blair were in cohoots with the fine chaps at King's College, the publishers, when they decided to bomb the crap out of Iraq. Nothing sells more books than a little blood and guts.


In his introduction, Saadi Simawe, writes,"Translation can, of course be seen as a tool that facilitates the globalization of capital and thus contributes to the overall deadening of cultures, but when poetry is translated, it works against these effects." However to Iraqi victims of Anglo-American aggression, the fact that poems written by their compatriots have been translated into the language of their conquerors matters less than the fact that they have indeed been conquered.


All this is not to say that translation projects such as these should not be attempted. It's only that when they are embarked upon, they should be done with honesty, care, and essentially, with love.


And now to the poetry itself.


Truly, to call this collection wide ranging is an understatement. The editors successfully attempt to reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity that Iraq has enjoyed. For example, there are poems originally written not only in Arabic, but in Hebrew (by the Iraqi Jewish poet Murad Mikhai'l) and Kurdish (Goran, Bekes, Bekes Jr., al-Haydari, Hilmi, Jigerkhwen, Peshew, and Selman). As well, the book contains an essay on Kurdish poetry, written by Muhammad Tawfik Ali. The collection features the work of 40 different poets and 33 translators.


Any anthology of contemporary Iraqi poetry must include the work of Abd al-Wahab al- Bayati (1926-1999). Born in Baghdad near a Sufi shrine, al-Bayati's work came to be loved in the West because of his colorful riffs on the themes of longing and loss: exile. In fact, though he was always proud of his country of origin, al-Bayati spent much of his life,"wandering from exile to exile". Stylistically, al-Bayati wandered, as well. The volume contains poems written by al-Bayati both in free verse and ruba'iyat. In the eighth of his"Nine Ruba'iyat", the poet writes,"We may or may not return/ to our motherland, which carries hope in its loins/ and grief and the glitter of promises./ Around our fire, the butterfly of life continues to hover."


In his introduction, Simawe lists exile as a major theme running through Iraqi poetry. It stands to reason. Like al-Bayati, Iraqi poets such as Sa'di Yusef (1934-), who lives in London, have, throughout the years left their homeland for the West. One of these poets, Dunya Mikhail(1964) who left Iraq in 1995 and today teaches Arabic in Detroit, impresses with sharp polemical lyricism. In her poem, "America", she writes,"Who said that the sky/would lose all of its stars/if the night passed without answers?/America,leave your questionnaires to the river/and leave me to my lover."


While Mikhail emerges as a new voice, it is a poem,"Bridge of Old Wonders" written by Muzaffar al-Nawwab (1932-) in 1976-77 that shines as the volume's coup de grace. Described by the editors as"the most popular poet in the Arab world", al-Nawwab sings most of his poetry and very little of it is published on the page.


"Bridge of Old Waters", then, is a masterwork not just as poetry but as translation. Most of al-Nawwab's works, including this poem, exists as performances on cassette tape. So the translator, Saadi Simawe, had to transcribe the work first. Spanning 34 pages, the poem is stunning, working, unapolegetically as a metaphor for Arab malaise. In an introduction, al-Nawwab explains that"Bridge of Old Wonders", written shortly after the massacre at the Palestinian refugee camp, Tel Zaatar in Lebanon, is poltical because it needs to be. The translator does a good job in retaining the work's melodious rage.


The poet writes,"Does a woman in a tent give birth to an army?/You sons of filth, sons of Palestine/You will return to the land of Palestine, alright/but as corpses/the children looked to the Arab nation for help:/the testicles of the Arab leaders trembled with pride."


When discussing modern Arabic poetry, there is no separate classification for political poetry. That is, all poetry is political: informed by what Etel Adnan has called"The Arab Apocalypse", especially the Palestinian catastrophe, the nakba, and the incompetence and corruption of Arab leaders. The Syrian poet, Nizzar Qabbani, wrote after another Arab defeat, in 1967,"My beloved country, in a flash you transformed me from a poet who wrote love poems to one who writes with a knife."




Iraqi Poetry Today is an impressive anthology of contemporary verse that should be part of everyone's collection. However, in good conscience, I urge you not to buy this book. That is to say, though the publishers are exploiting the situation in Iraq, there is no evidence that any percentage of the proceeds will go to the Iraqi people themselves. Therefore, though the collection is evidence of both great poetry and translation, you shouldn't buy it. As Aristotle said (Abbie Hoffman stole the line from him), you should steal the book, then donate the $16.95 to charity.