Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) comes from a village between jagged blade of Syrian mountains and liquid blade of Mediterranean Sea. Frankincense and myrrh, seers and generals, caravans and armies, prophets and empires, untouchable priestesses and the Queen of Sheba...All passed through that land of cherries, rock, and olives; a place that knew the Hellenistic flourishing of Ptolemaic Egypt, the silk of a distant, ancient China, the bone-crushing march of the Roman Republic, the fierce expansion of Parthian nomads from the steppe...
Approximately 64 BCE: The Romans annex Syria, and Mesopotamia becomes a warzone. As they battle the Parthians, the Euphrates changes hands like an old rope, and heads and limbs are flung into it.
The Euphrates rages, daggers rising from its banks, towers of quaking earth and thunder, and the waves are fortresses. I see the dawn, its wings clipped, and water, its floods sharpened, embracing its spears -from Stage and Mirrors, 1968
Byzantines came later with God, shining purple silk, and blood. The Caliphs came with God, heaping mounds of spoils from conquest, and blood. Crusaders came with God, swords, hunger, arrows, wine, and blood. God's original tribe came with walls, siege, and blood.
All the while a man speaks to trees, transcribes the speech of stones, relates to us his conversations with lightning, archives the rains, and sings of the beginning of wind.
It is from this tapestry of Earth and Civilization, Creation and Oblivion, that the poetry of Adonis emerges, surges, heaves. He writes in the Arabic language, but to merely confer upon him the title of "major Arab poet" ignores his truly planetary poetics and the universality, the humanity, in his work. With the elements of nature, humankind builds its world. With the elements of time and language, with variations on the themes of love, beginnings, wounds, and death, Adonis seeks to build Another Alphabet.
Nonetheless, when you read Adonis, you traverse the entire span of Arab poetics: the orality of the Bedouin poets of pre-Islamic times (some of whom spoke in numbers) and their pagan, earthian songs; the supreme prophecy and dynamic textuality of the Qu'ran; poetry and philosophy's rebellion against jurisprudence and theology; Arab poetry's absorption of the seismic shocks of modernity. All these can be found in a single poem, sometimes even a single line, of Adonis.
Damascus. Florence. Yemen. Paris. Kufa. New York. The netherworld of the blind poet Al-Ma'ari exploding with visions. Cadmus. Euclid. Nero. Solomon. Nietzsche. Tamerlane. Plato. Apollinaire. Dante. The Antichrist. (Some of the places and inhabitants of his vast poetic terrain.)
Surrealism. Nihilism. Feminism. Masochism. Criticism. Heroism. Orgasm. Romanticism. Sufism. All these pulse through his work.
Many call him infidel. Apostate. He would never admit to being a mystic. His vision takes him beyond most understandings of belief. He cannot even utter the word. He forgot it upon being buried in the Divine's cosmic dust, upon nakedly touching the Ultimate, upon learning its language. He is among those blessed, damned, to only have language as a home.
Recommended reading: (in English) Selected Poems, Yale University Press An Introduction to Arab Poetics, Saqi Books Sufism and Surrealism, Saqi Books (in Arabic) Musiqa Al-Hut Al-Azraq, Dar al-Adab Al-Muhit Al-Aswad, Al-Saqi