Adonis, Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa. Yale University Press, 2010. 400 Pages.
Born in Syria in 1930, Adonis, the pen name of Ali Ahmad Esber, has written more than fifty books of poetry, criticism, and translations in his native Arabic. He has been nominated for a Nobel Prize. He has been awared prizes in Syria, Belgium and was elected to the Stephane Mallarme academy in 1983. His adopted name is the Greek name of the god Tammuz, a deity worshipped in the Levant and Mesopotamia in very ancient, pre-Judaeo-Christian times. "Doing away with rhyme altogether and opting for syncopated rhythm patterns, and abrupt syntactical transitions, Adonis offers a revolutionary and anarchic poetry reminiscent of Sufi poets such as Rumi and Western poets such as St. John of the Cross ", according to the introduction here written by Khaled Mattawa, the translator and editor of this volume, a poet himself and professor.
On first reading of his Selected Poems, especially the earlier poems in this volume, Adonis's work reminds one of the shorter poems of William Blake (without the rhyme) filtered through a surrealistic lens. It is no accident that, although all of his poetry is written in Arabic, Adonis has lived in France for many years, where several generations of Surrealistic writers have thrived. Although coming from a culture mostly unknown to us in the West before 9/11, Adonis is a world class poet, one of the greatest now writing anywhere. In her blurb for this book, Marilyn Hacker gets it right. Hacker says:"Adonis...is one of the most important contemporary poets and poetic tthinks in any language or contexts." Some of us learned of Adonis around 9/11. Suddenly his poems appeared online and on lampposts in New York City. His great poem "A Grave For New York" appeared in English translation unfortunately in a volume other than this one. It's absence from this Selected is one of the few weaknesses of this book. Although written many years before 9/11, "Grave" was considered by some to be predictive of that event in some mysterious way.
Another weaker poem called "Concerto for 11th September 2001 B.C." appears here, drawing comparison between 2001 AD and B.C., referring to Gilgamesh, among other things. Was this a substitute for the greater poem for copyright reasons or was the translator a different poet? I have no way of knowing the answer to this question but it has to be asked or at least mentioned. Adonis has written thousands of pages of poetry, including a 2,000 page epic called "The Book". It also is not excerpted here. Some explanation for this fact is given in the introduction. Any reservations about the current volume must be tempered by the knowledge that Adonis assisted Khaled Mattawa in its preparation. Thus, it comes with Adonis' seal of approval, so to speak. That also partially speaks to the question of whether this book is an adequate rendering of poems originally in Arabic into English, something which I, who know no Arabic, am unqualified to investigate or to answer. My interest in this book primarily was: do the poems work as English language poems? The answer to that is, unequivocally, that they do, although some of the later poems (written in the author's seventies) appear to be weaker than those produced in his early and middle years, they are still interesting and some of them probably belong here. They bring to mind the poems Yeats wrote in his old age, without being equal to them in quality. Influences such as Whitman and Hopkins suggest themselves in these later works as well.
I also found it interesting that there are so many references in all these poems to language, reading, writing, poetry, words, and such. This reminds one a bit of the so-called Language Poets in the U.S.A. but Adonis is definitely not one of them, by any means. His poems have a warmth, a humanity, a depth related to human experience which Language poetry often lacks and which, in fact, some of it shuns. One of the best poems in this book is "Body", an excerpt from a much longer poem called "Singular in the Plural Form." This great love poem, "Body" is fifty pages long. I read it twice and couldn't put it down either time. It reminded me of WC Williams' much shorter "Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower" and as one of the most experimental poems in this book, also of the poems of Charles Olson and Stephane Mallarme. Here, as in many other poems, Adonis advances his obsession with paradoxes and contradictory statements but always with human warmth. These are not intellectual exercises. They come from the "heart."
There is something ancient and eternal as well as innovative simultaneously in Adonis' poetry as presented here. Except for Rumi, Khalil Gibran, and Omar Khayyam, the poetry of the Muslim world is almost unknown to many readers in America. Jami, one of Persia's greatest poets, is little known here and impossible to find in modern translation. In this "Selected Poems," Adonis refers to Arabic poets of the past, all of them unknown here. Why is this so? Muslim culture was largely ignored here before 9/11. Now it seems to be exploding everywhere. This is preferrable to bombs and terrorism, no? Still, it has taken violence to force us into an awareness of the poetrthe culture, the humanity of many millions of our fellow humans, the believers in the teachings of Mohammed. Adonis' poetry contains all of this culture somehow. It also reminds us of the simplicity American poetry has lost as the academy has turned the writing of poetry into another inscrutable discipline looking for a tenure it will never find. Adonis has no such problems. His poems will last as long as poems are read and literate humans survive.
Compared often to Eliot for his apparently comparable influence on Arabic poetry, Adonis's poetry seems more like that of Whitman or Neruda to me, the latter of whom I also read in translation. Especially since the death of Allen Ginsberg, the concept of a poet as a seer or sage seems dead in American poetry. It's wonderful to realize that in the great Adonis, it is alive and well at least in the Arab world. We can only hope that it will be reborn here as a result of the translation of Adonis' great poetry along with so much Muslim literature which is lately becoming available to us. This includes the fine translations of many Turkish poets by Murat Nemet Nejat. In point of fact, several Turkish poets, including most significantly Nazim Hikmet have been available to us for a long time. Is this attributable to the proximity of Turkey to the West? Who can say?
There is also the case of the superb poet Agha Shahid Ali, the poet from Kashmir, an authority on the Muslim poetic form, the ghazal, as well as a fine poet himself. Sadly, Ali passed away at 50 from a brain tumor several years ago. His great book in English called Country Without a Post Office (the title refers to Kashmir itself) is a superb and beautiful book, published in 1996. Also in recent years we have seen translations of Bosnian Muslim poetry by Ammiel Alcalay. This Selected Poems of Adonis makes a fine and essential addition to our ever growing familiarity with contemporary poetry from the Muslim world. To conclude, here are in full Adonis' poem "This is My Name" in full and the beginning of the superb poem "Body."
This Is My Name
Erasing all wisdom this is my fire No sign has remained --My blood is the sign This is my beginning I entered your pool Earth revolving around me, your organs are a Nile flowing We drifted settled you split through my blood and my waves traversed your chest, you melted so that we begin. Love has forgotten the blade-edge of night. Shall I cry out that the flood is coming? Let's begin. A scream scales the city and the people are mirrors on the march. When salt crosses over toward...we'll meet. Will you be who you are? --My love is a wound My body is a rose on the wound, unpluckable except in death My body is a bough That gave away its leaves and lay down to rest... Is stone the answer? Does your death, that sleeping master, beguile you? I have Halos of craving for your breasts, and for your childlike face, a face like it...You? I did not find you It's my flame that erases now I entered your pool I bear a city under my sorrows I have what turns the green branches into snakes, and the sun into a black lover I have Come closer, wretched of the earth, cover this age with your rags and tears, cover it with a body seeking its own warmth The city is arcs of madness I saw revolution bear its own children I buried millions of songs and I came (Are you in my grave?) Let me touch your hands: Follow me
My time has yet to come, but the graveyard of the world is already here. I bear Ashes for all the sultans Give me your hands Follow me
1. The earth is not a wound But a body -- Can one travel between a wound And a body?
Can one reside?
Physician, herbalists, magicians, diviners Readers of the unknown I am working your secret trade I become an ostrich = I swallow the embers of shock and grind the embers of murder
I work your secret trade = I witness the unknown of my state I pant like someone trying to make home of his exile I scatter -- am diffused -- my surfaces spread and I own none of them My insides reduced, no place in them for me to live
Then in an instant I dry up I dew I move away approach I retreat attack I worship shake off belief Something separates me from me How do I show myself in my body?