Adūnīs, and Khaled Mattawa. Adonis: Selected Poems. Yale University Press, 2012.
Louisiana Channel. “Adonis Interview, I Was Born for Poetry.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 Jan 2015. Web. 12 Feb 2019.
In an interview aired by the Louisiana Channel, Adonis recounts memories from a simple childhood. “There was no school in the village,” he reflects on his first home, a poor Syrian farming town. “There was no electricity either.” He sketches a portrait of an uncluttered life: one without cars, or high-tech gadgets, or formal education. What he had, he testifies with a wistfulness intrinsic to his work, was his culture. “And the essence of the old Arab culture,” he asserts, “is poetry.”
Adonis’ cultural connection to poetry is apparent in each of his poems, his words a testament to his Arabic identity. Next to writers like Mahmoud Darwish, Adonis’ acclaim as an Arabic canon is widespread among the Middle Eastern community, often compared to the T.S. Elliot of Arabic literature. However, his praise has historically been confined to Arabic-speaking communities; much of his work had long remained untranslated to English. Admittedly I, as a Middle Easterner myself, was unfamiliar was his writing.
That’s what makes this collection, Adonis: Selected Poems, so unique. Masterfully translated by Khaled Mattawa, this compilation offers extraordinary insight into Adonis’ progression as a writer. Ranging from his quieter, comparatively simple first collection, published in 1957, to his more experimental 2008 collection, Adonis: Selected Poems offers a sweeping and comprehensive perspective across Adonis’ poetic landscape.
I’ve written before that I’m reluctant to read translated works, particularly poetry. As a writer myself, I understand the weight placed on a poem’s language: each word laboriously chosen; each line of words deliberately strung together; each line break adding an additional layer of meaning to the words that precede and follow. I’m quick to argue that only those who speak the poem’s language - and who really speak that language, natively - can experience the the piece in its entirety, as it was intended. So, I dove into this collection with similar hesitancy.
However, my skepticism immediately resolved after I began reading the first poem, “Love,” and its startlingly quiet, jarring opening lines: “The road and the house love me,/ the living and the dead,/ and a red clay jug at home/ loved by water,” (3 Adonis). Adonis himself appointed his translator, Khaled Mattawa, and it was a commendable choice. Remarkably, Mattawa translated the sensationalism of Adonis’ own words, offering English readers the ability to finally understand Adonis’ acclaim.
The book opens with Adonis’ relatively simple first works, pieces from his 1957 collection First Poems. Even in these poems’ conversational voice, though, they carry a distinct heaviness, exploring themes of exile, of home, and of internal and external diaspora. Like many of his other pieces, this poem employs a traditional Arabic form: particularly, the “qit’a, [a]...poetic fragment,” (xvi). “They Say I’m Done For” exemplifies the overarching tone of Adonis’ First Poems:
They say I’m done for
and nothing remains of my joy
no oil, no flame.
I walk past roses, and what do they
care if I laugh or weep? (6 Adonis)
The collections become increasingly more complex in form, carrying with them the themes of exile, and continued rebirth, addressed in his earlier works. Take “This is my Name,” for example, from his 1971 collection A Time Between Ashes and Rose. Responding to the social turmoil after the Six Day War, Adonis meditates:
“Erasing all wisdom this is my fire
No sign has remained -- My blood is the sign
This is my beginning,” (107 Adonis)
His form is chaotic, but mirrors the chaos of an Arabic world in upheaval. It is fractured, and dizzying, encompassing the catastrophes in his post-war environment. Moreso, his play with form and punctuation offers an exhilarating reading experience that matures from his simpler, earlier pieces.
As you read through the collection, you witness the range of a global poet. His arc in voice, form, and content provide the reader an experience worthy of its almost-400 page dedication. Although Mattawa’s translation was a job well done, I cannot imagine that he was able to deliver the extent of Adonis’ artistry, his unique work, not in its entirety. But it is, unquestionably, a collection worthy of revisitation.