2014: Year of the Arabic Poem (in Translation)

There were at least nine contemporary Arabic poetry collections published in translation this year, a number of them stunning, ground-breaking, beautifully produced:

Certainly there were more novels than poetry collections — I have yet to do a full tally, but there are always man

y more novels. Yet to have nine poetry collections translated in a year is an enormous jump, even if distribution and readership is another th

ing entirely.

Nothing More to Lose, Najwan Darwish, ed. and trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid (NYRB). This is the first collection of Palestinian Najwan Darwish’s poems to appear in English, chosen and curated by Abu-Zeid (a task he clearly enjoyed). It was the most widely discussed and reviewed among this year’s collections, making NPR’s best-of list for 2014 and helping earn Abu-Zeid a Poetry magazine translation award.

Abu-Zeid wrote, in his afterword, that “No Palestinian has ever written poetry quite like this before.” Yet there are echoes of the poetry-audience relationships of elder Palestinian poets. This is particularly the case when one sees Darwish’s poetry set to music and delighting hundreds of concert-goers, who recite along.

Darwish’s poetry is also fresh — personal, funny, angry, political (at a slant), and direct.

Petra, Amjad Nasser, trans. Fady Joudah (Tavern Books). This surprisingly wonderful chapbook brings us a single narrative travel poem, walking us into Petra, where we experience and transcend time. It is one of the most remarkable books of the year, and far-too-little-attended, in part perhaps because Nasser was blocked from travel to the US when it launched.

This gorgeously crafted work could be read either as poetry or as an unconventional travel guide, bringing us inside this ancient place — Jordan’s Petra — along with Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who “discovered” it for Westerners, and then continuing to breathe, touch, and listen our way through history and language, architecture, and geography.

A combination of verse and prose, Nasser touches the site as we touch it, leaving us with “Only this hand / that returned with a map of smells and signs.”

 


Chronicles of Majnun Layla and Selected Poems, Qassim Haddad, trans. 

John Verlenden and Ferial Ghazoul (Syracuse University Press).

The lion’s share of this beautiful collection is a series of narrative works that re-invent the legendary love of Qays and Layla. In most versions, their love is chaste, and the couple is united only in death. Literary and visual adaptations have largely maintained this chastity, and many retellings of Qays and Layla’s story developed Sufi overtones, where Layla becomes a stand-in for man’s desire for God.

Haddad turns against tradition and takes the story in a completely different direction. In his poems, Qays’ desire is definitely not for God: It’s for a flesh-and-blood Layla. Qays here is not a madman. Instead, he is a knowing violator of societal taboos.

The cycle of poems plays on the spaces between imagination, official histories, and fable. They cite historical sources, but then undermine these sources’ credibility. In the end, Qays and Layla are so subversive that even Haddad’s narrative cannot contain them. In the long prose poem “Towards It at Every Turn”:

So Qays—thanks to his madness—became free not only from the power of the sultan and the tribe, but also—and especially—from the boundaries imposed on him by the transmitters of his story. We still find him stepping out and escaping, over and over.

A Bird Is Not a Stone, ed. Henry Bell and Sarah Irving, authors and trans. various (Freight Books)

The A Bird is not a Stone collection gathers twenty-nine of Scotland’s celebrated poets, who co-translate work by twenty-five contemporary Palestinians. The works are brought not just into English, but into Scots, Gaelic, and Shetlandic.

These are not the “usual suspects.” Liz Lochhead notes, in her introduction, writing that the 25 Palestinian poets included in the collection have rarely been translated into English. When they were, “it was always by academics and generally to be quoted as part of polemical, theoretical, or literary essays and in obscure publications. They were made into far less than poems, or were sometimes effectively censored by the omission of some of their content.”

The poems are not all equally successful. There are bright moments that open up new mental vistas and there are moments that feel too clever (the poem about Viagra), or too well-worn (Sufi spirituality). But there are also moments of genuine surprise. Also: The nature of the translation project itself makes the collection interesting.

This Room is Waiting, ed. Lauren Pyott and Ryan Van Winkle, authors and trans. various (Freight Books)

This Room is Waiting was crafted on a similar premise — bridge translators helped bring work to English-language poets, who fashioned new work. But also here, work was translated from English into Kurdish and Arabic in a collaboration between four UK and four Iraqi poets.

There are some gaps in understanding, and translational misdirections, but nonetheless the collection works to bring new

 poems to life.

The bridging process, Pyott has said, can really bring out the politics of translation in a way that they might not appear when just one person is struggling with the work. The process, she says, has “raised some really interesting questions: How do you write your own version of a poem which you don’t necessarily agree with (politically)?”

The Tahrir of Poems: Seven Contemporary Egyptian Poets, ed. and trans. 


Maged Zaher (Alice Blue Books)

This collection brings together work by seven young Egyptian poets between the ages of 25 and 33, all written originally in Arabic but for the work by Amira Hanafi. These are poets, in Zaher’s words, who “had their own aesthetic revolution against the bareness of cultural life under Mubarak.”

The poems are diverse, but many of the best are full of the details of daily life in Cairo. From Ahmed Nada’s “Untitled,” which takes place on the Metro:

Meanwhile the intercom warns of the stampede at the doors
The standing are eagerly monitoring the sitting
Awaiting the opportunity to occupy their seats
A child passes through them selling small copies of the Quran
I remember my old ambition
To be a street seller
My body stretches on the seat
And awaits the next stop

Salah Faik: Selected Poems, ed. and trans. Haider al-Kabi (Dar Safi)

Born in 1945 in Kirkuk, Iraq, Faik is an important contemporary poet who has been translated by Sinan AntoonRaphael Cohen, and Maged Zaher, among others. This collection has many wonderful, deceptively simple poems, although the translation is not always light on its feet. Here, from “Dream Season”:

I woke up at the voice of a muezzin. “What is this muezzin doing here in London?” I wondered. A moment later, it turned out that it was the sirens of police cars, fire fighters, and ambulances.”

Iraqi Nights, Dunya Mikhail, trans. Kareem James Abu-Zeid (New Directions)

This book — another translation by Abu-Zeid — made the best-of 2014 list by “Split This Rock.” From their citation:

“Although the pervasive pain of war on the street, home, and soul in this collection threaten grief and paralysis, the poet continuously weaves in visions of a future outside of violence, of a place where ‘every moment / something ordinary / will happen under the sun.’”

Poems from this collection were also part of the reason for Abu-Zeid earning a Poetrymagazine translation award.

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