Four Poems by Sargon Boulus Prize-winning Emad Abu Saleh

Last week, Egyptian poet Emad Abu Saleh became the third-ever winner of the annual Sargon Boulus prize, given out each year on the anniversary of the great Iraqi poet’s death:

Although Editorial Karwán has brought out a translation of Emad Abu Saleh’s acclaimed collection كان نائماً حين قامت الثورة (He was Asleep when the Revolution Came, 2015) in both Spanish (as El Elogio del Error) and Catalan (Elogi de l’error), in English, it seems, there has been only the publication of two earlier works by the reclusive poet in Banipal in 2006.

Happily, Huda Fakhreddine here shares four poems she translated as part of her forthcoming The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice (March 2021), selected from three of Abu Saleh’s collections.

A Naïve Melodrama

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

I will tell you of a man who lived alone, all his life.  He was a carpenter in a movie; an old man. His hands trembled badly. The saw almost slipped from him and tore up the screen. He was supposed to  love a girl (old enough to be his granddaughter, of course). She was to sit on his knee in the moonlight. He was to read her sappy poems a young student had written for him  in return for playing with his wood:   “Your eyes are more beautiful than the sea,” “your lips sweeter than jam” and “your voice lovelier than music.”   And as usually happens, her mother marries her off to another man.   The director fixed the frame on the man’s back: He was in vacuum jumping up  and waving his hands. Most likely, he was trying  to fly to the sky to beg God to bring her back. As he jumped it seemed as if his pant suspenders were pulling him,  once again, down to the ground.   The last scene was this: A saw slicing into one wrist and a bracelet wrapping around another (a textbook technique that dazzles teenage eyes).   As for me, I am against him,  against the man. He should have been more responsible. He should have respected his age controlled his emotions, thought of the girl’s future and wished her a happy life.    That’s why he constantly haunts me. When I open my eyes in the dark I find him sitting there bleeding in silence at the edge of my bed. Although he didn’t really slice his wrists. It was all just acting. A movie.   THE END.

(An Old Man Pained by Laughter, 1997)

Poetry

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

(Spacious Graves, 1999)

There is a story about a king who had been sitting on his throne ever since people learned how to speak. He was a beautiful youth who never grew grey. His subjects loved him. They memorized all that he said to his children and carved it into the walls of their houses.   It happened that the king grew vain. He sat among his guards, listlessly reiterating his hallucinations. He listened to no one except his freeloading entourage. One of his subjects said to him once, as he peered down from his high tower: “Wake up my liege.” The king chopped off his tongue and threw him in a deep dungeon.  Other kings who were expanding the boundaries of their kingdoms attacked him one night when he was drunk his royal bed. They divided his blood and his kingdom amongst themselves and left him a heap of skin and bone.  How terrifying time is! It seems that after all that glory, no mention of him will remain in the future.  From time to time his ghost screams: “My kingdom…my kingdom,” but his voice is lost in the noise of the world.  (Spacious Graves, 1999)

*

Against Poetry

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

-Give me a cigarette  *There you go. -Who are you? *A poet. -Why do you sit in the garden? *I’m waiting for poetry. -It doesn’t live here. *Do you know where? -The dumpster.  *How? -When two hungry people find one whole apple that has slipped from under a happy family’s teeth.  *Do they eat it together? -There were going to split it but suddenly a blade gleamed from the same house and ended the conflict  in favor of one mouth.  *Does it live anywhere else? -The slaughterhouse. When the arm of a saint tumbles  and wraps around a whore in a sincere reconciliation that comes too late. *Are you a poet? -I was. *Not anymore? -It lured me and then abandoned me.  *Why do you sit in the garden? -To advise the children. *What do you say to them? -Beware of it. It sometimes hides in candy. *And to young poets? -You still have a chance to escape. It will turn you into dogs panting in its footsteps. Write novels instead. 

*

Zaynab

By Emad Abu Saleh

Translated by Huda Fakhreddine

My mother tells me: “If I die, Don’t bury me at night.”   I’ve gotten used to her terrorizing me since I was a child. In the morning she tells me: “I will die in the evening.” In the evening, she tells me: “Tomorrow, I die.”   This Zaynab,  for those who don’t know,  is a room of tears,  a sack of pain, a store of darkness,  a box of sorrows.   If only she’d die,  and have mercy on me If only I’d die, and she’d have mercy on me.   But why does she  keep asking me to bury her in daylight?   Does she plan to raise chicken in her grave? Will she plant a tree in it? Does she think the sun will  shine for her there?   What does she want with light, anyway, after she has become completely blind, after the flies of time have eaten away the honey of her eyes?   If I weren’t certain that she can’t even  write her name, I’d think that she’d read Lorca.   He too used to say: “If I die, leave the balcony open.”   (He was Asleep when the Revolution Came, 2015)

Emad Abu Saleh’s (b. 1967) first poetry collection Matters Already Decided was published in 1995. His poetic career has thus far been unusual, idiosyncratic, and punctuated by periods of self-imposed silence. His self-publish works are only privately circulated, even after he has established himself as one of the prominent prose poets of his generation. For more see “Poets of the nineties: poetry against poetry.”

Huda Fakhreddine is Associate professor of Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her book The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press in March 2021. 

Click HERE to read more from this author.


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