what planet in the widow’s hand?

Today I give you just one of the searing poems from The Silence that Remains by Palestinian poet, novelist, and journalist Ghassan Zaqtan (1954-), translated by Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah (1971-).

ghassanres

“That Life”

I’m going to see how they died
I’m going toward that wreckage
going to see them there
tranquil on the hill of engagement

Dear Wednesday’s narcissus, what time is it
what death is it
what planet in the widow’s hand
five or three?

Her dress was blooming
              we were
neglected flowers on her dress

Dear women’s thresholds, how much is a lifetime
what time is a river
how many daggers in the blood
of the whirling storm
five or three?

We let the city play
and rolled our widespread shrouds shut

I’m going to see how they died
I’m going toward that wreckage
going to see their death
hills of the north
wind-rise of the south
I’m going to call them by their names

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I love autumn and the shade of meanings

I could probably fill this entire blog with poems by the phenomenal Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008).

“I love autumn and the shade of meanings.”

I love autumn and the shade of meanings.
Delighted in autumn by a light obscurity,
transparency of handkerchiefs, like poetry just after
birth, dazzled in night-blaze or darkness.
It crawls, and finds no names for anything.

Shy rain, which moistens only distant things,
delights me.
(In such autumns, marriage procession
and funeral intersect: the living
celebrate with the dead, and the dead
celebrate with the living.)

I delight to see a monarch stoop,
to recover the pearl of the crown from a fish in the lake.

In autumn I delight to see the commonness of colors,
no throne holds the humble gold in the leaves of humble trees
who are equal in the thirst for love.

I delight in the truce between armies,
awaiting the contest between two poets,
who love the season of autumn, yet differ
over the direction of its metaphors.

In autumn I delight in the complicity between
vision and expression.

translated by Mohammad Shaheen

You do not know how hard it is, transfiguring blood into ink

I have read this poem from Palestinian writer Laila al Saih (1936- ) several times since I recently stumbled upon it in this anthology, and I am still in awe of its pitch perfect blend of strength and vulnerability, clarity and bewilderment.

“Intimations of Anxiety”

You do not know how hard it is,
transfiguring blood into ink–
emerging from one’s secret dream
to voicing the dream.
Perhaps I need years to understand
what swirls within me when we meet.
Do you know that constellations of cities and paths tangle
restlessly in the sand?
I do not know the name
for such sweet incandescence.
Even now I have not discovered all the stars
fanning out in the soul and body
like eloquent shining symbols.

Under a mass of snow
a violet is patiently waiting.
Each opening rose partakes of
the patience of ages.
There are things we must share,
and how the word takes shape within me.
Pulled between a world that created me
and a vaporous world I wish to create,
I begin again.
Each time you transform me
into a haze,
Wait for my anxiety
for this nameless creature thumping
in my breast.
I begin again
with your book,
from your book,
reading the first pages
over and over, dazzled, amazed,
enveloped by vast days and puzzling depths,
saying: The moment will come
in which I discover language,
voice of the sun’s fruits,
dialect of waves engulfing my heart.
Maybe then I will be able to add
a single syllable to this existence–
this arduous impossible task.

translated by May Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye

You gave then took them back

From the Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah (1971-).

“Travel Document”

It must be like forgetting how to die:
Your grass-grown ruins,
Stonewalls, sadness without eyes.
The body puts on its phantom
Limbs’ pain as true account
Of what happens, and a woman
Who’s worn the wrong size
Shoes, all her life in flight, her toes
Now crooked, calls flowers by names
You gave then took them back.

If it’s the body you want, there is the body
That couldn’t return, there is the one
That wouldn’t. Sullen
Vengeance. An egg’s
Invisible axis rising and sinking
In boiling water, salt
As measure for pickling olives,
Hands without echo’s desire
To be heard. Tell me, what else
Is there to say about land?

Leave metaphor, and walk with me.

“Mahmoud Darwish is the Essential Breath of the Palestinian people, the eloquent witness of exile and belonging, exquisitely tuned singer of images that invoke, link, and shine a brilliant light into the world’s whole heart. What he speaks has been embraced by readers around the world—his in an utterly necessary voice, unforgettable once discovered.”

Naomi Shihab Nye

 

The beloved and formidable Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish would have turned 71 today had he not passed away in 2008. Today, I share some words from one of his last works, Almond Blossoms and Beyond, to honor his legacy and everything he stood for.

An excerpt from “Like a Hand Tattoo from an Ode by an Ancient Arab Poet”

I am he.
He walks before me and I follow.
I do not say to him,
Here,here
was something simple for us:
a green stone. A tree. a street,
an adolescent moon, a reality no longer real.
He walks before me.
I follow his shadow.
As he hurries, his shadow rises over the hills
and covers a pine tree in the South,
and covers a willow tree in the North.

I said:Did we not part?
He said:Yes.
I owe you the return of fantasy to the real,
and you owe me the apple’s surrender to gravity
I said: Where are you taking me?
He said: Toward the beginning., where you were born.
Here, you and your name.

If I could return to the beginning,
I would select fewer letters for my name,
letters easier on the foreign ear.

March is a month of storms and lust.
Spring looks on, like a thought between two people,
between a long winter and a long summer.
I remember nothing but allegory.
I was scarcely born when I woke
to a clear image between the horse’s mane,
and my mother’s braids.
Give up metaphor, and walk quietly
on the earth’s down, he said.

Sunset brings the stranger back
to his well, like a song that is not sung.
Sunset stirs up in us longing for an obscure passion.

Perhaps,perhaps.
Things acquire new meanings at sunset.
Memories wake and call,
like a signal of death at sunset,
like the beat of a song not sung to anyone.

(On cypress tree,
east of emotions,
gilded clouds,
in the heart, a chestnut brown
transparency of shadows, drunk like water.
Come, let us play;
come, let us go
to any star.)

I am he. He walks over me
and I ask him,
Do you remember anything here?
Tread softly-remember,
the earth is pregnant with us.

He said: I saw the moon shining here,
its grief plain, like an orange in the night.
It guides us in the wilderness to stray paths…
Without it, mothers could not meet their children.
Without it, wanderers could not read
their names in the night: Refugees,
guests of the wind.

My wings felt small in the wind that year.
I always thought the place was identified
by the mothers and the aroma of sage.
No one said to me,
this place is called a country,
around the country are borders,
and beyond the borders is another place,
called diaspora and exile for us.

I did not yet need an identity,
but they, men who came to us on tanks,
are carrying off our place on trucks.

The place is a feeling.
Those are our remains, like hand tattoos
in the mu’allaqa of the ancient poet.
They pass us and we pass them.

Thus said the one I was the day I did not know
the details of the names of our trees or the names
the birds who gather in me.
I did not remember the words to defend the place
from its removal, from its strange, new name
hedged with eucalyptus.

The signs say to us,
You were not here.

The storm abates.
The place is a feeling.
Those are our tracks, said he who was I,
Here our two orders of time meet and part.
Who are you in the presence of now?

I said: I am you, were it not for the smoke of factories.
He said: Who are you in the presence of yesterday?
I said: I am we, were it not
for the intrusion of
a verb in the imperfect tense.
He said: And who will you be tomorrow?
I said: A love poem that you will write when
you choose-since you are, yourself, a legend of love.

(Golden as old harvest songs
dark from the sting of the night,
white from the water’s endless laughter,
as you approach the spring
your eyes are almonds,
your lips two wounds of honey,
your legs towers of marble,
your hands on my shoulders two birds.
You give me a spirit that flutters
around the place.)

Leave metaphor, and walk with me.
Do you see traces of the moth in the light?

I said: I see you there, I see you pass
like one of the thoughts of our ancestors.
He said: Thus the moth recalls its poetic labor:
a song that the astronomers recognize
as proof of eternity.

I walk slowly by myself
and my shadow follows me, and I, it.
Nothing brings me back.
Nothing brings me back.
As if a part of me were departing,
anxious for tomorrow.
Do not wait for anyone.
Do not wait for me.

~

[the rest of the poem–which I highly recommend you read–is available here ]

All that is left is storytelling

I first encountered Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah (1971-) through his translations of the beloved Mahmoud Darwish. But it turns out Joudah is a stunning poet in his own right. It’s difficult to choose just one piece from his first collection The Earth in the Attic, so expect to read more of his work in the future.

poet Fady Joudah portrait

“Immigrant Song”

In the kitchen in the afternoon, peeling oranges and splitting cantaloupe gut,
All that is left is storytelling.

The one-radio, one-coffee-shop village now an almond field
And vacation-brochure ruins besieged by grass.

Everyday around noon a boy on a mule, the men out in the fields,
Bread fresh out of brick-oven, wrist deep in olive oil, elbows dripping.

The one-radio, one-coffee-shop village without an ink-line on paper,
Now spilled like beads out of a rosary.

Not what they would have grown.

We the people in god we trust.

We the people in god we trust everyday around noon a mule.

We the people dream the city: Oooh you give me fever.

Oooh you give me fever so bad I shake like beads out of a rosary.

Fever so bad it must’ve been malaria.

Hey doctor! You mule-ride away, you cost the rest of harvest.

Hey doctor, the city’s a medicine cabinet.

We plant tomatoes, okra, squash instead.

And a fig tree that won’t grow in Tennessee frost.

Trees die standing.

One-cantaloupe, one-rosary kitchen.

So fill up with fervor for your heart’s sake

Thanks for spending this lovely month with me, dear readers. I will try to continue posting poems when I have a chance. I concluded last year’s National Poetry Month selection with advice from the Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and now I close with some thought-provoking words from the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. If you’d like to hear the poem in Arabic, click here.

To a Young Poet

Don’t believe our outlines, forget them
and begin from your own words.
As if you are the first to write poetry
or the last poet.

If you read our work, let it not be an extension of our airs,
but to correct our errs
in the book of agony.

Don’t ask anyone: Who am I?
You know who your mother is.
As for your father, be your own.

Truth is white, write over it
with a crow’s ink.
Truth is black, write over it
with a mirage’s light.

If you want to duel with a falcon
soar with the falcon.

If you fall in love with a woman,
be the one, not she,
who desires his end.

Life is less alive than we think but we don’t think
of the matter too much lest we hurt emotions’ health.

If you ponder a rose for too long
you won’t budge in a storm.

You are like me, but my abyss is clear.
And you have roads whose secrets never end.
They descend and ascend, descend and ascend.

You might call the end of youth
the maturity of talent
or wisdom. No doubt, it is wisdom,
the wisdom of a cool non-lyric.

One thousand birds in the hand
don’t equal one bird that wears a tree.

A poem in a difficult time
is beautiful flowers in a cemetery.

Example is not easy to attain
so be yourself and other than yourself
behind the borders of echo.

Ardor has an expiration date with extended range.
So fill up with fervor for your heart’s sake,
follow it before you reach your path.

Don’t tell the beloved, you are I
and I am you, say
the opposite of that: we are two guests
of an excess, fugitive cloud.

Deviate, with all your might, deviate from the rule.

Don’t place two stars in one utterance
and place the marginal next to the essential
to complete the rising rapture.

Don’t believe the accuracy of our instructions.
Believe only the caravan’s trace.

A moral is as a bullet in its poet’s heart
a deadly wisdom.
Be strong as a bull when you’re angry
weak as an almond blossom
when you love, and nothing, nothing
when you serenade yourself in a closed room.

The road is long like an ancient poet’s night:
plains and hills, rivers and valleys.
Walk according to your dream’s measure: either a lily
follows you or the gallows.

Your tasks are not what worry me about you.
I worry about you from those who dance
over their children’s graves,
and from the hidden cameras
in the singers’ navels.

You won’t disappoint me,
if you distance yourself from others, and from me.
What doesn’t resemble me is more beautiful.

From now on, your only guardian is a neglected future.

Don’t think, when you melt in sorrow
like candle tears, of who will see you
or follow your intuition’s light.
Think of yourself: is this all of myself?

The poem is always incomplete, the butterflies make it whole.

No advice in love. It’s experience.
No advice in poetry. It’s talent.

And last but not least, Salaam.

TRANSLATED BY FADY JOUDAH