World Books Review: Adonis’s Selected Poems — A Giant of Arabic Verse

Syrian poet Adonis has has been compared to both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in his modernist sensibility and influence — perhaps both in one person makes a better comparison.

Selected Poems, Adonis (translated by Khaled Mattawa), Yale University Press, 400 pp, $30.

By J. Kates

That a poet of such stature as Adonis is so little known in the United States is one more measure of Yankee insularity. This one can’t even be blamed completely on lack of translations, because his work has been available through a glass darkly for many years, mostly thanks to the work of Samuel Hazo, although those versions are hard to come by now. A new edition of Selected Poems from the Yale University Press, translated by Khaled Mattawa, pays homage to Hazo’s earlier compilations by trying not to cover the same ground, easy enough to do with a poet who has written so much. This gives us a broader reading of the poet’s work, but makes it a little difficult to triangulate by different versions in English to a sense of the original.

There is a lot of ground to cover. Adonis, born Ali Ahmad Sa’id Esber in Syria on the cusp of 1929 and 1930, actively writing poetry, prose and criticism since he was a teen-ager, and still living and writing in Paris, has influenced contemporary Arabic poetics since the 1950s and dominated their discussion and practice since the 1970s. He has been compared to both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot in his modernist sensibility and influence — perhaps both in one person makes a better comparison.

Selected Poems provides for English-language readers (the original Arabic poems are not included) excerpts from most of his publications beginning with First Poems (1957) through Printer of the Planets’ Books (2008). Mattawa’s comprehensive introduction explains his choices and his omissions, as well as the sweep and significance of the poet’s life and work. It includes a discussion of the impact his critical writings have had on the development of Arabic-language poetry and Arab culture: “[Adonis] argues that a revolution in the arts and in how they are received can generate imaginative strategies at all levels of society. Arabic poetry, he believes, has the responsibility of igniting this mental overhaul in Arab culture. It should not be used to advocate political policies that do not touch the root of Arab cultural stagnation.” As Adonis wrote in 1987,

No, I have no country
except for these clouds rising as a mist from lakes of poetry.
. . . my language, my home —
I hang you like a charm around the throat of this era
and explode my passions in your name
not because you are a temple
not because your are my father or mother
but because I dream of laughter, and I weep through you
so that I translate my insides . . .

(“Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter”)

Adonis — His verse contains multitudes.

A poet so wedded to his language must inevitably suffer somewhat in translation, but the agonies are not apparent and the English is persuasive. Mattawa brings Adonis across straightforward and refreshingly de-orientalized. Where Lena Jayyusi and John Heath-Stubbs in Modern Arabic Poetry had translated: “A king, this is Mihyar, / He dwells in the / kingdom of the winds /and reigns in the land of secrets,” Mattawa gives us more simply: “King Mihyar / lives in the dominion of the wind / and rules over a land of secrets.” Whether “lives” and “rules” reflect Adonis’s Arabic diction better than “dwells” and “reigns” I don’t know enough to say, but Matawa’s verbs do less to feed stereotypical evocations of West Asian verse from the days of Burton and Fitzgerald. “Dominion” may give us pause, but “in the dominion of the wind” is as high-mannered a sound as we get.

Songs of Mihyar of Damascus, which came out in 1961, is considered Adonis’s turning point to full maturity. The persona of King Mihyar comes before us like the avatar of a Hindu deity, an epic mystic or a prophet for whom all the personal pronouns are interchangeable:

I came to you from an earth without sky
filled with God and the abyss,
winged with eagles and gales,
barraging, thrusting sand
into the caverns of seeds,
bowing to the coming clouds.


By 1965′s Migrations and Transformations in the Regions of Night and Day, the voice has turned more intimate and more contemplative: “I have become a mirror. / I have reflected everything.” (“Tree of the East”), and Adonis’s 1968 book is all Stages and Mirrors, but with geography and history asserting themselves more directly:

Everything stretches in history’s tunnel….
I turn this map around,
for the world is all burned up:
East and West, a heap
of ash gathered
in the self-same grave.

(“West and East”)

“My country” (that will seem to be spurned in the 1987 poem quoted above — does Adonis contradict himself? He contains multitudes) has a more conscious character in following poems. It “runs behind me like a river of blood” and is “this spark, this lightning in the darkness of the time that remains”
Singular in a Plural Form (1975) explodes language and form (if we can trust the translation) into one long Song of Songs

Shall I separate myself from myself?
Shall I mate with it Is mat
ing a moment of singularity or doubl
ing? Shall I take up another face? and wh
at does a body do that is spotted with wounds that do not he

that admits explicitly (as Solomon did not) mortality: “And man, I say in your name: / I am water playing with water.”

And so it goes, for another thirty years, love and death, prophecy and cosmic citizenship, an interweaving of Arabic and European mythology, and that questioning of art that is art:

And you, poetry,
will you continue your gifts, taking us to coincidences,
states where we see again people, creations, things, impulses,
abundane, diversity, uniqueness,
the wakefulness of nature and the insomnia of matter?

(“Concerto for 11th/September/2001 B. C.”)

The margin of this review is too small to contain it all. The remarkable proof of Adonis’s poetry is in the reading, and Mattawa’s Selected Poems gives the anglophone world a nutritious and flavorful taste.

Source: The World

2 الردود to “World Books Review: Adonis’s Selected Poems — A Giant of Arabic Verse”

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