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Need to Know



Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Melissa Ahart

Sommer Browning

Sarah Busse

devin wayne davis

Karen D'Amato

Yaakov Fichman

Donna Johnson

Vera Kroms

Li Bo

Li Qingzhao

Ander Monson

Christopher Mulrooney


Todd Samuelson

Maria Terrone

Mihai Ursachi

Sophie Wadsworth

G.C. Waldrep

Martha Zweig  

Going Home

Without An Alphabet, Without A Face
Selected Poems Of Saadi Youssef

(Graywolf, 186 pages)
Translated from Arabic by Khaled Mattawaby 

Reviewed by Farida Abla

Because Arabic is my original language, and because I am also a translator, I was drawn to this translation of Saadi Youssef's selected poems. I was especially interested in how a fellow translator would meet the challenge of portraying poems of my original language in English. I was not a bit disappointed. Without An Alphabet, Without A Face is a an eloquent and remarkable translation.

Born in the village of Abulkhasib near Basra (Iraq 1934), the poet Saadi Youssef holds a degree in Arabic from the Teachers' College at Baghdad University (1954). Sympathizing with the socialists, he traveled to a youth conference in Moscow (1957) that forced him to settle in Kuwait until the 1958 revolution in Iraq. After jail, he moved to newly independent Algeria, earning his living by teaching high school and by journalism. He only stayed again in Iraq from 1971-1979 working in the Ministry of Culture until Saddam Hussein assumed power. Afterwards Youssef continued working in journalism and in publishing, living in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, France, Jordan, and England. He is also recognized as a good translator into Arabic and has translated Yannis Ritsos, Dennis Brutus, David Malouf and others. Living between Amman and Damascus during the 1990s, Youssef edited the journal Al-Madaa before his recent relocation to London. Youssef describes his life as "a life of forced departures" due to his persecution and exile. He left Iraq because of pressure to join the Baath party. He wrote poems supporting the Palestinians and left for Latkia in 1982. Again he fled from Yemen in 1986. Useful as usual, Youssef helped the 1991 Gulf War Iraqi expatriates and exiles in France.

Khaled Mattawa's introduction provides a detailed survey of Youssef's world. One becomes acquainted with Youssef's life circumstances, political agenda, aspirations, ideas and style of writing. Mattawa then groups Youssef's poems into chapters depending on the place they were written to help the reader understand Youssef's circumstances while writing the poems. Mattawa also analyzes Youssef's encounter with the Arabic poetry of his days and the way it affected Youssef's verse. Then Mattawa explains Youssef's technique of "whispering" instead of "declaiming," engaging "observation and description as a building platform of his poetic process" (xvii). In fact, when Arabic poetry started breaking from its rigid formal aspect (the two-hemistich rhymed line) in the 1950s, Youssef was already writing poetry, although only a teenager. Youssef made use of the new taf'ila form (i.e. free verse) that Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Nazik Al-Malaika advanced. Thus, Youssef disregarded the traditional rules of Arabic prosody by employing the single metrical foot as the rhythmic unit instead of a set number of feet, and he eliminated rhymes or used irregular ones. "The taf'ila also allowed the poet to write lines of various length, emphasizing a more personal rhythm." Youssef's poems with their modernist associative shifts display his impeccable rhyming skills and his mastery of the form. All the poems in this selection are pure examples of Youssef's control over the rhyme. Their subject matters, however, vary from description of Arabic landscape and surroundings as in "Night in Hamdan", "Night Fugitive", "The River", to personal portraits as in "Three Stories From Kuwait", to dramatic monologues like in "Insistence", "A Naïve Song to A Wounded Horseman" and others. "The Night Fugitive" (p.9), for example, was written in Basra in 1956. It opens by recalling a night in May. The opening verse is repeated at the opening of the last stanza. I particularly liked the shift from the description of the stars to the eyes of the beloved in the middle of the poem followed by the image of peace and return from exile. The poem opens with:

Everything rises now from the drowned past
On this night in May
With a candle, wind,
Two books, and an old pair of trousers.
And after three dotted lines, Youssef ends his poem on a positive note:
Everything rises now from the drowned past.
It has been two years
And he has not returned.
One day the child will throw his arms around us.
He will come with two books
And a new pair of trousers.
He will always return safe.

The reader will not miss the repetitions of "on this night in May", "pair of trousers", and "will return". How marvelous it is that Youssef gathered many themes in this simple poem (love, hope, education, return of a faraway person…). This device of repetition provides symmetry, organizes the poem into units, and allows for a greater ranges of subject matter.

A striking poem that I read in this selection is "How L'Akhdar Ben Youssef Wrote His Last Poet" (p.66). Incredibly enough this poem talks about L'Akhdar, who uses each sentence of his comments to make a stanza in the poem he could not write at the beginning. This poem looks like a journal form of prose rather than a poem. Youssef starts it by explaining how L'Akhdar was unable to write, then states his "Notes" one by one, goes back to commenting on the notes before using each single note to form the title of a poem followed by more comments. It is the strangest poem I ever read in my life. It has the elements of fiction and story line in it. Youssef succeeds again in taking the hand of his reader in an imaginative journey to his philosophical, religious, and political beliefs using a simple language to attract the reader's attention throughout the poems.

Mattawa analyzes the pattern in Youssef's poetry. He attributes this pattern to Youssef's travels. Hence, Youssef's poems evolved from being short and imagistic where Youssef's voice is neutral to longer and more complicated ones. Having constantly moved from one country to the other and gained more freedom of speech, Youssef felt more at ease to display his line of thoughts without his earlier imagistic veil especially now that the political circumstances allowed more freedom of speech, and the readers became more aware of the philosophical background thanks to the higher level of education.

Youssef uses the technique of surprise and suspension of closure in his compact short poems. He uses dotted lines to mark the surprise and the rupture in the sequence of events. A good example of this technique is the poem "Attention" (p.166). Youssef sets a sequence of events in the first four lines:

Those who come by me passing
I will remember them,
And those who come heavy and overbearing
I will forget.

Having told the reader whom he will remember and whom he will forget, Youssef ruptures the poem with three dotted lines and surprises his readers with a metaphor about remembering the wind and forgetting the rocks to match his sequence.

This is why
When air gushes between mountains
We describe the wind
And forget the rocks.

Longer poems where Youssef uses this same technique are "The Moment" (p.163), "The Light" (p.160), "Endings" (p. 159), and others. According to Mattawa, Youssef's longer poems develop "epic resonance through their lyrical gaps". "The Moment", for instance has three such lyrical gaps that serve as transitions between the flow of ideas talking about "the room" and the "retired pirate" in the first stanza to move to the description of the "chest" and the "eye" in the second. Youssef uses two questions in the third stanza to talk again about the pirate:

Who knocks on the door?
Who comes here following him
To this room on the roof?

And he ends up his poem after the third gap with resonating questions:

Could it be the blind one knocking on the door?
The blind one disguised as a woman coming
To befriend him at the moment his age is sealed?

The Arabic reader will not miss the Arabic land images of Shat Al-Arab, the river, the village and the symbolism Youssef uses to relate to his Arabic culture and heritage. In fact, for an Arab poet, the images of the water and the village are deeply anchored in the poetry as a reflection of the attachment to those images. A good example is the poem "The Village" (p.83) where Youssef describes the longing for the village while reading some documents:

In the distance his village,
its bridge,
the oleander tree,
the childhood song,
and the road to his hands.

Moreover, in 'Dream I' of "Shatt Al Arab" (p.41), Youssef addresses the river after describing it:

On nights of torment and sorrow
its waters saturate the pillow
and it comes like the smell of moss
with green steps
to touch my right palm
with a jasmine spring
Wake up …
I am the river…
Don't you love me? Don't you want to reach Basra?
On the wigs of the pillow?
I'm awake, awake.
"On my pillow a drop
That tastes like moss…"
It's Basra.

On the other hand, Youssef uses the river to send "coral flower" to his beloved in the poem "The River" (p.22). He opens his poem with a beautiful description of the river and its surroundings:

A pathway of willows, water moss, and greenery,
cuts through a sea of date palms.
And later in the poem, he addresses the river:
River, if you reach her house
to caress it, or to make it one of your banks,
take this flower to her
take this coral flower to her.

I enjoyed reading this translated selection of poems especially because Khaled Mattawa preserved the simplicity of Youssef's language as well as the poet's complex ideas and philosophy.
A close study of the poems makes the reader realize that Youssef does not rely on rhyme. Instead, he uses a pattern of repetitions to open and close his poems. He repeats an opening line in the middle of this poem to keep his reader's full attention. "Insistence", a poem written in 1956, is an excellent example of this circle technique, opening and closing with the name "Salim Marzouq" (p.8). I enjoyed as well Youssef's art of twisting words as in "Drowsiness" (p.25). In this poem written in 1963, Youssef writes "in the wound of my silence" in the first stanza only to beautifully twist it to become "in the silence of my wound" in the second stanza. In fact he starts with:

In the wound of my silence, no wind blows,
No desert weeps,
No branch withers,
Your eyes remain my riches and my home,
And the earthly world is flung on the floor, heavy-footed, and silent.
He begins his second verse paragraph:

In the silence of my wound, you shiver
Your face like the stars, like pale sand.
On your crystalline neck a tattoo my lips made,
And your furrowed brow is stung by the stars.

And Youssef begins his conclusion to the poem by repeating the beginning:

In the wound of my silence, again, the wind blows, deserts wail,
branch withers and the sea turns the deserts blue.

Youssef also excels in portraying the quintessential experience of exile and lack of identity (papers) in his poem "The Ends Of the African North" (p.43). The poem opens with:

On the sands of North Africa I carried palm fronds
and between the East and exile
I burned maps on Egyptian ports.
Through the alleys of Benghazi and Derna
I was asked about my identity card.
I'd torn it in two.
I gave the inspector a half
And the other to my beloved.

He continues his poem describing his travels from place to place in North Africa expressing the feeling of exile and looking for a port in which to anchor.. Youssef also describes the wasted dignity of the person traveling without official documents or in exile in his poem "On The Red Sea" (p.165) where he describes himself and his fellow companions as "the captain's captives" at the beginning as well as the end of the poem. He finishes the poem by contradicting the state of the "sailors" who walked to taverns on the shore, his own state and that of his companions by saying:

As for us
we remained as we were,
the captain's captives,
the sweepers of his kitchen.

Youssef also writes beautifully about love. I was attracted by "Noontime" (p.58) where Youssef excels in describing the tension of a couple as they meet and can't decide where to go. Youssef asks himself where to go:

Can we talk in a restaurant
or find a river to dip our hands in?
Or should we be content with breathing
Or let ourselves be snuffed out by a question?

Youssef ends his poem by describing his anxiety at this meeting-a state most lovers experience:

Still, when I see you I remain
holding the tip of a thread,
waiting in the shade.

Another example of this anxiety is beautifully expressed in the poem "A Woman" (p.126) where Youssef imagines he is on his way to meet a woman he hasn't seen for twenty years. As in "Noontime," he opens the poem with a series of questions:

How will I drag my feet to her now?
Where will I see her?
And on which street of what city
Should I ask about her?

And the tension grows in the poem from the setting of the place to the state of anxiety of the poet:

How should I answer back?
And how will I stare at her face
As I touch the light wine seeping
Between her fingers
How should I say hello.

Youssef ends his poem with a flashback of their meeting twenty years earlier in a train cabin where he kissed her all night long.
As a translator myself, I know the difficulty of translating poetry. Yet Mattawa makes his translation look as if it were originally written in English while conserving its Arabic images as well as Youssef's originality. In fact, throughout the selection of poems in this book, Mattawa succeeds in using a simple English that mirrors Youssef's simple Arabic despite the difficulty of the poet's subject matter. Whether the poem is about politics, philosophy, or is simply about love, Mattawa's translation remains a good mirror of the Youssef's style regardless of the differences in the Arabic and English figures of speech.. The poem "To Socialism" (p.15) is a good example where Youssef addresses socialism through the simple metaphor of the seed:

O seed
when your planter is ready to sow,
you burst out of his songs.

Mattawa keeps at the beginning of the poem the personification of winter in a simple English as well:

On the snow
winter wrapped its coat around itself.

Moreover, Mattawa maintains Youssef's descriptive style to draw exact sceneries full of details. The poem "Snow May Fall" (p.162) is a descriptive catalogue of the inside of the "room" and the surrounding nature. It starts with:

The room
is fortified with wooden blinds and glass,
and the lights
are off.

After describing the room from the inside, Youssef turns to the outside and portrays the elements of nature and ends with the prediction of snow. A nice metaphor that I liked in this poem is: "snow is filling its basket" to mean that it is snowing heavily. A poem where Mattawa reflects the simplicity of Youssef's catalogue of natural details is "The Orchard" (p.120). Youssef uses "we spread ourselves by the river" to start the first and the second stanzas and changes the "river" to "café" at the third one. The first stanza sets the atmosphere by mentioning elements like "fish," "ants," "water," "leaf" that are used in a catalogue form in the second stanza.

We spread ourselves by the river
And we lie down.
The fairies come to look at us
And the ants come
And the root comes
And the sun comes
And the sleeping body fills with their touch.

The poem ends with a rhetorical question: "will we ever reach that orchard?"

As far as rhyme is concerned, Mattawa does an astonishing job. Not only does he mirror the irregularity in Youssef's rhymes, but he also makes the rhyme in English free. In fact, Youssef's use of the taf'ila makes his verses completely free in the Arabic, something that Mattawa reflects in his free verse in English. Using a simple English form, Mattawa succeeds in creating an analogue form of the taf'ila in English. Moreover, Mattawa's verses sound as if they were written in English and not translated.

Just as I experienced a trip back to my Arabic culture while writing this review, I recommend Without an Alphabet, Without a Face to both Arabic and English readers to give themselves the chance of taking a cultural journey that brings to their minds historical, political, personal, and fictional stories rendered in a beautiful free verse. Finally, I wish all Arab poets could be so well translated into English so they would be known and appreciated worldwide.

Farida Abla is an MFA candidate in the Literary Translation Program at the University of Arkansas thanks to the assistantship by King Fahd Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She holds a License in Translation and Languages (Arabic, English & French) from the Lebanese University. She has done various translations of scientific, legal, educational nature as well as subtitling of movies in Lebanon. She is currently translating into English an Arabic fiction novel The Last House by Rabi' Jaber.


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