Although poetry might finish up in a
book, easy to take from a shelf and the next day put it back again, sometimes
it does seem, as a reader, I should have been there with the author, in a
cafe somewhere, watching my back when the secret police appear. Or perhaps it
is that, if the poetry is worth anything, all this is conveyed and is even
inescapable, conveying something else from merely - a big merely this - being
But I am commending first of all a go-between, Marius Kociejowski with his
lengthy Afterword to Plague Lands and Other Poems, part interview with the
author and on wider themes a very fine essay in its own right. Fawzi Karim
was born in Baghdad in 1945, left Iraq for Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, and
since 1978 has lived in London. I think I'm right in thinking, even so, that
he was not party to the translations, made independently by Abbas Kadhim
becoming 'versions after' by the non-Arabic speaking Anthony Howell. There
is only a brief note by Howell on the process.
The Introduction by Elena Lappin may have a purpose as a quick biographical
note, but this is all covered and more by Kociejowski, whom I read after
sampling a few of the poems. I recommend this approach. But then the poems do
not stand alone, Carcanet didn't ask them to, and it's a book well worth
The translations - versions - do provoke questions about whose English, what
kind of English, whether, for example, Karim's Arabic is closer to the
Anglo-Saxon or the Graeco-Latin of contemporary English. The former
predominates and is sharp and lively; an occasional line, for instance, 'Is
there to be some revivification of their torn bodies?' runs counter to it,
and I wonder if there is some similar intent in the original.
As soon as I discover someone else's translation or version of even part of a
poem, other questions show themselves. It is easy to find a web site, Sima
Rabinowitz's, with one by Saadi Simawe and Mellisa Brown (sounds like the
same kind of arrangement), The Dissident Student' (2 of 3 sections here). The
book has this:
For many years he listens
As the trees will listen
to the seasons.
In my wake, he wades
against the flow,
Getting to the source.
Yes, but the truth is, he
never lets up,
even wrecks my siesta,
Dictating through my tired mouth the most confusing
Though he's forever
mindful, as if holding back.
One day, when I'm getting
on in years,
Flashing like some
diamond, he bursts in on me
Spins me out of my
Throws my ink and papers
in my face,
And takes off for his
rendezvous with fate.
and the web site has this:
For years he listens to
Like the trees listen to
With me he crossed the
To the fountain... He
never lets me rest, even during my siesta,
Dictating into my tired
mouth the most confusing gibberish.
Yet always mindful, as if
he is holding back.
One day in my old age,
he, blue like a diamond, bursts onto me
Strips off my turban,
Throws my ink and my
tattered papers into my face,
And takes off as if for a
rendezvous with fate.
There are obvious, even curious differences; I as reader might prefer some
for meaning, some for flow, for what is pleasing to me. Rabinowitz wonders
asking whether these words 'appear in Spanish and French in the original.'
The book's version has them, too, so are they there in spoken Arabic and
transliterated on the page? Does it matter? Well, it's interesting.
And that word gibberish (does it need confusing?) confidently
in both translations: what sounding word might that be in Arabic?
The book works by direct statements, mostly more directly than the poem I've
quoted. Placed centrally is a long poem as Part 7, 'The Dawn Is Near', and
while nothing in this book can be wrenched out satisfactorily, these few
lines might tell something crucial about it:
I ask: 'Did you see
Did you turn towards the breeze?'
He says: 'I saw.
The breeze was chill.
I turned. I heard
the sound it made.
How calm the clouds
And how deep the ashes
that are dissolved in the clouds,'
Whew, that was
Yards away, some
buckled chunk of shrapnel
smashes into the
Plume of foam.
Reek of smoke.
Fish on their sides
on the surface.
and so on. There is a movement through the whole book of being there and
wondering and holding out, making sense, unable to make sense.
It's another relatively mundane point when glad as I am, if humbled, to
accept such a book into my library, but do his Arabic lines have initial
caps? It inhibits the flow, this old-fashioned Englishing, if that is what it
Like Fawzi Karim's, Toon
Tellegen's poems are in talking style. When I opened the book I thought, 'Ah,
Dutch now', but neither book has its original language poems, it was my
imagining. The poets' lives are very different, their intention is different,
yet I find myself wondering whether English translators are bringing a
certain kind of colloquial flow. I can't know.
Raptors has a big
idea, every poem - each more or less half a page - begins 'My father', on a
line of its own and is the opening of a sentence, which seems (I haven't
back-checked every page) freely to run on, in more or less phrasal lines, no
capital letters anywhere, until it stops. Occasionally there is a minor halt
for a question mark.
The book has no essay, no interview, the translator says she worked in 'close
consultation with' the author, occasionally, she says, he would think his own poem could be
improved and this new thought was incorporated. Uncertainty about we have
here creeps in most obviously when we are told she 'tried to keep the English
as idiomatic as the Dutch and to
find English proverbs and expressions that matched the Dutch as much as
possible,' and 'when there was no real equivalent I looked for solutions that
allowed for a similar play on imagery as in the Dutch.'
It's something one often hears about translations. The originals do slip away
somewhat in such ways, but then imagine Fawzi Karim and Toon Tellegen on
stage one after the other, I'd like to be there, perhaps in a mixed Arab and
Dutch audience, pick up the vibes, if no precise meaning.
I find it hard to hear a Dutch voice, harder than to hear Karim's Arabic, or
so I imagine, something to do with some subtlety of reference, or an
idiosyncrasy of translation; or perhaps Iraq and that region have been in the
news in the way the Netherlands hasn't been, and Tellegen, born 1941, seems
to me borders on being a stand-up comedian. This is not to disparage that
art, only to wonder at it book-length. Here is the opening on page 26:
sat on a
the world from there
you are!' he called out to my mother,
'as if you
'and you,' he
called out to the world, 'how insignificant you are!
as if you'll
never matter again!'
and so on, the mountain then becoming a molehill. Once a scheme like this is
set up, it can be used to say anything, and for me the exercise soon wears
everyone please keep them up!
brothers smashed them to pieces,
you kept us up,' they said
my father went on a journey
in search of
even finer appearances
and so on, and because anything can be said, then nothing much is. Or so it
seems to me. By profession he has been a GP, and we are told he is well known
in Holland for his poems, has given many readings and has won prizes.