New Poetry in Translation from Mohab Nasr, Abdel-Moneim Ramadan

When reading online, I usually skim. Even if it’s poetry, I usually skim, skip over the surface of words, only catching images here and there. But then a poem will come and make my shoulders open up; I’ll slow down and re-read. Two translations I read in the last week — one by Youssef Rakha and the other a co-translation by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar — made me pause and read.

Youssef Rakha takes his translation from Mohab Nasr’s new collection, يا رب أعطنا كتابا لنقرأ (Please God, Give Us Books to Read), of which he writes, “As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: ‘If you know Arabic, read it!'”

In their interview, Nasr talks about how his recent collection came about:

“Instead of writing a few lines to him [a former co-worker on Facebook] I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”

Nasr also said:

“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”

It begins:

Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

I was a teacher;
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Keep reading on Ahram Online.

About Abdel-Moneim Ramadan’s “Funeral for Walt Whitman,” Beard & Adnan write that it “speaks for itself,” but add that Ramadan has placed himself against the notion of a poet as spokesperson (as here); he has also said:

“The poet, I believe, does not see more clearly than others. He is not born with the right to speak on behalf of them, about their past and their future. The only knowledge that he poet has is the knowledge of his body. That is the only property which no one can share with him. The only possible way of communicating with others is to convey that which is entirely separate from them, that is, one’s own body. To speak on behalf of ‘the people,’ of the passions or joys of a nation, is no longer the poet’s duty. The poet is an individual and not a group, and his text is to divide its readers, not to gather them together.”

They also give a bit of context, but never mind that now. The poem opens:

Funeral for Walt Whitman
Abdel-Moneim Ramadan

So finally, atop the fender of a tank,
lounges Walt Whitman.
Finally he observes the streets of Baghdad.
He sees above him birds of paper.
He ponders how the caliph’s palace was constructed
and how airplanes destroyed it.
Walt Whitman is not afraid of rivers.
After all, he drowned there before.
Walt Whitman is not afraid of palm trees.
After all, he let a palm tree approach and enfold him.
Walt Whitman is not afraid of a woman’s abayas,
not afraid of perfume, rouge, or camisole
because he never loved a woman.

Those who accompany Walt Whitman
will disperse before sunset.
Those who make Walt Whitman’s dinner
wish he were a vegetarian.
Those who dislike Walt Whitman’s poems
write secret poems
about what robots think
and what they like to do,
and write more poems about how valleys breathe,
the songs of wood cutters,
the sweat of plants.
Walt Whitman met Lorca at the cathedral in New York.
He met him near the casement
and on the lake, in front of the altar.
He met him in the hallway.
He met Lorca before he ran away.

Walt Whitman met al-Mutanabbi behind the Statue of Liberty.
Keep reading on Words Without Borders.

More poetry:

Tunisia Live: Tunsi Street Poetry: Identity and Other Tales

Press release: Al Jazeera’s “Poets Of Protest” Series Profiles Six Top Arabic Poets