Banipal 46: How a Little Magazine Gets Big Poems

Banipal recently hit the e-waves, bookstores, and mailboxes with its issue 46: “80 New Poems”:

banipal46There are a lot of literary magazines here in the e-verse — a lot — which publish new poetry (whether it’s 20 poems or 40 or 80 or more). Still, as magazines and e-mags multiply, it remains rare enough to find a magazine that lands a lot of interesting poets in one place and gets them to share beautiful new work. One way to do it is with a big budget, and/or prestigious nameplate, and/or gigantic editorial connections. Another way to do it: Deal in translation.

The newest Banipal doesn’t hit every single poem out of the park, but it certainly succeeds at (hm, I guess I shouldn’t have chosen a baseball metaphor, since I stopped following the sport at age 8). Anyhow!

The issues features a variety of mostly established Arab poets in three languages: English (Philip Metres, Khaled Mattawa), French (Vénus Khoury-Ghata), and Arabic(s) (many), as well as a special section on the French poet Lorand Gaspar. The poets come from all over, although with an emphasis on Iraq. Mattawa is the only North African.

Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata, winner of the Goncourt in 2011 for her life’s work, has six wonderful, crooked, folk-tale-like poems translated here by Marilyn Hacker. From “The tree that got loose from the forest can’t mend our fence”:

“House which conjugates war in every tense
The mad brother ate the windows and belched up glass slivers
The mother imprisoned in a cube devoured the snow down to its roots
Deaf grass grew along the moulding
We would reap it in September after the noise-harvest to
stock up for winter”

These alternately beautiful and frightful poems, vividly realized, come from Khoury Ghata’s collection Ou vont les arbres (2011), which will be published in English in 2014, trans. Marilyn Hacker, by Curbstone Press.

Jordanian poet, and now novelist, Amjad Nasser has a haunting meditation on life and death, trans. Fady Joudah. From a section of the long poem: “Once I swallowed a sleeping pill /ate berries ad nauseam / then threw myself across the railroad tracks / the hum shook my body / from the right jugular to the left / and I aimed my fist toward my heart / which was hanging by a thread / in the emptiness of the core / before springing up with all my might / but nothing fell from the bough / that was dangling by the edge of day; / only the leaves yellowed and mummified /in the long autumn of hope.”

The poem ends:

But life
is hope’s
on the back of an indomitable horse
It venerates its promises
It gives
and takes
from the bushels
of the wind

An excerpt from Nasser’s novel, Land of No Rain (trans. Jonathan Wright, forthcoming BQFP), is also included in the issue.

Celebrated Libyan-American poet-translator Khaled Mattawa experiments with a few poems in different forms. There is a series of short poems by Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, each with a beautifully realized single idea (“A Second Life”) or image (“The Airplane”). I was particularly taken with the apparent plainspoken simplicity of “A Second Life.” From the end of the poem: “We rush / all over the place, / and need a second life / to take pictures / We write poetry and move on, / and need a second life / to know the critics’ opinions. / Pain takes time / to dissipate / we need a second life / to know how to live / without pain.”

Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi‘s works come with sharp satiric edge. He also has some short, storylike prose poems, such as “The Policeman and the Window”. From “A Hawk in the Wind”:

Oh, how white is the rock, excerpt for the algae covering its surface!
Oh, how happy are nations, except for the blood writing their histories!
Oh, how vital is the king, except for the death lying in his heart!”

There are a number of poems and fragments from guest author Lorand Gaspar, plus reminiscences by Herbert Mason and Khaled Najar. In “Evenings by the Sea with Lorand Gaspar,” Najar writes of Gaspar’s time in Tunisia. “At the time, Tunisia’s cultural scene was resoundingly Stalinist, despite Bourguiba’s ostensibly westernized and liberal proclamations: the writers’ union belonged to the ruling party, and the cultural associations in the villages were overseen by party men. … Thus, it was inevitable that I would seek out Lorand Gaspar, the individual, and the symbol, who stood in opposition to everything about that terribly stifled cultural moment in Tunisian hitsory.”

Also, in the non-poetry sections, there is a delightfully over-the-top translation of the Faris al-Shidyaq‘s (1804–1887) Leg Over Leg, trans. Humphrey Davies, which is forthcoming June 2013 from the Library of Arabic Literature. And this isn’t even where smoke comes out of a character’s teeth:

“You would have thought a knife had fallen on his wind-pipe or mustard got up his nostrils, for he fumed and frothed, thundered and lightninged, surged and thrashed, roared and bawled, conspired and plotted, jabbered and prattled, wheeled and dealed, remonstrated and reproached and jumped up and down, braiding his beard, in his fury, into a whip, and trying to inveigle every other bilious beard-plucker like himself to rise up with him as he cried, ‘God’s horsemen against the infidel! They shall roast in Hell!‘”

Banipal 46 also has selections from the six International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted novels, but these deserve a separate discussion.


Artful Dodge: Marilyn Hacker on Venus Khoury-Ghata

Banipal Books: Amjad Nasser’s Shepherd of Solitude

Web Del Sol: Some poetry and prose by Khaled Mattawa

Dunya Mikhail’s official website

Poetry International Web: Fadhil al-Azzawi

Qantara: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Literary Investigations