In the latest issue of Asymptote are three newly translated poems by Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis (b. Fez, 1948), trans. Nashwa Nasreldin:

imaNasreldin notes, in her MFA thesis — where she writes about translating Bennis:

I decided to translate poems from Bennis’ collection, Seven Birds, which is one of his most recent, published in 2011. I chose this collection in particular…because I felt very close to the abstract images and emotions expressed in the poems.  I felt I could enjoy the inherent beauty of language, its flexibility in form and meaning, without being distracted into thinking about the context a poem was written in, or that poet’s political intention.

The same things Nasreldin appreciated about Bennis’s work — the abstract, emotionally evocative images — were also a challenge. As Camilo Gomez-Rivas has put it, “Words one had thought to know well appear [in Bennis’s poetry] dissociated from their common senses, taking on unexpected shades of meaning.” Nasreldin noted in her thesis that she wanted to maintain the strangeness, the openness of the words. From her beautiful translation of “lantern“:

soon they will carry the corpse
to the place where the prayers for the dead
repeat
to the cemetery
in a corner of rushed graves

there
as it is lowered into nothingness
everything makes audible repeating strokes
even silence

a woman
facing her death
sways the lantern

The poem is full of a new strangeness, and a re-seeing of movement — and who moves what. It is certainly not full of overt politics. Indeed, Bennis spoke of his movement away from the initial suffocations of Moroccan politics in an interview with Gomez-Rivas:

I went in [to the Moroccan Writers’ Union in 1973] desiring to change ideas and create a new vision of cultural activity in Morocco and a free Moroccan culture in Arabic. But what I discovered when I joined was that I was with political, not cultural people. I didn’t understand this at first. I was an enthusiastic young man. But slowly, I began to understand that this institution which said about itself that it was a cultural one, was in fact an institution that existed to thwart culture.

Bennis withdrew from the union, and “alone and in his house,” Gomez-Rivas writes, “he set out to write poetry that could reinvigorate the language.” However, while Bennis may write without a certain sort of politics, he does have a vision of poetry’s life- and language-affirming importance. He told Gomez Rivas that a language without poetry:

…would become a series of abbreviated sentences used in political discourse, in the stock market, and in commerce. All of these phrases would be accounted for. There would no longer be a space for the imagination. There would no longer be the possibility for personal experience. You would not be important to it; when you go into the supermarket you are not important to it. On the contrary, when you go into the supermarket today we don’t even need language.

The rest of this excellent interview with Bennis: 

On Banipal.

More of Bennis’s poetry in translation:

“Rose of Dust,” trans. Anton Shammas

“lantern,” “disappearance,” and “a blue hand,” trans. Nasreldin

Tens more poems in translation on Bennis’s official website

The official website:

http://mohammedbennis.com/

On video:

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