The Ridiculous Beauty of One of Habib Tengour’s ‘Crossings’

Recently, I’ve been reading my way around and through Algerian poet Habib Tengour’s Crossingstrans. Marilyn Hacker, Post-Apollo Press. I was particularly charmed by the final poem:

41mXgh91swL._SY300_Crossings, in a flawlessly tuned translation by Hacker (2013), “distinguishes poetry from prose.” At least, the protagonist of Tengour’s brilliant “This Particular Tartar” can distinguish between the two, we’re told. They intertwine here, as in all but the first of Crossings’ four long poems.

“This Particular Tartar,” the last of the collection’s five poems, is a wild amalgam: poem, story, satire, fantasy, quasi-sociological, quasi-reportorial, quasi-historical document. The “Tartar” evokes rich imagery in Arab oral and written histories: The Tartars were the horde of “barbarians,” led by Hulagu Khan, who laid siege to thirteenth-century Baghdad. The “Tartars” are portrayed in numerous Arabic stories and poems, including Jurji Zaydan’s popular The Caliph’s Heirs.

But here:

This particular Tartar is waiting beside a side-road. He’s been squatting and moping there for a while. He would rather wait there than beside the highway with cars rushing by at full speed. They splatter you with mud without a thought. There are even drivers — the bastards — who turn around to laugh in your face.

It is an ignominious position for one who used to strike such terror into people’s hearts; indeed, the poem’s narrator tells us, once upon a time the Tartars inspired such fears that “there would be gigantic traffic pile-ups.”

In lesser hands, it would be a flimsy conceit with too-easy humor, but Tengour runs and runs with it; the Tartars, these indistinguishable “invaders from the East” are an echo of other supposed “barbarians”—for instance, well, Arabs. And, although this particular Tartar should be terrifying, he seems rather “pitiful from a distance.”

In an echo of Arabic, especially for an Algerian, the Tartar “lexicon is rich and varied. / Its grammar follows a logic that leaves little place for exceptions. / Its written alphabet remains an unfinished home-repair job. / The Tartars venerate it. // It is the language used in official speech. Fanatics want to impose it in / every circumstance. It becomes a source of tension.”

The narrator tells us nothing of the Tartars’ own histories — and, as far as he knows, they have no chronicles of their own — but instead follows this particular Tartar as he “nomadises around the Kremlin,” the Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, a working-class suburb of Paris. The narrator sketches down notes about the Tartar’s education and habits, noting that, “all in all, Tartar poets take unnecessary risks.”

The narrator explains, near the end, that “The city planning bureau asked me to interview him in the context of a study on gypsies and other travelers. / This particular Tartar distrusts sociologists. I think he confuses them with social workers.”

The poem – like others in the collection – is at moments almost too ridiculous. (A little respect! This is poetry, after all!) Tengour, who once wrote a “Manifesto of Maghrebian Surrealism,” ranges widely, making use of oral tradition and popular myth, silliness and beauty, song and surprise. In the words of his sometimes-collaborator Pierre Joris, Tengour’s work “has the desire & intelligence to be epic,” inventing “narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western/French lyric traditions in which his colonial childhood schooled him.”

The poetry’s wit surges throughout, but it is carried on by its precision (Tengour’s and Hacker’s) and its ordinary moments of beauty:

He himself delights in a bowl of chickpeas with olive oil. He orders two on
melancholy days and lets himself be carried away by the
trilling of a canary.

By Tengour:

Poems from Exile Is My Trade, trans. Pierre Joris

An earlier version of the second long poem in the collection, here “Crossing,” on WWB, trans. Hacker.