If you ask an Arab writer what she-or-he is reading (in Arabic), a name that often comes up (and up) is Iman Mersal:
Mersal is an Egyptian poet who lives in Edmonton, Canada, where she teaches modern Arabic literature, among other things. She is author of one of the “50 greatest modern love poems,” a theorist on motherhood, “one of Edmonton’s best-kept literary secrets,” an occasional blogger, the co-translator of Waguih Ghali’s brilliant Beer in the Snooker Club into Arabic. And more.
The three poems heading up your holiday gift are from Mersal’s 2013 collection, Until I Give Up the Idea of Houses. Here, in translation by Robyn Creswell, a poem continually swapping one thing for the next, for the next, and walking through the spaces it creates:
1. The Idea of Houses: Let home be that place where you
never notice the bad lighting, let it be a wall whose cracks
keep growing until one day you take them for doors.
Also translated by Creswell, this next poem also works by the magic of sleight-of-hand, you were looking at one thing and now you’re looking at this:
2. Raising a Glass With an Arab Nationalist: “The nation is on fire,” he said, instead of good evening, and
I started coughing from the smoke that suddenly engulfed me.
In a third here, translated by Creswell (all published in The Nation), we’re looking out a window, from our place behind the window, at the world going by:
3. The Window: From where you stand, drinking coffeee
and watching the passersby, you imagine
the line of the vein they threaded from
his wrist to his heart, you catch the glint
of imported surgical pins in his knees.
This next poem, you can watch Iman read in Arabic and Galina Malugin read in English:
4. The Clot
You can also read poems from Mersal’s collection These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, including, of course:
5. Oranges: I begin taking off petticoats
belts shaped like bows
that turn into dead butterflies when I release them,
Also translated by Mattawa:
6. The Visit: Time usually disappears
at the moment of crossing the threshold.
This one is again translated by Creswell, dropping to the ground immediately to hunt for the thread of itself, and also takes place, wonderfully, on a train:
7. Celebration: The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it. This was at one of those patriotic celebrations, and all I saw were imported shoes and jackboots.
A poem of insistent, slippery wet hair, translated by Mattawa:
8. They Tear Down My Family Home: And with one kick the back door collapses. The door’s memory falls.
I step on packets of sugar, oranges and mangoes shy visitors used to hide under their black shawls.
And this one, for the density of memory/loss in it:
9. The Curse of Small Creatures: A woman and a little girl, both faded by developer. The woman doesn’t smile (though she doesn’t know she will die exactly forty-seven days later) and the girl doesn’t smile (though she doesn’t yet know what death is). The woman has the girl’s lips and forehead (the girl has the nose of a man who never made it into the photos). The woman’s hand is on the girl’s shoulder and the girl’s hand is in a fist (she’s not angry, she’s holding half a caramel).
And for number 10:
10. You can watch Iman read her poem “It Seems I Inherit the Dead“ in her Edmonton home, and see her roll her eyes at the very end.
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