There are two volumes of poetry by Prix Goncourt winner Abdellatif Laâbi out in fresh English translations this year:
The first, Beyond the Barbed Wire, is out from Carcanet this month. The second is In Praise of Defeat, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and introduced by the poet-translator Pierre Joris, published by Archipelago, set for release in November.
The poems in Beyond the Barbed Wire were translated and selected by André Naffis-Sahely, introduced, somewhat surprisingly, not by a Moroccan poet or scholar but by American poet Jim Moore.
Moore connects with Laâbi urgent work as a poet, but also personally: “I wish Abdellatif Laâbi had been with me, some forty years ago, when I was in prison! Laâbi and I were almost exactly the same age, and halfway across the world from each other the Moroccan poet and I were doing time.”
While in prison, Moore discovered a hidden book of poetry in which, he said, inmates had written poems that were important to them. “I hadn’t quite understood that poetry doesn’t only matter to people with college educations; that it is a medium that those in trouble turn to instinctively.”
The poems in this collection are pulled from different moments in Laâbi’s acclaimed career, with the largest selection coming from his from his 1981 collection, The Poem Beneath the Gag, and his 1993 collection The World’s Embrace.
A poem from the first, “Letter to My Friends Overseas,” appeared in Asymptote. There, Naffis-Sahely wrote that “The original text of ‘Lettre à mes amis d’outre-mer’/’Letter To My Friends Overseas’ was first published in La Nouvelle Critique in August 1978, after being smuggled out of prison piecemeal to friends of Laâbi’s in France and later reassembled.”
one of those beacons of light
who help to defend me
from the forceps of the night
Laâbi is still concerned with the work of imprisoned poets, and recently brought Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within from Arabic into French.
His “Death” also came from that collection, which opens with the ringing and plain-spoken:
Here I am aged thirty-three years
and I too start to think
I’m not talking
about death with a capital D
but simply my own
which might come any day now
and is an experience with which
I must settle some scores
An interview with Naffis-Sahely just published in Guernica sheds light on the poems that he chose for his collection.
Donald Nicholson-Smith, we can assume, chose different poems. One appeared in March in Bomb, “Poems Fallen from the Train.” Its urgency is somewhat different, and it is laced with humor. And this wonderful line:
Reading sometimes means
being humiliated for not writing
These two collections represent a major push toward making Laâbi’s work more available in English; they will be interesting to read against one another.