“There’s something in one of Wadih Saadeh‘s poems,” the narrator writes in section 12 of Youssef Rakha’s Crocodiles, a novel with a Bolañoesque obsession with the shapes and shapers of poetry:
Rakha’s narrator goes on, in Robin Moger’s translation:
I don’t remember the context — about a future that dangles down, for which the speaker spreads a net in the valley that it may arrive intact, or at least does so for its suitcase, the suitcase in which it sits and in which it arrives. I know now what we never drew nets for our future, or its suitcase. We carried the suitcase carelessly, flinging it down to fall as it may.
Sa’adeh, born in Shabtin, Lebanon in 1948, moved to Beirut with his suitcase of the future at the age of twelve. In 1973, he self-published his first collection, Evening Has No Brothers (Laysa Lil Massa’ Ikhwah), reputedly selling handwritten copies on the streets of Beirut.
After some itinerant years, Sa’adeh and his family moved to Australia, in search of social justice, and he’s been there since 1988. While his poetry often returns to a Lebanese landscape, it is also relentlessly interested in the possibilities of a future. As he wrote in the preface to his only English-language collection, A Secret Sky (1997): “Poetry is not just an expression of the past, it is an act of creation, a dream of renewal, the only way for me to recreate myself as I would wish to be.”
Human bodies are often transformed in Sa’adeh’s poetry. Also from the preface to A Secret Sky: “I grew up among opposites – the sterility of rocks, the fertility of fields. The fields and rocks sometimes seemed to me to be the secret faces of the people I lived among in that village.”
From “Bringing Back a Melted Person,” trans. Clarissa C. Burt:
This lake is not water. It was a person to whom I spoke at length, then he dissolved.
And I am not trying now to look at water, but rather I’m trying to recover a dissolved person. How do people become lakes like this, which tree-leaves and algae top?
Drop by drop, the dead descend on my door.
Or in “Mysterious Neighborhood,” translated by Amber Nelson and Maged Zaher, “ribs / open like an umbrella.”
And in Moger’s new translation of “Shadows,” from Sa’adeh’s 1992 collection Most Probably Because of a Cloud, shadows become unstuck from their bodies.
Passing the fields some had
their shades part from them and sleep there
and shades clung to the rocks, stretched out
and brought them back again.
They came away until they came
to water, wearied
while overhead the sun searched for a needle
to reattach them to the shadows.
Anne Fairbairn translated the same poem for A Secret Sky.
Sa’adeh’s poetry hasn’t received wide English-language attention from critics or publishers. But his poetry has seen ongoing interest from translators and poet-translators.
Among the works you can read online:
In Jadaliyya, you can find five poems translated by Sinan Antoon, from Sa’adeh’s collection Who Took the Gaze I Left Behind the Door.
Also in Jadaliyya, “An Attempt to Reach Beirut from Beirut,” translated Suneela Mubayi.
Poetry International Web has published various poems by Sa’adeh translated by Anne Fairbairn and published in the collection A Secret Sky (1997).
Two poems: “A Life,” and “Because of a Cloud, Most Likely,” both translated by Ghada Mourad.
Missing Slate published “Hey Allen Ginsberg, I Think That the Fan is Rotating,” translated by Maged Zaher.
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