Dark Poem-tales in ‘A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know’

Writing about a collection of poetry generally takes a long time and many discussions with oneself and, ideally, others. As I work toward writing about Golan Haji’s A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know (2017), tr. Haji & Stephen Watts, I wanted to float a few ideas:

First, you can read a few poems from the collection online.

Autumn Here is Magical and Vast

A Light In Water

The End of Days

The poems in A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know often read as dark tales. Many are set in dense natural landscapes populated by knowing beasts and djinn, etched in a way that folds space and time between a European and a Syrian historical-present imaginary. (We travel between both, or exist in both, sometimes in the space of a line.) The poems or poem-cycles are stitched together by strong narrative threads that sometimes run straight, while at other times they spin around an image or fling themselves outwards, then hold still, mid-air.

Haji has published three collections in Arabic as well as a bilingual collection with Italian. This, A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know, is his first book in English, with poems co-translated, or co-bridge-translated, by himself and Stephen Watts. The two poets first met, Watts writes in the brief foreword, at an arts and literature festival in Syria in 2010. Since then, they’ve been doing these co-translations in person, over a period of years. And while the collection stretches language in ways that sometimes feel painful or violent, the English also has a natural ease.

The Kurd and the she-djinn

The poem “The Feather and the Mirror” is most clearly a tale, and indeed is labeled as “a Fairytale from God’s Cinema.” The poem’s foreground action takes place between a Kurd and a “she-djinn” (Watts’ and Haji’s term, not mine). Here, a familiar trope is reversed: it’s the man who’s warned what he must never do—never “show anger to her face.” The couple live together for many years, until one day a child of theirs is lost in the woods, and the Kurd rages at the she-djinn. When he does, the consequences are again different from the Bluebeard locked-room trope, or other tales where a woman violates her captor-husband’s rules. The she-djinn disappears “and what remained of the children were just half-bodies, but their shadows on the ground were whole.”

This poem veers (dangerously?) close to the fairy tale’s aphoristic instinct, and then veers just as sharply away. In other poems, too, there are narrative moments that read like a Zen koan, yet that never “reveal” truths (or reveal only more layers of truth below), as in “The Deluge” section of the poem “A Light in Water.” As this section opens, a homeless man is holding a sign that advertises his hunger. Then: “The benefactor, the preacher, and the one who pities each approach him, but in the end it’s an air hostess who accompanies him beyond your field of vision.” A Zen koan that turns surreal, perhaps.

Often the poem-tale’s violent and frightening imagery is paired with a deceptively(?) gentle tone. In “The Child’s Regret,” taken from the collection Children, Madmen and Animals, we find ourselves in a place not unlike the contemporary Mediterranean, where the “rescue boats became coffin lids” and coffins are dragged from the water by fishermen and carried to distant villages. The poem has a cat companion, who is tortured by the second-person “you” of the poem, its whiskers singed “with your cheap lighter.” This cat does not put on boots or help us in our time of crisis. Instead, the cat “lost its way and never returned …”

As in many fairy tales, relationships are simultaneously gentle and absurdly violent, as when, “You glued the spray of laughter to my face[.]”

A smashed hand with its fingers intact

Thus the body, too, becomes both character and fairy-tale horror landscape that is alienated and tortured. In “Bubble,” “My left hand is widowed./ Behind me someone’s looking at my right hand:/ a smashed hand with its fingers intact/ crawling in front of the torn lips of those who’d spoken.”

In this poem, the narrator is watched and interrogated by people (or beings) both visible and invisible. “The angry, the horrified, the cynical, and informants on bicycles—/and I was pushed toward my end[.]” This poem keeps shoving the reader along as, it seems, informants follow us, whispering. But then, when we whip around to see them, there is nothing.

Nature is everywhere in this collection. Anyone who says “Arabs don’t write about flowers” is wrong. But, while it can be beautiful, the nature is more often terrifying. We encounter most of the months and seasons: “Be a drunkard whose knees & teeth are shaking from the cold of March.” Then: “in his house, white beneath the April sun” Later, the summer passes and: “With its mouth, Death feeds us black grapes in August,/ its tiny eggs stuck to our eyelashes.” Fall comes and: “the old man who had been sleeping, ill under the stars of September” Then, finally, “Here it is again, a loveless morning a sunless shadow,/ then the same short December noon[.]”

The name I was given to capture me

Names are also a separate, frightening force. They cling to things that don’t always want them, as the sausage clings to the face of the woman in the tale about misfiring wishes.

“But I hate it that I keep watch over the name I was given to capture me, that I drag it & it drags me, and that it’s stuck to my face and has become part of my voice. Sometimes it seems strange to me when I read it or hear it, or it bores & I detest it. Like everyone I have spent a long time imprisoning myself in my name, since all of us are buried alive, each in his own: a grave of fear & delight & misunderstanding.”

Yet names can also disappear.

The title poem of this work, “A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know,” offers us a keyhole-glimpse into the collection’s fractured relationship with the natural world. The narrative voice stands alone, alienated in a foreign-seeming country, having “locked myself in & lost the key.” This narrator, tormented and bandaged, is speaking to the foreign tree without knowing its name, sucking “on the tenderness” of the tree’s silence. The narrator is not only unsure of the tree’s name, but has also lost hold of his own name and native tongue. Instead of speaking to the tree in words, it is his skin that talks. He is in a country where he came as a guest, a place where happiness “is as white as old age[.]”

This poem lacks the vibrant narrative anger of the exilic poem “Snow,” where the narrator asks “does a guest have the right to be angry !? Forget it. You’re either dreaming or pretending. This is what you wanted. So cheer up and don’t invent another lie).” Instead, in “A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know,” narrator and tree continue their silent conversation, and the narrator’s fear becomes sadness, while the tree is “beauty startled into blossom.”

Haji also collaborated on a section in Fady Joudah’s new collection, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (2018), about which more later.

As always, grateful for any of your thoughts.


A Conversation Between Syrian Poet Golan Haji and Actor Ammar Haj Ahmad

Stephen Watts on Co-Translation