‘Loss Sings’ and the Relevance of Poetry from Nearly a Millennium and a Half Ago

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings came out from the Cahiers Series, Center for Writers & Translators, American University of Paris/Sylph Editions in 2018:

Reviewed by Sarah Irving

Melancholy, with camel.

James Montgomery holds the alarmingly solemn-sounding, almost oppressively cantabrigiensian, position of Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. Appropriately, his recent publications have included heavy-hitters such as ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs and Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga, both with the Library of Arabic Literature, of which Montgomery is an executive editor. Although much of the LAL’s output is beautifully translated and surprisingly accessible, it also somehow exudes an aura of learnedness which does not invite casual familiarities, but does demand respect and attention.

Loss Sings, however, has slipped into Montgomery’s publications list more quietly than either of the volumes mentioned above, both of which attracted scholarly and popular attention – especially Mission to the Volga, a highly readable adventure-epistle which taps into the current interest in Vikings, inspired by various TV serials of very variable quality. Whilst the translations of works by the seventh-century poet Al-Khansāʾ are just as noteworthy and backed by scholarship as any of his other writings, this slim chapbook pairs her work with deeply personal reflections by Montgomery on pain, loss, memory and trauma. Suddenly, the eminent translator of the LAL rips away at least part of the don’s gown, and in so doing reveals much about both the translation process and the continued relevance of poetry written almost a millennium and a half ago.

Al-Khansāʾ (the later by name of Tumāḍir bint ʿAmr ibn al-Ḥārith ibn al-Sharīd) is best known for the poems she wrote from about 612 onwards, lamentations for the deaths of her brothers Muʿāwiyah and Ṣakhr in battle. Her verses attained considerable fame in the Arabian peninsula during her lifetime and, after her people converted to Islam and four of her sons were killed at the Battle of Qādisīyah, she is said to have been allotted the pension due to her as the mother of martyrs by the Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-Khattāb.

Page One of the invaluable Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, edited by (the late lamented) Radwa Ashour, along with Ferial Ghazoul, Hasna Reda-Mekdashi, and Mandy McClure, cites the famous poet Al-Nābighah al-Dhubyānī as telling Al-Khansāʾ that she was “the greatest poet amongst those with breasts,” to which she is said to have replied: “I am the greatest poet amongst those with testicles, too.” The story may or may not be true, but it gives a sense of this woman’s stature and confidence both in her talents and in her right to recognition of them.

Al-Khansāʾ’s poetry is a staple in anthologies of classical Arabic literature, and as such has been exposed to English-language readerships according to changing styles and tastes in poetry. As such, many of the versions available are florid, lachrymose and wordy. Not so for Montgomery’s contributions, which are clean, spare, often simple in the choice of words:

Night is long, denies sleep.

I am crippled

by the news –

Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

The effect is one laden with impact; the depth of Al-Khansāʾ’s pain and the sense of an unrelenting onward force which strips away her strength and vitality is palpable. There could be little more inexorable the closing line of:

Then Time came,

and harvested its malice.

Time never fails.

Stories of brothers killed in tribal wars and evocations of fast-running camels, lush oases and “battle-hard spears” may seem to place Al-Khansāʾ’s work in a distant orientalist past. But, Montgomery frames his translations of her poems amongst dated, diary-like prose passages detailing both his feelings about the process of translation and his reflections on loss and grief. The most prominent example of this, a recurrent thread, is the near-death of the translator’s son in a car accident. Whilst the boy was not killed, he sustained what a doctor, quoted in the text, called “life-changing injuries,” including a limb amputation. We repeatedly encounter the image of Montgomery sitting a desk wrestling, not with Arabic poetry, but with reams of documents filled with legal, technical English – the medical, lawyer’s and other reports on his son’s accident and future prognoses on his health and its likely decline. In Al-Khansāʾ’s time and our own, it seems, death and injury generate text, although its nature has changed – and not for the better.

There seems to be surprisingly little al-Khansa’ fan art.

Interwoven with his responses to his child’s appalling injuries and gruelling recovery are the memories and sensations these, and the poems, evoke for Montgomery of other traumas and losses, whether personal – his grandfather and father, a brother taken by suicide, or collective – his presence in Manhattan on 9/11, his grandfather’s refusal to speak of his experiences in the First World War. As is perhaps the case for almost all people who create in one way or another, the processes of reading and of translation then becomes inseparable from the personal, so that – as we learn early on in the pamphlet – Montgomery’s long-held ambivalence, even dislike, towards Al-Khansāʾ’s poems transformed into a comprehension of why this grieving woman, long ago and far away, wrote the way she did. Montgomery’s account of how, after years of being bored by teaching what he saw at Al-Khansāʾ’s cliches, his encounters with pain opened a window onto her choice of language is a study in how experience – death, grief, love, age – affects how we read, and how the meanings we find and extract in a text. What the teacher for years found “repetitive,” the translator learned in hospitals and drawn-out legalities was a “rehabilitation of the commonplace,” a means for the psyche to laboriously reconstruct the normal. It’s a practice that, as Montgomery’s erudition shows, is not confined to Al-Khansāʾ, but places her at the start of a line which runs also through Ben Jonson, Seamus Heaney and the sixteenth-century Polish humanist Jan Kochanowski.

Nothing in Al-Khansāʾ’s poems or Montgomery’s reflections upon them offers much in way of hope that either poetry or its translation represent a cure or a solution to grief and pain. They do, perhaps, suggest that the best we can aspire to is some form of continuation, and that it holds the possibility of being reshaped into something with meaning. From “Al-Khansāʾ’s obsessive attempts to express the incommunicability of her grief,” Montgomery’s thoughts on translation and on the potential hidden in “jostlings [and] perpetual morphosis” reach at least as far as the observation that: “I think this is what Walter Benjamin may have meant by describing translation as ‘survival.’”

I nearly didn’t get to review this chapbook. The first copy sent to me by the series editor disappeared into the maw of the Swedish postal system – which has, I have since found out, a particular taste for things personal and emotional. The second arrived, but was the next cahier in the series. We got lucky third time, and it was worth the wait.

Sarah Irving is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Linnaeus University in Sweden, working on the experiences of female labourers in Late Ottoman Palestine. She has published on Mandate-period Palestinian history and on Arab-Jewish relations in Arabic fiction, as well as several non-academic titles on Palestine. More of her work can be found at https://linnaeus.academia.edu/SarahIrving.