Poems and Ancestors: Huda Fakhreddine Translates Jawdat Fakhreddine

The Sky That Denied Me: Selected Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddineis the second collection by the Lebanese poet (b. 1953) translated by his daughter:

Poetic DNA, recombined.

This new collection, released this month, brings together poems from seven different collections. But rather than beginning with أوهام ريفية (Rural Fantasies, 1980), it begins with three poems from حديقة الستين (The Garden of Sixty, 2016).

These more recent poems are a departure for Fakhreddine, shifting from tafila to prose poetry. But they are most notable for how tightly family is woven into them. The first poem, “Birds of Poetry,” is dedicated “for my daughter, Huda,” who is also the translator of this poem, listening to it in Arabic and re-making it in English. The poem is thus not only for her, but it is hers; he speaks it to her, and she speaks it to a new audience.

The poem itself is full of ancestral layering. It opens: “The birds of poetry come, / sidling toward my heart.” And the “wings of distance are rubble and relics,” where “echoes of songs are dry,/ like blood on camp-ashes.” We have here not only the ashes of a campfire that have been appearing in Arabic poetry at least since the mu’allaqat, but also a gazelle “walking over the desert, wounded,” and horizons that are “tombs and ravens.” We move from ancient campfires to when “We started calling it a country,” and this homeland, too, turns to ruins. Then: “What then do I say to the ruins we call homelands?”

The imagery is ancient and recombined, like essential elements of poetic DNA. There are odes here, “both ancient and new.” Family is not explicit in this poem — the poet is solitary, his voice echoing in the wilderness — and yet there is an us, and even when the poet is alone, he seems to have a family not far off.

The second poem, “A Poem…Or Something More Beautiful,” is not dedicated to Fakhreddine’s wife, although it is a love poem to her, the two of them now in their sixties. It begins: “I told my wife, now that we have reached sixty together — / with myself a bit ahead of her,/ we will be living from now on/ the most wonderful decade of our lives . . . / After that we will be in our seventies — / with me a bit ahead of her. Again we will live the most wonderful decade of our lives,/ Then we will be in our eighties. At that point every year will be an added gift,” he writes. He tells the reader that he relayed this information to his wife, and “she agreed.”

The wife is largely silent in the poem — she agrees with his proposition, she knows the poet and watches him, she walks with him and is followed by trees with him — but her presence is almost uncomfortably large, such that one wants to reach through the poem and ask her: Well, do you? Do you agree? The love story in the poem acknowledges earlier love poems in writing something entirely different. The poet is not sighing after the beloved. Instead the poet feels a shared “ecstasy of becoming.”

The third poem from the 2016 collection, “Another Prose Poem,” is also very personal, as if the writer has lodged the reader inside a tiny apartment with him, his wife, his three cats, his arguments, his solitude, and a lot of furniture. He begins by telling us, contrary to expectations, that, “My share of women is very small, / maybe because I have forever striven/ to keep myself for myself./ My share of women is plenty:/ my wife…and she alone.”

There is a wonderful and strange additional piece to reading the poems in English — imagining the poet’s daughter as she reads the lines and tries to find words for her father’s words.

Fakhreddine was born in 1953 in a village in southern Lebanon, earned an MA in Physics and taught high school, but after publishing poetry was encouraged by Adonis to work on a PhD in Arabic literature. Lighthouse for the Drowning, co-translated by his daughter and Jayson Iwen, was the poet’s first US publication of a full-length collection of poetry. The Sky That Denied Me is available from University of Texas Press.

Poems by Fakhreddine online:

Autumn’s Leaves (Leaves of Autumn’s Many Seasons), tr. Salih J. Altoma and Doris Jean Lynch

How Long This Day of Mine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine and Jayson Iwen