By I. Rida Mahmood
In Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, the Bard dramatizes a retelling of the tale of Menenius Agrippa, an emissary sent by the Patricians of Ancient Rome to coax the angry Plebeians into ending their secession and returning to work. In doing so, Menenius uses a Greek fable about a dispute between the idle, gluttonous stomach and the hardworking organs of the body—a dispute that ended tragically with the demise of the whole. Apparently, the suggestion is that, if the city were a body, certain parts must keep up the hard work lest the idle ones perish, causing the death of the whole: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Dissonance—a euphemism for indignation—among parts of a presumably unified totality would, according to this conceit, lead to piles of dead meat.
And so it did and continues to do, much to the delight of despots.
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On page 37 of his last published book of poems, Adam’s Kingdom, the late Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser presents an image of a world littered by dead meat, where satiation dwells along putrefaction:
All this flesh is too much. Flying flesh. Fresh. Stale. Who wants all this flesh? The wild beasts are full and they do not play around with feet or throw body parts around. New flesh drives away old flesh. The earth, itself former flesh, is no longer able to take and digest it. This flesh will not turn into dust for a long time. It has no place in dust crowded with other flesh.
The above excerpt, translated by Sinan Antoon, serves as a prelude to what might initially seem as the poet’s journey through the realms of the dead, in a fashion reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy and al-Ma’arri’s Epistle of Forgiveness. Nasser mentions these two poets by name in his text, and begins his journey disoriented, in a sort of a mental shipwreck that alludes to Dante’s confused starting point: “I do not know how and when I reached where no allies or witnesses may reach (p. 29).” He also denies the living’s ability to reach ‘Illiyin (the Islamic equivalent of the Empyrean Heaven), requests to meet God in person to suggest that an actual ascension (or descension) occurred indeed, and prays:
“Father, forgive them not
For they knew what they were doing (p. 39).”
However, as one continues reading, the descriptions of landscapes and events become more and more familiar, until Nasser finally settles the case: we are still on earth, Adam’s kingdom, in the present era, witnessing the surreal horrors of the ongoing Syrian tragedy (barrel bombs, sarin gas). Nasser lets the anthropocentric triumph over the theological understanding of the world, a victory for the guilty of intellectual pride: Epicureans, Stoics, Averroists, and otherwise virtuous heathens who embark on an intellectual journey unhitched to a destination in a metaphysical world. He is aware of our disillusionment with modern life, the absurdity and arbitrariness surrounding most of its aspects – a far cry from “But thou didst order all things by measure and number and weight” in the Book of Wisdom. The ugliness of reality has surpassed the imagination of our ancient poets, and where modes of torture and killing machines have overshadowed the most creative minds of filmmakers, it is futile to invoke the ancient muses.
Yet the realm of the dead accompanies the narrative as the overarching theme, until Nasser allows himself to imagine the actual ascension/descension mentioned above. He passes through seven levels of hell, and finally witnesses the tortures of three poets and a man who he refers to as the “man/giraffe” – the writer of this review has referred to the latter as the blue-eyed burro on multiple occasions. Keeping these famous men anonymous, Nasser makes explicit his wish to steer away from creating an epic enumeration or a classical encyclopedia, in addition to stressing his rejection of these characters from reality.
Despite its inescapable moral preoccupations, this perspectivist text reinforces Nasser’s position as a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry and prose poems, oscillating from verse to prose; from the surreal to the dramatic then recoiling to the ordinary; mixing his genres and points of view; and creating his own monsters at times (zebracentaurs, iron horses inhaling and exhaling blood).
And why should a moral preoccupation work against the artistic effects of a given text? Poets, after all, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” or so says Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Ibtihal Rida Mahmood is a Jordanian-American writer and translator, currently based in New England, USA.
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Translated by Sinan Antoon:
Translated by Fady Joudah
Translated by Atef Alshaer:
Translated by Khaled Mattawa
Translated by Camilo Gomez-Rivas
Poems translated by the Poetry Translation Centre:
Interviews and reviews: