New Poetry: ‘Mind the Gap,’ a Syrian on the London Underground 

By Fadi Azzam

Translated by Ghada Alatrash

*

On the underground

I sit and contemplate the ceiling.

London passes over me.

*

The roots of trees have not yet reached my train car.

The graveyards are raised above the tunnels.

*

From below

The city is peaceful.

*

The screeching of wheels against the winding steel rails 

Resembles that ache of a heart in countries shattered by barrel bombs.

*

The doors open.

A clear, resolute voice

Penetrates the tunnels in my head:

<Mind the gap.>

*

I shift positions.

New passengers take their places in the car

Others leave.

Time and cars travel in a continuous stream.

The moment a car stops is the same moment

The passengers are moving.

*

Their faces are hollow

Stiff 

As tree trunks.

Their gazes 

Broken

Salty.

*

I taste the salt in my puckered mouth.

*

The one-line cosmic verse continues 

Like a commandment from a Holy Book that has not yet been written:

<Mind the gap.>

*

A great deal awaits you in London.

Or so you think.

Moments of living or letting go

An experience waiting to be lived.

*

The place in which you live

Has nothing to do with the truth you carry. 

An engagement ring

A withered rose in the buttonhole of a jacket

An idea

A memory.

*

I want to yell at the top of my lungs:

I came here

From there

From the great “Middle East”

To draw a map of a world without checkpoints.

I came from a burning land 

To rise from my own ashes.

I came from the roots of history and

Its gaps 

To dig up my own body.

I came from the great drought

Thirsty, like sand longing for water.

I came running away from my language

To continue to dream in it.

*

I came 

Wanting to die

In search of a beginning.

To ask:

Now that we have died, 

Why have we not yet arrived?

*

<Mind the gap.>

*

I receive a message from a Syrian poet

Who wanders in his sumptuous loneliness as he faces the world

And writes from the bottom of the gap itself:

“O the absence of those who returned.”[1]

*

I stare at the faces that haven’t yet fallen into the gap.

*

A face disintegrated by silence,

birds pecking away at its crumbs.

*

Faces burnt by ice

Scarred with gashes

Pitted by emptiness.

*

Faces so familiar 

That they must be believed.

*

A clenched face

On the verge of vomiting out its bulging eyes.

*

A face ironed by the suns of Africa and wrinkled by the frost of Piccadilly Square.

*

An abandoned face, left behind by its owner.

A face loosened by an anaesthetizing London.

A sleepy face stuck between the end and the means.

A forgiving face,

Melting in tenderness,

Of a general in the army holding his child

His hands wet with the remains of blood that has not yet dried.

*

A face of a solider who lost an eye to the war.

Each time he sings

His eye returns.

*

A face chased by something ambiguous

Staring at nothing.

*

A face of an Irish poet who lost his beloved Belfast 

Amidst the thick smoke of his pipe

As he exhales an old anger.

*

A leavened face

Waiting to be baked one morning.

*

A face faster than its owner

Its lips racing.

*

A face scared of me

And I,

F. A., 

Am terrified of it.

*

Feminine faces 

Masculine 

Gender-neutral

Crammed close to one another

Waiting at the mercy of the voice that returns

Clear

As Mozart’s rattle:

<Mind the gap.>

*

I stare at the map. 

The train must have descended into the deepest depths of London.

The new station glistens with silence.

The warning voice ebbs

The passengers pour out and in 

Leaving behind poems holding onto the ceiling straps.

*

A postmodern poem

Full of bills

And dating apps. 

*

A pure poem

Lamenting its loneliness

Sterile

With no mention of breasts

Or streaming salty vulvas

And syphilitic penises.

*

A vernacular poem,

Like a mirror,

Recited by a rapper

Who spits on mirrors.

*

A poem that breaks taboos

Tells the untold

Written by a poet

Who lies naked 

Fucked by metaphors.

*

A poem about love

That castrates love

And glorifies a cigarette

After masturbation.

*

A poem that boasts of victories,

Unable to attain an erection.

*

A poem full of questions 

And exclamation marks

While the child blurts:

 “The king is naked.”

*

A poem on Ecstasy

Written under the influence of plants and hangovers 

About light and shadow

Resembling the calamities of Aldous Huxley.

*

The train stops. 

*

Silence quivers

To the rhythm of Plath’s last breaths.

*

I close my eyes and the whole world dies.

I open them so that all is born again.

*

I mind the gap.

I climb the stairs

To the light at the end of the tunnel.

*

I release a breath imprisoned since birth.

The world begins to emerge 

Little by little

Anew

Innocent as the moment of condemnation

Plain as life and death

Amazing as your kohl-lined eyes

Offering honey, coffee, and warmth on the ice of absence.

*

Behind me 

The once-mighty voice

Wanes:

<Mind the gap.>

__

Note: All modifications to the original poem were made with the permission of the poet.


[1] Issa Idris

*

Fadi Azzam is a Syrian novelist and writer, and is the author of Sarmada (2011), longlisted for the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, as well as Huddud’s House (2017), longlisted for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.  He was the Culture and Arts Correspondent for Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. His opinion columns have appeared in the NY Times and a number of newspapers across the Middle East and Arab Gulf.  

Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds her PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree is in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma.  Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.

*

Also read:

An Excerpt from Fadi Azzam’s ‘Huddud’s House’

New Poetry in Translation: Fadi Azzam’s ‘If You Are Syrian These Days …’

Poetry in Translation: Fadi Azzam’s ‘This Is Damascus, You Sons of Bitches’

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