In early September, the Library of Arabic Literature published a new collection of hunting poems by Abbasid litterateur, poet, and caliph for a day Ibn al-Mu’tazz (247/861–296/908), in James E. Montgomery’s stunning translation. In his introduction, Montgomery calls into question the prevailing image of Ibn al-Mu’tazz as simply a “poetically gifted aesthete with no taste for politics; an ambitionless, pleasure-seeking son of a murdered caliph brought up by a doting and overprotective grandmother; a reluctant ruler who was forced to grasp the reins of power for just one day before he was discovered hiding in the home of a jeweler friend and was executed on the spot.” Instead, he insists, we must take seriously the role poetry played in the circles of power in Abbasid society.
Hunting poems (tardiyyat) in particular are closely connected with these elites and, in Montgomery’s words, “remind us that hunting was not a discrete pursuit but was an inflection of the apparatus of rulership.” The hunt thus figures as a miniature of political life, with the caliph proving that he lives up to an ideal of heroic masculinity necessary for success in both hunting and politics.
Such weighty implications for statesmanship aside, Ibn al-Mu’tazz’s tardiyyat are also simply delightful. Meditations on starlit early-morning departures accompany adoring descriptions of the non-human members of the hunting party: swift dogs race arrows shot from lithe bows, elegant steeds carry their riders without fatigue, and raptors attack ruthlessly from the air. Montgomery’s imaginative translation brings to life hunting scenes alien to most modern readers’ experiences and skillfully renders the aesthetics of the original Arabic verse.
Below, we offer three of our favorite poems as excerpts from this collection. The bilingual Arabic-English edition and translation is now available from the Library of Arabic Literature. -Leonie Rau
In Battle Gear
A description of a goshawk and a horse:
Morning drove off the night
wrapped in its cloak of gloom,
as the Pleaides, sparked by a dawn burst,
blazed like torch fires and Gemini
died away in the sunrise,
fluttering on the horizon
like a flag in the wind.
I startled the oryx,
mounted on a well-drilled, speedy charger,
tufts of hair at his hooves, his back
and withers tightly welded,
wading through water that reached
no higher than his white pasterns,
as if a girl in a red jilbab had fastened
a bracelet on her wrist: his blaze
was white as the early sun; his ribs
like the frame of a camel’s litter,
fused to his spine whose vertebrae
were like the dense knot of a khaṭṭī spear;
his hooves, blue as turquoise and big
as boulders, peeled back the surface
of the ground; his feet, bold, lesion-free,
pounded the high roads with loud thuds,
like polo mallets, raising a dust storm
like a cloud of ʿarfaj smoke
or teased cotton tossed in the air.
Accompanied by a fine gos in battle gear,
her head dusty white, like a king
wearing a crown, her restless eyes,
keen and true, under white brows,
her eyelids like the cloth
of a litter-bearing camel,
her talons like thin, arched eyebrows,
her dappled feathers under black wings
patterned like a regal mantle.
We enjoyed a day of pleasure.
Some slaughtered the birds,
others kindled the fires,
some cooked the meat till it was done,
others, too impatient to wait,
swallowed it raw.
Black at Its Fringes
A description of the pellet bow:
The best way to hunt
is with a taut bowstring,
yellow, tightly twisted,
snorting when stroked
by the archer, its eye
weeping tears of clay
fashioned by a master fletcher
who with all his know-how
crafted them into balls
of identical shape, small pellets
more like pebbles than clay,
stored in navel-shaped pouches,
flying like sparks at hearts
Night was still black
at its fringes as we crossed
the dark to meet the dawn,
patiently taking up our position.
Light spread through the sky.
They came in droves, swimming,
on their way, with Fate’s leave,
to a new meadow or river,
anxious eyes alert to danger—
an archer hurriedly fastened
string to bow and acted
decisively. His shots scattered
the flock. He wore out the lath,
almost ruining it. Birds fell
from the sky, some screaming
in danger, others stranded
on broken wing. Hubris
took control of the archer,
who exulted in his triumph
though he needed to be prudent.
The shooting continued in earnest
and the birds cried, “Humans never fire
pellets like this—it must be raining
stones from the sky!”
The Wind’s Soft Hands
A description of a saker and dogs:
It was a day of pure bliss stolen
from Time, who paid us no heed
as we crossed the dark before sunrise
on haughty, long-necked horses,
through meadows awake with flowers
drenched in tears of rain—
as fragrant as musk pouches,
opened by the wind’s soft hands,
scattered across the leas.
It was time for the quarry to die—
lean salukis, drop-eared hunters,
like unfletched arrows—
were it not for their collars you’d think
a puff of wind might whisk them away.
Ground forces combined with aerial might—
working with sakers in yarak that tower,
then stoop from the sky, like buckets
dropped down a well by hasty hands
thirsty for water, our dogs snatched souls.
The hares’ eardrums were burst by thwacks
like the cracks of date-palm spathes
split open by croppers.
Demon dogs, with jaws of doom, came early
to Qurayyah’s jacks—running fast as the wind,
devouring the miles, rousing the wakeful quarry
A graceful gazelle of a boy
passed a Bābil wine around, his waist swaying
with the weight of his plump buttocks.
You’d never recover from one of his looks.
His guardian paid no heed, as the boy’s glance
glowed like a coal and my heart grew faint.