ReVerb

The Rabbit Hole: Thoughts on Sidebrow

by Craig Epplin Books begin and end; their physical architecture makes this clear. Hardcovers have wall-like exteriors, and even the covers of paperback volumes tend to be of a color and texture different from the pages within. Like a fence around a pasture or the applause that delineates a performance, the binding tells us when to start and when to stop. Everyone knows the internet isn’t like that. And as we spend more and more of our time reading on the web, we become all the more accustomed to reading without signposts or double bar lines. The internet, writes Lawrence Lessig, “is not a novel or a symphony. No one authored a beginning, middle, and an end.” This characteristic of the web yields its particular temporality. I pick up books and put them down, sometime over the course of months, but those months make up a sort of unit: the period in my life when I was reading Moby Dick, for example. There is no similar stretch of time called “when I was reading the internet,” unless you count the years between fifth grade up to now as such a unit, which sounds absurd to me. That comparison is perhaps not fair. After all the internet is not one thing. It has relatively discrete zones: individual sites and genres with their own rules and, yes, their own boundaries. But the point is that those boundaries are always semi-permeable. You can almost always add a link, and that underlined, differently colored fragment of text means there’s a decision to be made: to follow it or not, knowing full well that it might be a rabbit hole from which there’s no return. For years now, hypertext authors have been exploiting this moment of decision. Readers have to choose, in hypertext literature, where the story or poem goes next. There’s a parallel here with the nature of the internet in general, but it only extends so far. This is because behind the hopscotch structure of most hypertext literature lies an author, usually just one, who has mapped out the possibilities beforehand. Multiplicity is an effect of the finished work, not of the process of its construction. This is why the projects gathered on Sidebrow’s site are so intriguing to me. Mostly prose poems, they capture, indeed, the moment of decision associated with all linked reading, but they render that decision all the more meaningful, for following any one link means leaving one author’s territory and moving into another’s. For example, Cathi Murphy’s “The Man Who Ate Breakfast for Dinner” is a piece about a man who likes to walk around barefoot, an ex-user who also likes to sit barefoot in a chair on the lawn, where he prepares for something to begin. The short text has a round, finished quality: it begins with a reference to Einstein and loops back around to him toward the end. This quality, however, is undermined by the seven links scattered throughout its extension, which cut through its appearance of autonomous self enclosure. Those links are associative. They take us to other poems published on the sprawling Sidebrow site. We don’t have to guess at what associations are being conjured up: when a bit of text links to another poem, a passage in the latter is highlighted in yellow. Thus the phrase “Wet toast on the windowsill” sends us to an excerpt from a poem by Paul Hardacre called “The River Is Far Behind Us,” in which the fragment “rain eating toast / at the window /” is highlighted. This practice is common throughout the site, and it is reflected in the submissions guidelines, where we read that “ubmissions that reimagine, depart from, or explore the interstices between posted and published pieces are highly encouraged.” This is, on the one hand, nothing new, for nearly all poetry seeks to establish some sort of conversation with the aesthetic tradition. But on the other, it represents a unique departure, in that the project makes this conversation explicit. All this allows us to see just how tangential and associative the historical conversation within the arts really is. Many of the links lead us to small phrases evocative of the original text. The example I mention above about wet toast and hungry rain is a case in point. However, this only represents the beginning of the reader’s task. What remains is to figure out, or at least imagine, what lies behind these connections. It’s as if the site’s authors had done the hard part for us—underlining little points of contact between one text and another—only to reveal that an even harder task lies in wait ahead: the task of creating some sort of meaning out of those points of contact, which in turn implies following more links and more contingent associations. This is an arduous possibility, for it means that the conversation in which we are engaged is potentially endless. The rabbit hole, in other words, is home to lots more than just rabbits. Aquarium Translated by Hilary Kaplan she has seaweed fear when she awakes facing the stadium. her room is an aquarium with submerged shafts of sun and her body filtered through the light of the tinted window film takes the contour of a reverse magnetism. not that it mattered the time. she just did not know how she had arrived there. did not know how many hours had slipped by (a dog licking her foot, that same image frozen) and at the exit: “are you going to answer me again with a question?” “but the arrangement is different.” and she said, i don’t remember what she said. the stadium is a hole in time and from above its gills pulse with echoes of the last game. you curl up behind the curved glass and fight to swim past the small stones, as in a gentian violet ocean Aquário tem o pânico das algas marinhas quando acorda de frente para o estádio. o quarto é um aquário com setas submersas de sol e seu corpo filtrado pela luz do insulfilm tem o contorno de um magnetismo inverso. não que importassem as horas. apenas não sabia como ali chegara. não sabia quanto tempo tinha passado (um cão lambia o pé, a mesma imagem congelada) e na saída: “vai me responder de novo com uma pergunta?” “mas a configuração é diferente.” e ela disse, não lembro o que ela disse. o estádio é um buraco no tempo e de cima suas guelras latejam os ecos da última partida. você se encolhe atrás do vidro redondo, luta para vencer as pequenas pedras, como num oceano violeta genciana Error of Geography (p.31) Translated by Hilary Kaplan on her walk juliette came across a giant zucchini and mûres there’s no word for those in portuguese i think her white pants stained deep blue no cows today nor bells the lamp is the only light in the house there must be a word after all they have mûres in portugal autumn arrived during the night and i have finished watching d’est but that was snow it was or i am not tired or else i can’t sleep anymore my trip to tangier will be one to mérilheu he says amoras you think in portuguese we call mûres amoras where are you off to next, the center of the universe? you will learn that slate roofs are made for snow that when you get tired you can find a place in the passenger car two women sat there speaking something not twins’ patois but still you couldn’t tell what language they used by land you will cross a country thinking of home and soon think of a house a house with 4 cats you will hold your purse in your lap recalling the afternoon when you met engano geográfico (31) juliette achou na caminhada uma abobrinha gigante e mûres acho que em português não existe um nome para isso a calça branca manchada de azul-escuro hoje não há vaca nem sino o abajur é a única luz da casa deve haver um nome afinal em portugal existem mûres o outono chegou à noite acabo de ver d’est mas aquilo era a neve isso sim ou não tenho sono ou ainda não consigo mais dormir minha viagem a tânger será mérilheu ele diz amoras em português pensa chamamos mûres de amoras você vai para o centro do mundo depois? vai saber que os telhados de ardósia servem para neve que quando estiver cansada poderá encontrar um lugar no vagão de trem não eram as gêmeas com seu patoá que sentavam ali mas ainda assim não compreendia qual língua usavam vai atravessar um país por terra e pensar em sua casa daqui vai pensar em uma casa uma casa com 4 gatos vai levar a bolsa no colo lembrando da tarde em que se conheceram


Poems for Your Walkmam: Marília Garcia

By Hilary Kaplan. Poems For Your Walkman: Translations from Marília Garcia’s 20 poemas para o seu walkman and Engano geográfico. The poems in Marília Garcia’s 20 poemas para o seu walkman (20 Poems for Your Walkman) (2007) turn our everyday senses inside out, suggestively unsettling even our sense of certainty in language and place (if anything is left of it). Through evocations of Paris, London, and Barcelona set against Rio de Janeiro, through waves of memory and time, these poems lead us on a journey of disorientation and discovery. Engano geográfico (Error of Geography) (2012), Garcia’s most recent work, extends this journey in the form of a book-length poem based on the poet’s trip to meet Emmanuel Hocquard at his home in Mérilheu, France, an adventure she undertook as Hocquard’s Brazilian translator. Garcia’s poetry has been translated into English, Flemish, French, German, Spanish and Swedish. A Spanish translation of 20 poemas para o seu walkman (trans. Mario Cámara, Diana Klinger, and Paloma Vidal) is forthcoming from Vox Ediciones (Argentina). Garcia has read her work in Argentina and at the 2011 Europalia festival in Belgium. She co-edits Modo de Usar & Co., a print and online poetry journal, and blogs at le pays n’est pas la carte. Her work always in dialogue with French and U.S. poetry and with the mode of translation, the title of Garcia’s blog comes from a French translation of Jack Spicer’s “The Territory Is Not the Map.” A former editor at 7Letras press, Garcia is a professor of literature in Rio de Janeiro. Video: Marília Garcia reads “Aquário,” “é uma lovestory e é sobre um acidente” and “lovestory, de a-z” at the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM), Rio de Janeiro on January 26, 2012.   20 Poems for Your Walkman Translated by Hilary Kaplan on one of the first days of the year, francesc walked up notre-dame -de-lorette behind jacques roubaud and sat down at the café gioconda facing a bag with a cat inside. one of the first days of autumn, it did not seem safe to stay there—like the slippery edge of a boat and on the other shore everything was a room and terrace streets multiplying all around the train station with brush growing over the tracks and sometimes a dip in the saltwater: to lie floating with a walkman then look toward his feet: a bit insular, this fact of isolated languages slowly mixing and of driving on the highway at night. II. then he walked down the streets wanting to stay locked in the car holding a book. the crag extinguished all definition of things, but when he turned she was gone had taken the boat home and said maybe next summer but just called to talk about a job in mathematics—“almost a porous object”—to go out to a rock concert and prepare variations for a sweet vegetarian who paints the apartment white before leaving. III. one of the first days and the card arrived from catalonia, he said his whole meter ninety went speechless stumbling into people and he looked down at his feet: blue sneakers. if there were not so much hierarchy or what would he think (would he wear green? carry a battery of objects in his hands? use headphones? and still he’d sing out loud) 20 poemas para o seu walkman By Marília Garcia I. um dos primeiros dias do ano, francesc subia a notre-dame -de-lorette atrás de jacques roubaud e sentava no café gioconda de frente para uma sacola com um gato dentro. um dos primeiros dias de outono, não parecia seguro ficar ali — como a beira do barco escorregadia e do outro lado tudo era um quarto com terraço as ruas crescendo ao redor a estação de trem com mato cobrindo as linhas e às vezes um mergulho na água salgada: ficar boiando com um walkman e depois olhar para os pés: — um pouco insulano isso de as línguas isoladas se misturarem pouco a pouco e dirigir na estrada à noite. II. depois descia as ruas e queria ficar no carro trancado segurando um livro. o penhasco apagava qualquer definição de coisas, mas quando se virava ela já não estava tomara o barco para casa e dizia que talvez no verão seguinte mas só ligava para contar do emprego de matemática — “quase um objeto poroso” — sair para um concerto de rock e preparar variações para uma vegetariana amável que pinta de branco o apartamento antes de ir. III. um dos primeiros dias e chegava o cartão da catalunha, dizia que ficava mudo em seu metro e noventa esbarrando nas pessoas e olhava para os pés: um tênis azul. se não tivesse tanta hierarquia ou o que pensaria (estaria de verde? traria uma pilha de objetos nas mãos? teria um fone de ouvido? e ainda cantaria em voz alta) Hilary Kaplan received a 2011 PEN Translation Fund award for her translation of de-ital Rilke Shake, a book of poems by Angélica Freitas. Her translations appear in Litro, PEN America, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from San Francisco State University and is completing a PhD in comparative literature at Brown University. She writes about Brazilian poetry and poetics for Jacket2.


Christopher Merrill: A Good Time for Prose

Christopher Merrill: An Introduction By Idra Novey I first met Christopher Merrill in India. We’d both come to Calcutta as part of a U.S. Delegation of Writers to take part in one of the largest book festivals in Asia but which was cancelled at the last minute after we’d all arrived. Our delegation took part in a number of readings and discussions around Calcutta anyway and I had the pleasure of hearing Merrill’s work aloud in English and then translated into Bengali. It was a fitting introduction to a writer of such a worldly perspective. Whether he’s working in nonfiction, free verse poetry, or in longer lyrical prose poems such as the ones included in the feature below, Merrill’s writing exhibits a sophisticated understanding of the many ways people experience the world depending on where they are born and into what language and culture. Even when Merrill writes in a mode that reads more like fable, his travels through—and fascination with—the world beyond the United States is marvelously present and forms part of what makes his work so rewarding to read. It is a pleasure to introduce these stunning prose poems by Christopher Merrill and the accompanying interview with poet and translator Becka Mara McKay. An Interview with Christopher Merrill By Rebecca McKay I loved reading your new poems for the issue. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in the prose poem as a form? In the fall of 1989, which seems like a lifetime ago, I began to experiment with the prose poem, writing, sometimes automatically, the first draft of what by fits and starts became Necessities, a book-length improvisation due out next year. These pages, which combine surrealist imagery, elements of fable, and meditations on the language, opened a new vein in my work, which I have been exploring ever since. From the beginning I was influenced by various French masters of the form, including Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Breton and Saint-John Perse, as well as by writers like Kafka and Calvino, Merwin and Simic. And I continue to be inspired by the inventiveness and energy on display in the prose poems of many contemporary American poets. This is a good time to see what can be done in lines that go all the way to the right-hand margin. On a similar note: You’ve written both poetry and prose. What do you find yourself getting out of each form? Are you always working on poems, even as you take on your next big prose piece? There was a long period of time, when I was covering the war in the Balkans and then writing a pair of books about it, that I lost hope of ever finishing another poem. This persisted into the last draft of my next prose book, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, when out of nowhere, so it seemed, I found myself composing verses and prose poems. Now I find myself increasingly writing both poetry and prose, drawn to the first by music, by cadence and sound and song, and to the second by a love of stories and an allegiance to facts. I save my inventions for poetry, though, whether in verse of prose. These recent poems seem to take on the political in a number of ways, but most noticeably through allegory. Do you consider these poems of witness? Not necessarily. I am deeply interested in politics, and indeed I often address political matters in my nonfiction. But in my poems, even those that seem to be political in nature, it is the structure of political life, the way it shapes our thoughts and emotions, that most interests me. Generally speaking, it is difficult to make the substance of politics endure in literature; hence the allegories of power that I write examine movements of the heart, which I take to be timeless. I was on a panel at AWP in which Doug Unger bemoaned the lack of world literature being taught at American universities. Through your work with the International Writing Program at Iowa, you’ve taught world literature in a unique way. Can you talk about that experience? International Literature Today is an undergraduate class, offered during the fall residency, which features presentations by the visiting writers on their work, homelands, and literary traditions. I teach with Natasa Durovicova, editor of our online journal, 91st Meridian, and on the first day we tell the students that we cannot predict what the writers will talk about—that in fact we will be learning alongside them: one of the pleasures of the class. Indeed many of the writers attend the class to hear what their colleagues have to say, which makes for a rich learning experience. Similarly, you’ve been instrumental in getting the participants in the IWP matched up with translators. Some of these matches have been incredibly fruitful. Can you describe the process of pairing writers with potential translators? I believe you once compared it to an instant blind date, or something like that. In this interactive translation workshop, we pair off IWP writers with graduate students from our MFA programs in Literary Translation, Nonfiction Writing, and the Writers’ Workshop, and over the course of the semester they bring into English poems, fictions, and excerpts of plays, many of which are eventually published. It is a fascinating process. Some students know the language of the original, some must rely on an English crib, and all have the chance to ask the writers questions about what they intended to do, where their work stands in relation to their literary tradition, and what effects might be preserved in translation. There is an element of chance in the match-making between the students and the writers, which sometimes leads to marvelous connections. Does your own work as a translator affect your voice as a writer, and/or vice versa? Do you find your voice creeping into your translations, or the voice of the authors you work with inhabiting your own? Translation must influence my writing, and vice versa, though I cannot say precisely how. I do know that I try to keep my voice out of my translations—invisibility is what I seek in my effort to serve the poet’s vision—and that in my poetry and prose I hope to incorporate some of what I have learned from the work of the poets that I have tried to bring into English. Becka Mara McKay is Assistant Professor of Translation and Creative Writing at Florida Atlantic University. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she also received a PhD in comparative literature. Her first book of poems, A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, was published by Shearsman Books in 2010. She has published three translations of fiction from the Hebrew: Laundry (Autumn Hill Books, 2008), Blue Has No South(Clockroot, 2010), and Lunar Savings Time (Clockroot, 2011). She has received awards and grants from the Seattle Arts Commission and the American Literary Translators Association, and a Witter Byner Poetry Translation Residency. In 2006 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poems and translations have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, ACM, Third Coast, The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Rhino, Natural Bridge, Rattapallax , and elsewhere. Fall and Recovery for Jill Staggs For example, the crack widening in the window of the plane flying over Greenland: crazing is the word used by the safety inspector to describe the mesh of lines spreading from the bullet-sized hole in the plastic through which shine glaciers melting in the sea below—ridge upon white ridge gleaming in the sunlight of an autumn morning, which goes on and on as the plane heads westward. The inspector contracts and releases the muscles in his legs, curling his toes under the seat in front of him, raising and lowering his feet, listening, again, to a partita by Bach. Soon it will be time for another meal, another film, and the blue expanse of the sea. The flight seems endless, suspended like a breath above the earth, a line inscribed in the sky subject to the same forces of gravity and velocity that mark the rising tides. The passenger closes his eyes, and as he falls asleep he thinks, I must be crazy to keep doing this. The crack opens into light. Without On the first day the goat climbed to the top branch of the acacia tree and said, The ship sailing to the new world will sink before it leaves the harbor. He stayed there all night, counting the stars in three constellations that he had never seen before, and in the morning he cleaned himself up and said, The fishermen mending their nets will never take to the sea again. Leaves fell from the tree, the herder called from the ridge, and the goat, frisky in the heat, bounced on the bare branch until late afternoon, when he drifted off to sleep, unafraid of what the waxing moon might bring. That night he dreamed of a hyena chasing a lion up a valley into which the sea rushed, dividing the continent between the ones with gold and the ones without. And when he woke at sunrise on the third day, believing that the whitecaps in his dream were the pages of an unwritten book left on the ridge from which the herder called to him, he said, Here I am. Perishables They keep the contestants in cold storage. Nothing worse than spoiled goods, they say. Yet the contestants hold a privileged position in our society. Less than one percent of the applicants, who number in the millions, survive the initial screening at birth. And those who do face constant scrutiny before the final selection is made, their features sketched by a battery of artists, their measurements recorded, their moods described and annotated. There is almost nothing that we do not know about them. What ingenious devices have been invented to promote their well-being. The automatic sprinkling system installed in the nursery to protect them during the fragile period of their first growth is triggered when the temperature drops below freezing, spraying mist over their cribs to insulate them with a sheet of ice. In spring they are coated with a fine white powder, which according to unverifiable reports may leave them giddy; in summer, basking in the sun, they joke about the health department officials who monitor the fields for maggots; and as they come into autumn, fit, ruddy-cheeked, and buoyant, they place bets on the arrival date of the migrant workers journeying north for the harvest. Alas, the hopes of some are soon dashed. Bruised by longing, twisted by an inexplicable rage at the divine order, or exhausted by the preliminary rounds of competition, they are weeded out and set on boxcars headed in the opposite direction of those fortunate few bound for the host’s estate—a compound encircled by a wall topped with barbed wire and guarded over by a militia recruited from the fringes of the empire. Of course the losers complain, although no one hears their grievances. Indeed they are warned to keep silent, which never stops them from talking to the media, sealing their fate; needless to say, their speeches from the gallows only feed the public’s appetite for spectacles. Meanwhile the shivering contestants huddle in a locker the size of a stadium, their bodies waxed and shining, waiting to be called. We listen to them praying day and night, asking one another the same question over and over: Are you happy? Porcelain for Michael New (1942-2006) You would have liked it here: in a small city along a river, with the spires of a Gothic cathedral looming above a castle and the burgher descendants of the margraves who raised the fortifications maintaining a decent respect for order, you can build things to last—cobblestone lanes, town houses, traditions. And you would have appreciated the court decree, in Latin, French, German, and Dutch, directing alchemists to turn their attention to clay, not to create men blessed with eternal life but to make porcelain for a prince who had traded a regiment of soldiers for chinaware. Thus the rise of an industry, lodged in the castle until the walls cracked, which still governs daily life—the prices in the souvenir stalls, the dates of festivals, the plans shelved by the chocolatier, the prints removed from the window of the antique shop, the twitching of the sleeping tour guide, the repertoire of the one-man band, the complicated love life of the ticket-seller at the museum of torture: in short, the full range of human affairs. Not to mention the fact that to preserve the secret of making porcelain the prince kept its inventor in prison (he had poisoned his master), and set up his factory outside Dresden, in Meissen, where his craftsmen could develop their ideas free from the inquisitive regard of foreign emissaries. Goethe visited, Richter taught drawing to the artisans, and as political orders succeeded one another the porcelain bells rang in the Church of Our Lady and the patterns of dishes, tiles, and medallions furnished to royal families all over Europe were archived in the castle. Courtiers acquired a taste for Chinese screens, for coffee served in cups decorated with flowers, for figurines inspired by the lower orders—harlequins and criers, miners and vintners. Generations of potters, casters, embossers, glazers, painters, clerks, and guards—all lived and died under the sign of the crossed swords. We try hard not to despair, Victor Klemperer wrote in 1940, after burning his letters and manuscripts. Stripped of his professorship, typewriter, and telephone; barred from the library and cinema; forbidden to buy tobacco—the scholar recorded in his diaries the destruction of a way of life. Nothing could save him, not his Aryan wife, his conversion, or his service on the Western front. But the order to deliver deportation notices to his neighbors, on Shrove Tuesday 1945, coincided with Allied planes taking off from airfields in England to firebomb Dresden: an act of Providence, he concluded in the ashfall. Spared the journey to Auschwitz, he removed his yellow star. And what his witnessing reveals is that what holds a civilization together may be as fragile as the small dish my daughter bought in Meissen to mark our visit to the Old World—a bibelot hand-painted with a swirl of blue flowers, golden stems, and ochre leaves. Dusk in early spring. From a terrace overlooking the Elbe, which after the rain was approaching flood stage, I watched my daughter stir her hot chocolate, and wondered how to decipher the decision taken to turn a city into a kiln. A historian analyzes the minutes of the meetings of the civilian and military leaders; a political scientist draws out the implications of total war; a theologian considers the limits of just war theory; an urban planner studies maps; a philosopher constructs a system of thought to account for what was once unimaginable; a former prisoner of war who watched a column of flame rise into the air opens his notebook; an architect traces a finger along the scorched cornerstone of the church he will rebuild… Drink up, I said. Among the icons on my shelf is a glass vial of volcanic ash collected from a coulee in eastern Washington. Mount St. Helens had erupted just before I bicycled through the canyons and shrub steppe on the road to Spokane, and one night, in a farmhouse, an elderly couple served me dinner on Meissen ware, which had come into their possession after the war—a gift to a soldier from the occupying army for reopening the kaolin mine. White earth, said the veteran, whose land had turned the same color as the plate he lifted up to show me the crossed swords—a memory that I have carried all these years without knowing that it was what I would want to give to you.


Familiar Strangers: The Ghazals of Simin Behbahani

(Strength of a Woman, by Golsa Yaghoobi) By Catherine Fletcher and artwork by Golsa Yaghoobi Now in her 83rd year, the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani has written 10 collections of poetry, won several human rights awards, been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and—most recently—been named MTVU’s Poet Laureate. For most of her poetic career she has been known for reinventing the ghazal in the Persian language. “I write, I cross out, to find what I’ve lost, to find words for turbulent thoughts. I scratch the back of my skull with a finger like an ivory dowel to untangle braid by braid the tangled yarn.” 1 Now in her 83rd year, the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani has written 10 collections of poetry, won several human rights awards, been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and—most recently—been named MTVU’s Poet Laureate.  For most of her poetic career she has been known for reinventing the ghazal in the Persian language. A History of the Ghazal, in Brief A form known to many American literati since the work of Agha Shahid Ali, the late Kashmiri-American poet, the ghazal first appeared in English language poetry in Irishman Thomas Moore’s Twopenny Post Bag (1813) 2 amid the flurry of European Orientalist translation in the 18th and 19th centuries that inspired Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (1819) and gave form to Friedrich Rückert’s Östliche Rosen (1822). Variations on the form persisted in the lexicon of European poets, most significantly Lorca’s late collection, Diván del Tamarit (1936), containing gacelas and casidas and written in homage to the poets of Al-Andalus.  The form first entered American poetry with Adrienne Rich’s 1969 ghazals written in homage to Urdu master Mirza Ghalib, but it was Ali himself who really championed the form in the 1980s and ’90s. Ali defined the ghazal as a poem of at least 5 couplets (sher). The first couplet (maṭla) introduces a scheme of rhyme (qafia) and refrain (radif), which is picked up in the second line of subsequent couplets and rhymed with both lines of the first couplet, known as monorhyme.  The ghazal often ends with the poet’s signature, an invocation of his own name known as a takhalluṣ. 3 Ali’s own poem, “Even the Rain” is frequently cited as an example of the form in English .  Ali’s definition—what he calls “real ghazals”—is based primarily on 13th and 14th century classical forms, best represented by Persian writers Sa‘di, Rumi, and Hafez.  But they were not the only ones writing ghazals... The ghazal has a 1400 year history, and the form has appeared in languages such as Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Hebrew, Bengali, Punjabi, and Azeri.  The word in Arabic means “to talk about love” and an expression for a love poet is ghazil. The ghazal’s origins—about which scholars can (and have) spend lifetimes arguing—lie in the Arabic language, and the generally agreed upon story goes something like this.  The ghazal emerged from the nasib, the amatory prelude to the qasida, a panegyric ode and favored form of pre-Islamic Arab tribal societies.  It first appeared around the late 6th century in the work of Bedouin poets such as Imru’ al-Qays, whose lament and longing for his beloved upon an encounter with her former campsite in his Muʿallaqat set the tone for many poems to follow.   The form developed further during the Umayyad era (661-750)—especially in the work of ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi ‘a, who forsook desert conventions and focused on love, and in the “anti-ghazals” of Arabic classical poetry’s bad boy Abu Nuwas, whose favorite subjects were life in Baghdad, wine, and pederasty.4 The ghazal’s expressiveness marked a shift in the way poets were viewing and describing the world, from narrative to lyric, and it tended to be shorter than the elaborate qasida. 5 During the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) the genre of the urban ghazal became popular in Basra, Kufa, and Baghdad, especially those by Abu al-Fadl Abbas Ibn al-Aḥnaf, who developed it into a more distinctive, independent form.  In Iraq and also Syria, urban women—slaves, singers and aristocrats—composed and sang ghazals.  10th century master al-Mutanabbi (the Arabic language’s Shakespeare) included love themes in the nasibs of his qasidas, returning the form to its desert roots. 6 The ghazal, along with the qasida, spread with Islam and the Arabic language.   The form travelled first to Persia with the Arab conquest in 651 (a poetic journey which I will address shortly), al-Andalus (711-1492), then to the courts of Mughal India (1526–1858), as well as to the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), where it became the ornate gazel that morphed into a pop music genre in the early days of the Turkish recording industry.  In the Islamic world, the ghazal’s recent variations include the work of the Egyptian Neo-Classicists and Pakistani master Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the music of Indian Jagjit Singh (“The Ghazal King”), filmi ghazals in the South Asian movie industry, and Urdu musha’ira poetry gatherings.  In Iran, a strong connection to this tradition appears in the films of director Abbas Kiarostami. The Persian Ghazal Returning to Ali’s “real ghazals”, a version of the Persian ghazal emerged in the 10th century, a fusion of Arabic-influenced monorhymed verse with local forms of sung poetry performed by minstrels at court celebrations.  The form gradually became more technical and literary, though it maintained its musical character.  The Eraqi style verses now recognized by many Persians as ghazals were first codified by Sa‘di in the 13th century.  Writing mostly secular poems, he developed the monothematic ghazal and established convention oftakhalluṣ.  Rumi meanwhile plumbed the form’s possibilities for mystical expression.  In the century following, Hafez—regarded by many as the master of the form in Persian—pushed the form further, reimagining it as panegyric and by combining different genres and themes. 7 Their essence was outlined by scholar Dick Davis who, in his article “On Not Translating Hafez”, explained the impossibility of translating the work into English.  To recap, the classical Persian ghazal is marked by cultural tropes including cups overflowing with wine and drunkenness.  The panegyric and hyperbole are often used, noting inferiority of the speaker and praising of the addressee.  An aesthetic of wonder, self-abnegation, and incommunicable experience is often present.  Structurally the ghazal’s lines are semantically complete with no enjambment, and it possesses thematic rather than narrative coherence.  The theme of the poem is stated and restated, creating perceived lack of forward motion or change. 8 The meter used is a more complex subject to address—technically a ghazal poet can use any meter, and there are total of about 200 possibilities (though some, like the hazaj, occur more frequently than others).  Classical Persian prosody generally emphasizes lines that are balanced and symmetrical, with both lines of the sher the same length. 9 How I Have Lived, by Golsa Yaghoobi The Persian language underwent little change from the 10th to 19th century.  In use from the classical period, by the 18th century the ghazal form had become baroque; the Isfahani (or Indian) Style prized literary puzzles with complex and implicit meanings.  The 19th century experienced something of a revival as poets returned to the Eraqi style of lyrics and an even earlier style of panegyrics (derived from epic poems like the Shahnameh), but much of the work soon became imitative and stale. 10 Critic L. P. Elwell-Sutton’s summation of the vocabulary of metaphors used by love poets indicates how predictable the ghazal had grown: A beautiful woman is a painting (nigdr), an idol (but, ṣanam), a Turk (turk), a moon (mah, qamar), or a houri (ḥur). She is as tall as a cypress (sarv) or a teak-tree (saj), above which her face shines like the moon; her hair is as black as the night (shaba-rang) and scented with musk (mushk) and amber (‘anbar). Meanwhile her woe-begone (khar, zar) lover is saffron-coloured (za’faran) from grief; the tears in his eyes are the blood of his heart (khun-i dil), but he is tightly bound by the chains (band, ḥalqa) of her hair. 11 20th century Iranian Poetry The first modern Persian innovation—primarily in content rather than form—occurred with political ghazals of poets like Farrokhi Yazdi and ‘Aref Qazvini amid the democratic reforms of the Constitutional Era.   As the 20th century progressed, poetry experienced upheaval.  While some poets like Parvin E’tesami and Mohammad Taqi-Bahar continued to write in the classical style, after Constitutional Reform a flowering of literary modernization took place. 12 Chief among innovators was Nima Yushij whose she’r-e no (“new poetry”) dispensed with many of the restrictions of classical meter.  He wished, quite simply, to make Persian poetry and its structure better reflect the thoughts of the poet and connect to the contemporary world, or—to invoke another great 20th century artist—to make form follow function. Simin’s Ghazals and Wine-Related Motifs When Simin Behbahani first emerged on the poetry scene, her work—like that of contemporaries Ahmad Shamlu (known for his she’r-e sepid—free verse—and the use of street language in his poems) and Forugh Farrokhzad (the first to express a woman’s sexuality poetically)—included experimentation like that sanctioned by Nima.  The content of her early poems in collections such as Jayeh Pa (Footprints, 1956) included the lives of petty criminals and prostitutes.   She wrote in other forms and styles besides the ghazal, like the loosercharhar pareh style, but by the mid-60s it had become her primary vehicle of expression—a ghazal-i nu-a’in (“new ghazal”)—as Behbahani herself described in the introduction to Rastakhiz (Resurrection). 13 In a poem from this period, “Wine of Light” (1963), Behbahani follows several of the aforementioned tropes of the classical Persian ghazal—the wine-soaked lover, the sleepless night and yearning for the beloved, the poet’s signature in the closing lines. The stars have closed their eyes, come. The wine of light flows through the vein of the night, come. I have poured so many tears waiting in the night’s lap, that twilight has blossomed and the morning has bloomed, come … You’re the hope in the heart of Simin-the-broken-hearted, put an end to my misery, come. However, as evidenced in the takhalluṣ, the ghazal’s perspective has changed by sheer fact that the experience represented is feminine rather than the familiar masculine one.  The lines’ radif, “come,” conveys not only longing for the absent beloved but at the same time—beckoning the lover back to Simin the poet—asserts female desire.  14 In later poems Behbahani further explores similar tropes.  In “I Want a Cup of Sin” (1973), an anti-ideal is her subject:  repulsive rather than beautiful, base rather than transcendent.  Her lover is “wooden-armed and straw-haired” with eyes “like two scarlet beams”; even his heart is characterized in a negative way: “He changes masks like a chameleon,/ has a two-timing heart like an eel.” “Oh, I Made Love!”  (1992), meanwhile, explores the emotional fallout from her own desire.  She taps into the lexicon of images one finds in poems like Hafez’s “Oh, Cup Bearer”  (“The world fulfilleth my heart’s desire! / Reflected within the goblet’s ring…” 15).  The cup and inebriation are still present, but wine has become polluted water; sleep has become a nightmare. Oh, I made love—to what kind of a beast? In what nightmare?  In what hallucination? There was sleep, there was wakefulness. There was desire, there was repulsion, in conflict and union, like a hand grasping a collar … Oh, I want to vomit: how could I drink in my drunkenness the polluted water in that crystal cup. I must endure the flames to purify the pollution. I must throw myself in burning oven. There is no ecstatic, mystical transcendence of the flesh.  Behbahani is her body.  She writes, “I wish I could turn into a snake./I wish I could shed my skin,/ then flee from my self in a shining body.” She closes, addressing herself rather than the beloved, bemoaning not absence, but the remembered (unwanted) presence of her lover. Simin’s Ghazals and Botanical Tropes Another set of metaphors that Behbahani has recast is that of the garden as paradise.  Found throughout Persian literature’s most famous works, from Sa’di’s Gulistan (Rose Garden, 1258) to Muhammad Iqbal’s Gulshan-i Raz-i Jadid (New Garden of Mysteries, 1927), so prevalent has it been that, when producer  Davud Pernia created a series dedicated to traditional poetry and music for Iranian National Radio in the 1950s, he derived its program titles from garden references:  Golha (Flowers of Persian Song and Music), Barg-e sabz (A Green Leaf), Yek shakh-e gol (One Single Flower). 16 Traditionally used to depict reverence for the abundance of God’s creation and to convey spiritual rebirth or harmony, both standard classical forms and images are in abundance in this excerpt from a ghazal from the 1980s. Good news, 0 meadow bird: spring has come again  The season of drinking and kissing and hugging has come again. The term of withered fading and sadness has ended  The days of dallying with the beloved have come again. Death and destruction have gone by  Life with a myriad brilliant designs has come again. Winter’s pallor has packed its bag and left the meadow’s face  From the sun’s warmth the bloom of the rose has come again. 17 Curiously, this work’s author is none other than the Ayatollah Khomeni.  Whether his intention was mystical or political—whether seeing the time in the aftermath of the Revolution as one of renewal, searching to reinforce ideas of acceptable art in the new Islamic Republic, or merely diverting himself from his many duties as Ayatollah—it is impossible to say.  Simin’s poem from the same period, “It’s Time to Mow the Flowers” (1983), draws from the same bag of tricks to different effect. The grass growing again: step nowhere else but on its head. Blossoms opening on every branch, exposing the happiness in their hearts: such colorful exhibitions must be stopped. Bring your scalpels to the meadow to cut out the eyes of the flowers. So that none may see or desire, let not a seeing eye remain… Even in Milani and Safa’s free verse translations, poetic declamations of renewal alternate with edicts of destruction in conversational tone.  Simin, in sly, defiance, suggests not only destroying the garden, but preventing any eye from enjoying it.  Four years into the declaration of the Islamic Republic and three years into the devastating Iran-Iraq War, she aligns herself with Spring against the scalpel bearers and, with a challenge to the unnamed addressee, creates an anti-panegyric, refining the type of poetic critiques by writers like Yazdi and undermining the genre’s aesthetic. My poems and the wild mint bear messages and perfumes. Don’t let them create a riot with their wild singing. My heart is greener than green, flowers sprout from the mud and water of my water. Don’t let me stand, if you are the enemies of Spring. Behbahani’s mastery of this botanical vocabulary has continued in her recent poems such as “Not one, not two …”, a ghazal written after the hanging of five alleged terrorists by Ahmadinejad’s government in the spring of 2010.  The poet, recognizing the gallows’ history as trees, ponders ways to express the wood’s transformation from one to the other. Not one, not two… they were five and yet I don’t know why In my mind they were more like fifty. And how can it be that these hanging gallows Were once trees that would not surrender to axes? Tell me how to tell the tale of the gallows’ treehood days Standing firm for freedom ,  they dug their feet into the meadow… 18 She goes onto describe how heads grew on the trees, fruitlike, and how those executed and unseen by their mothers would only receive tears of rain.  Coupled with the closing sher, the poem becomes one of the more striking inversions of the traditional Persian garden I have seen in her work: Don’t waste your complaints on the faithless judge who Was the enemy—not of darkness and tyranny—but of the Giver of Life. 19 Simin and Rumi’s “Song of the Reed” Though I have space here to note but a few characteristics of Behbahani’s 60 years of work, to me, the most striking are its specificity and depth, apparent even in translation.  She has the ability to evoke a time and place not only through description but also by weaving together phrases and images from different sources and the associations that go with them, well illustrated by the heartbreaking “You Leave, I’ll Stay”, written in 1980 as droves of Iranians fled their country after the Revolution. You leave, I’ll stay.  You leave, I’ll stay. I swear, I cannot endure being separated from my homeland. Till my last day you will hear in my bonesill the same “Tale of the reed.” Though sparkles and light may fill the nights of exile, they are of little use to me, since I am not happy in exile… As she divulges her disquiet, she refers to Rumi’s “Song of the Reed”, the opening poem of his Masnavi, to underscore the trauma of separation, which began in the poem’s first line as she separated Iranians into groups of those who left and those who stayed.  Rumi wrote, “When kept from their true origin, all yearn/For union on the day they can return.” 20 She continues— When one must cover the light in a lamp, I would rather extinguish the flame than let my ears be pierced by the policeman’s orders, “lights out!” “black out!” Where will my heart escape, If this house and its shade collapse on my head?  … She struggles to control the flame in her own lamp and then—with darkness or shade enforced by circumstances—she asks what will become of her heart if she loses that shade.  While the moment with the lamp above might simply be a description of the blackouts of the Iran-Iraq War, Behbahani’s lines become doubly potent when juxtaposed with Rumi’s remarks on the Sufi’s inner fire: “It’s fire not just hot air the reed-flute’s cry,/ if you don’t have this fire then you should die!” 21 Simin continues, explaining her inability to leave Iran, huddling with the children and the old and recalling Rumi’s “This reed relates a tortuous path ahead…” 22 Even if this sky is dark and unsmiling, it belongs to me and my fellow countrymen. This canopy is not on loan. Hoping for a better day, I take one step, then another  towards something I believe. You leave, I’ll stay. Rumi’s poem recounts the struggles of life in the material world, yearning for (re)union with the divine   in creation.  For Behbahani, that creation is Iran—its real and mythic past, its contemporary tragedies and triumphs, its people, at home and abroad.  Her work is Iran, the way the plays of Frankétienne are Haiti, the poems of Odysseas Elytis are Greece. Conclusion Some critics have tried to align Simin Behbahani with particular movements like the Marxist literary activists of the 20th century (Talattoff) 23 while others have used her work to illustrate feminist issues (Milani).  But Behbahani cannot be categorized.  In her essay “We Await the Golden Dawn” she writes: “I have never set out deliberately to write socially or politically engaged poems.  Yet, often without intending to or being aware of it, my poems have been very much engaged in this way.  Reacting to and provoked by the outside world, I reveal the world within.” 25 Her ghazals are portraits of the world she experiences—the sublime and the horrific—human-driven rather than idea-driven, sharing glimpses of veterans of the Iran-Iraq War (“A Man with a Missing Leg”), her own vanity and plastic surgery (“I Gave My Face to the Scalpel”), the failings of the world’s medical system (“Cadeceus”), the death of Neda Agha-Soltan during Iran’s 2009 elections. She has reinvented both poetic form and subject in her language.  What Edward Said once noted about the distinguished Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz can also be said of Simin Behbahani. His major—indeed it is unique in any language—achievement was to have created a contrapuntal rhetoric and rhythm whereby he would use classical forms (qasida, ghazal, masnavi, qita) and transform them before his readers rather than break from the old forms. You could hear old and new together. 25 Her poems are mini-encyclopedias, portraits, and—the achievements of Iran’s two other great female poets of the 20th century, Parvin E’tesami and Forough Farrokhzad notwithstanding—no woman in Iran has ever achieved what Behbahani has.  During a period when both Persian poetry and the country of Iran have experienced significant upheaval, she has taken one of the most recognizable forms from her culture and infused it with originality, causing her readers to see ghazals anew:  inventive, familiar strangers. 26 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Many thanks to Kaveh Bassiri for his thoughtful feedback on this article. REFERENCES 1 Behbahani, Simin, A Cup of Sin, Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, eds. and trans.  (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999).  All quotations of Behbahani’s poems in this article are excerpted from A Cup of Sin. 2 Oxford English Dictionary, “Ghazal”   Oxford University Press, 2011.  http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/78044 . 3 Ali, Agha Shahid, ed. “Introduction,” Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000), pp. 1-14. 4 Meisami, Julie Scott, “Ghazal,” Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey, eds. (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 249-50. 5 Jacobi , Renate, “Time and Reality in Nasib and Ghazal,” Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 16 (1985), pp. 1-17. 6 Meisami, Ibid. 7 Meisami, Julie Scott, “The Persian Ghazal Between Love Song and Panegyric”, The Ghazal as World Literature: Transformations of a Literary Genre, Thomas Bauer and Angelika Neuwirth, eds. (Beirut: Ergon Verlang, 2005), pp. 327-42. 8 Davis, Dick, “On Not Translating Hafez,”  New England Review, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, Translation: Double Issue (Winter -Spring, 2004), pp. 310-318. 9 Elwell-Sutton, L. P., “The Foundations of Persian Prosody and Metrics,” Iran, Vol. 13 (1975), pp. 75-97. 10 Yarshater, Ehsan, “The Development of Iranian Literatures,  Persian Literature: Columbia Lectures on Iranian Studies 3 (Albany, NY: Persian Heritage Foundation, 1988), pp. 3-40. 11 Elwell-Sutton, L. P., Ibid. 12 Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad, Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996),  pp. 61-62. 13 Parviz, Dominic, “Revivification of an Ossified Genre? Simin Behbahani and the Persian Ghazal,” Iranian Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1 (February 2008), pp. 75-90. 14 Safa, Kaveh, “Translating Simin Behbahani,” A Cup of Sin, Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, eds. and trans.  (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999), pp. 133-177. 15 Bell, Gertrude, The Garden of Heaven: Poems of Hafiz (New York: Dover, 2003.), pp. 38-39. 16 Lewisohn, Jane, “Flowers of Persian Song and Music: Davud Pirnia and the Genesis of the Golha Programs,”  The Golha Project, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, http://www.golha.co.uk/jane_lewisohn_article.html . 17 Khomeini, Ruhollah  and William Hanaway, translator,  “Five Mystical Ghazals”  Iranian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3/4, Selections from the Literature of Iran, 1977-1997 (Summer – Autumn, 1997), pp. 273-276. 18 Behbahani, Simin and Fatemeh Keshavarz, “Not one, not two…”  Payvand Iran News, May 19, 2010, http://www.payvand.com/news/10/may/1207.html ; the text contains grammatical revisions by this article’s author of the original translation by Fatemeh Keshavarz. 19 Behbahani, Simin and Fatemeh Keshavarz, Ibid. 20 Rumi, Jalal al-Din and Jawid Mojaddedi , translator, The Masnavi, Book One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 4-5. 21 Rumi, Ibid. 22 Rumi, Ibid. 23 Talattoff , Kamran, The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), pp. 105-07. 24 Behbahani, Simin, “We Await the Golden Dawn,”  A Cup of Sin, Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, eds. and trans.  (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999), pp. xvii-xxiv. 25 Said, Edward, quoted in Agha Shahid Ali’s introduction to The Rebel’s Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Agha Shahid Ali, ed. (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), p. xiii. 26 Safa, Ibid.


The Green Parakeet’s Tale by Nicole Idar

Illustration by Amir Shahlan Amiruddin. O charmed listener, allow me to perch on your shoulder and I will tell you my story; consider what I’m about to say a fable if you like, a tale heard by fire-light long ago. I know you see my orange beak, my leaf-green plumage, my blue tail-feathers, slender and narrow as a pair of blow-darts, and to you I’m just a bird, but believe me when I tell you I was a little girl once, as human as you, with a thick plait down my back and a batik mouse my mother made from an old sarong tucked under my arm. I was called Seri, and I was the oldest of five daughters. Soon after my ninth birthday, when my parents discovered I could start bearing children, I was sent away to a distant village without even my mouse for company, to become the bride of a man I had never met. On my wedding day I sobbed and begged to be allowed to go home. The powder on my cheeks crumbled like lumps of soggy rice flour, and my new relatives scolded me for spoiling my make-up, but what could I do? I looked at my hands and the henna patterns painted on them looked to me like the net of a spider’s web, and all I could think was I’m caught, I’m caught. My new family dressed me in silk clothes and slid gold combs into my hair, and during the bersanding ceremony I sat on the dais next to my much-older husband while the guests fussed over us as if we were royalty, but I wished I had never come at all, because I would much rather have lived the life of a poor servant in my own home, than be queen for one day in a stranger’s house. I cried again on my wedding night, and for many nights that followed. My husband liked to leave a candle burning, and after he fell asleep I would stare up past the mosquito net at the darkened ceiling beams, where the house lizards prowled for insects. Sometimes I would watch one pounce on a brown moth, snapping it up with its jaws and tearing the wings. Once caught, the moths never really resisted. Their wings were slanted at the tips but at the bottom they were jagged, like wax that is slowly melting. My days weren’t much better thanks to my mother-in-law, who insisted I call her Mak. She beat me whenever she felt like it, and rubbed chilli seeds in my eyes if she wasn’t pleased with my cooking. Every day I prayed my mother would come for me and take me away. God must have been listening, because finally Mak went home to my father-in-law; soon after she left my husband said he was going on a long trip, though he didn’t say where. “Stay home. Don’t go out unless you need to,” he warned. While  my husband was gone another wedding was announced in the village, and the news soon spread that the bride’s family had hired a shadow-puppet troupe to perform. I made up my mind to attend even though my husband wasn’t home to escort me. If I went to the bride’s house to help with the cooking, I could at least stay to see the puppets. The day of the festivities I hurried over early in the morning to make myself useful. When the gamelan musicians arrived that afternoon I was there to watch them unload their instruments, little gongs mounted in trays, big gongs hanging from a frame, two-headed drums, flattened strips of bamboo stretched over a wooden box. The bride’s mother sent me outside with tea and curry puffs for the guests. I felt shy approaching the musicians, but Rahman, the teenaged son of the Tok Dalang, the master puppeteer, spoke to me kindly. Rahman told me he’d been helping his father since he was small. The puppets he brought out to show me were flat, like paper cut-outs, but actually they were made of animal hide. To my surprise they were painted in bright colors, gold-leaf, hibiscus reds, deep greens, kingfisher blue, as if they’d put on their best clothes for the wedding. He held the puppets up and talked about them affectionately, like they were family members. “This one carrying a bow is Prince Rama. He has a broad chest and a narrow waist, like a dancer.” Rahman worked the puppet’s hinged arm, making it move. “Doesn’t he look proud?” In preparation for the show the musicians hung a white sheet up in the front yard as a screen. Beneath it was a kind of long bench, made from the trunks of banana trees. The musicians sat on one side of the screen, and most of the guests arranged themselves on the other. After evening prayers, Rahman’s father went to take his seat at the head of his orchestra. His puppets were arrayed to his left and right, jutting from the banana-trunk bench he sat behind. He made a knocking sound on his puppet-box and the music began to play. I hid in the wings and watched from the Tok Dalang’s side, so I could see Rahman’s father moving his puppets. Apart from the light thrown by a dim lamp centered above the Tok Dalang, and the scattered lanterns in the yard, it was very dark. Rahman’s father voiced each character differently, and sometimes the things he said made the men in the audience laugh. The darkness, the music, the talking shadows, they carried me away, I was completely entranced. I didn’t leave my seat until close to daybreak, when the show was finally ending. A few days after the puppet troupe’s visit, my husband returned home. I went to greet him at the door, but the moment he saw me he pushed me so hard I fell and hit my head. “Abang,” I said, pressing my palm to my temple and struggling to get up, “What’s the matter?” He pointed at me accusingly. “I heard about you and that…puppet boy. Don’t you have any shame? You’re a married woman now!” A neighbor must have seen me talking to Rahman and told my husband, but I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I’d been falsely accused. “He was just being friendly,” I said, trembling, not so much from fear as my own anger and outrage. “He…” Before I could explain, my husband snatched up a bamboo cane his mother had left behind and started to beat me with it. I heard a horrible lashing sound each time it sliced through the air. When at last I gave up struggling against him, he tore my sarong away and humiliated me, right there in the front room. “You will never dishonor me again,” he said when he was finished. After that he stayed out late and came home only in the early hours, always smelling of liquor. I was glad, because he was too tired to touch me and went straight to sleep. By then I knew he went out to gamble the little money he made doing odd jobs around the farms. Once, a long time ago, he’d been a soldier in the army, but that was before a bad motorcycle accident. A soldier would have protected me, I thought to myself sometimes. Maybe the accident changed him. One evening, as I was sweeping the floor in the front room, my husband walked in the door carrying a large bell-shaped bird-cage. Inside it was a green, parrot-like bird. He put the cage down and said: “See this bird? From now on, he’s going to watch everything you do when I’m not here. When I get home, he’ll report to me exactly what you’ve been up to. If I find out you’ve done anything to disrespect me, you’ll get a thrashing so bad no one will recognize you, not even your puppet boy!” I stared at the bird, and then at him. “Abang,” I said, thinking he’d gone mad, “what do you mean? Are you saying this bird…talks?” Seeing the expression on my face, he seized my right arm and twisted until I yelped from the pain. “Never give me a look like that again, got it? If I say it can talk, it can talk!” He dragged me closer and spoke right into my ear. “By the way, don’t even think of harming the bird. If you try to pluck even one feather from its tail—I’ll know, he will tell me.” Over the next few days I watched the bird carefully. I spoke to him as if he were a child, and in return he made chattering sounds. Soon I had him eating cut fruit from the palm of my hand, and when I let him out of his cage in the morning he hopped onto my finger and then onto my shoulder, keeping me company all day long while I cooked and cleaned the house and worked in the garden. I told him stories about my parents and my sister and the batik mouse I still missed, and he listened, gazing at me with a thoughtful expression. I called him Budiman, and whenever I said his name he seemed to know and answered with a sharp cry. “I’ve going on another trip tomorrow,” my husband told me a few weeks later. He’d come home drunk again, and had to shake me awake so he could talk to me. “Don’t wander off while I’m gone. If you do, the bird will tell me, and this time I’ll…I’ll kill you, understand?” The rest of the night I couldn’t sleep. His threat hung over my head like a bat watching me from the rafters. If he did kill me, who would care? For days I didn’t leave the house. One afternoon, while I was washing clothes outside, I overheard a neighbor talking about Rahman’s father’s troupe. They were going to perform after a circumcision ceremony at a nearby village. I knew I couldn’t afford to disobey my husband, so I asked Budiman for permission to go. “If you come with me, he won’t have any reason to be angry, right?” Budiman, looking wise as ever, seemed to nod. The night of the performance I set off with Budiman on my shoulder. I waited until dark, so my neighbors wouldn’t see me leaving. By the time I got to the village I didn’t have to wonder which way to go—I just had to follow the crowds. To avoid being noticed I climbed up a mango tree far away from the rest of the audience and watched the show from my perch. Below me, a demon was transforming himself into a deer to mislead Sita, a beautiful princess. This Sita wore a long, fitted blouse and a sarong, and her hair fell thick and wavy over one shoulder, the way my mother’s did in old photographs. I sat in my tree, spellbound, letting my legs dangle from the branches, the evening air cooling my face. I forgot all about my husband’s threat. When brushstrokes of white began to appear in the sky, I slipped out of the tree and headed home. I didn’t think anyone had spotted me at the puppet show, but when my husband returned from his trip he grabbed me by the hair and yelled, “Didn’t I say not to leave the house?” “I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, trying to wriggle free. “You’re lying!” He wrestled me to the floor, overturning furniture as I tried to get away, and pinned me down with his big hulking body. This time his hands encircled my neck, and I felt his fingers tighten around my throat. “You went to see the puppet boy, didn’t you!” I cried out in terror, “Abang, please, listen to me. You said Budiman would tell you if I ever dishonored you. He’s been with me every minute. If I’m guilty, he’ll tell you. Please, let Budiman speak!” Slackening his grip, he turned and looked at Budiman, who had lost his place on my shoulder during the struggle and was now hopping about on the floor beside me, making an anxious screeching noise. “Speak!” he ordered Budiman. “If my wife is innocent, tell me now!” I did the only thing I could: I lowered my head, closed my eyes, and prayed. With my whole being I begged God to make Budiman speak. A strange feeling of lightness came over me, and when I opened my eyes I saw something incredible. I saw my own body, slumped on the floor, lifeless, only I was being borne away from it, rising higher and higher, toward the ceiling. I tried to call my bird, but the only noise my throat could make was a loud, sharp cry that sounded just like Budiman’s. The sound seemed to enrage my husband. He came at me, tried to swat me aside with his hands, but I worked my arms and found that I could move and dart about, I could lift myself up, I could soar beyond his reach. He began chasing me around the room, shouting like a madman. I didn’t hesitate. I made a break for it, headed straight for the window, and was lost in the trees. I didn’t know where I would go, but I no longer felt afraid. Night had fallen, the stars were waking from their sleep. Somewhere, Rahman’s father’s troupe was preparing for a performance. Somewhere, a crowd was waiting for the music to begin. Soon, I knew, the shadows would come to life. Dark on one side, jeweled on the other, they glimmered yellow-gold when they danced, like the sudden blinking of fireflies in the deep dark night. END The Author And Her Story When I was a kid growing up in Kuala Lumpur I once saw a “wayang kulit,” a shadow puppet play, performed in the street. Just a white sheet strung across a darkened road, portable lamps, these incredible moving figures, people walking by and stopping to watch. That made a big impression. Since then I’ve seen shadow plays in Bangkok, Beijing, and Jogjakarta, but the thrill I felt stumbling upon a “wayang” performance in my hometown has never left me. My story “The Green Parakeet’s Tale,” about a narrator who would risk her life to see shadow puppets dance, is part of a novel-in-progress I’m working on for my MFA thesis. The artist who made the beautiful illustration for the story, Amir Shahlan Amiruddin, is a fellow Malaysian whose work reflects a similar fascination with shadow puppets, and for his collaboration I would like to say Terima Kasih. – Nicole Idar


Peter Finch Poems

  Extract from Hammer Lieder Helicopter Speak The resonance as movement while the 1906 memoir published Tausend structure the should allegro andante scherzo Finale the formally one thus recapitulated the oboes Tr. Timp. this marks the more the repeated when the of and motif consolation it performance there earlier which edition symphony gave the happily andante in editorial their andante recorded recorded Dmitri John Claudio Simon Mariss Charles Charles David Günther Iván Yannick Daniel Edo Valery Franz Lorin Alan Leonard Stefan my my the world Dutch American recording treat Symphony tragic symphony both symphony sound remains in several the status nor Bruno it of work be energico moderato wuchtig sostenuto duration the slow expositional at first in Ob. 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It was written in the past two months first as a sequence of poems about Mahler and then amended and merged and turned into a single short history of twentieth century music. This was for the revived futura series which the Brazilian poet/artist antonio claudio carvalho has brought out. The first set of six posters are now available over here. More will follow. The publications are in exact facsimile of Hansjorg Mayer’s 1960s originals – eight page folded posters. I can remember standing in a car park in north London in 1967 or something with Hansjorg Mayer, the publisher of the originals. I’d just met him but we’d corresponded earlier. I complained that he never sent me any review copies of his books for my magazine second aeon. He frowned then opened his car boot and began giving me books, fat books, loads of them. I stood there with my arms out holding Diter Rot, Emmett Williams, Tom Phillips, John Latham, Mark Boyle, anthologies of Fluxus and concrete poetry, books on typography, stuff in English and in German, and the futura series as well. They made a stack three feet high. Hansjorg smiled. We said goodbye and he drove off. Then I realised that I now had to lug these back to the tube, on to Paddington and then all the way home to Wales. Freebies come with a price. It started to rain. Standing In Line The receptionist isn’t being difficult despite me throwing fire at her from the public side of the glass. The queue behind has reached the street, the aged overweight bent by vicissitude, an army I’ve never joined, wanting their sciatica fixed their blood thinned their noses undripped. Eventually she finds the script and I’m over the road in the pharmacy in line again with the freeloaders collecting their stuff. There was a time when I was younger and I’d stand in this queue wanting one tube of fix for a blister and watch the fading leave with bags the size of sheep. They’d be full of palliative potions, pills and powders and I’d jeer behind my hand at their bodies’ failure. Now my bag is as big as theirs, a briefcase of slow-release take with food, watch for mood swings, fainting fits, bruising, cuts that don’t heal, brittle bones, seepage, memory loss, the past coming out of me like leaking sand, the future thin as paper. I guess this isn’t a poem I’ll want to read much I decide as I write it walking up the road rolling it round my head like you do making it sing in the brightening sun. 17/11/2011 The Waltz After a fractured night again with the pills and the cat running in circles and the noise from the son next door who has taken up all the carpets and sold them now his mother has died and spends his hours in his boots fixing things that don’t need a fix, I’m out at six am walking through the damp streets to the park railings where the gate is still locked and the ravens are inside with the lawns to themselves. Instead I cross the churchyard, go through the lych-gate to where the river once was when they let it decide its own channel and walk up the hill rising above the floodplain I try to decide if I like anyone anymore. Are those old poets all still thrillin?. Like Ashbery and Pound and Carlos Williams who made it rock and maybe Hart Crane who stood on a bridge and Mayakovsky who made the illegible future readable. Up above the sun isn’t about to arrive but the rain is, in a bank as big as the Dogger. Apollinaire would have put it on a card and made it dance. Did. So I do too. It’s slow and it’s a waltz. How the world is. 22/02/2012 Irish Guide to Wales Errata when you arrive the place will not be England for Armagh see Amritsar for boogie see bhanghra for Bangor see Bangor for cough see catch for cool see coal for coal see Cale for sward see sword for shit see seams for craic see crap for cough see cwrw for lough see lung for query see quarry for whistle see whippet for bog see big for tay see tea for praise see pies for Toaiseach see tshirt for Yeats see yeast for true cross see mosque for Morrison see Morriston for Muldoon see Maldwyn for hurling see Gwylim for error see earlier for temperance see tandoori for poteen see potency for Cathal O’ Searcaigh see Kashmiri Leek Passanda for Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill see Radjit ap Singh © Peter Finch (from Food, 2001) Wales for Americans A piece made from actual headlines found in various monthly newspapers published in north America for the ex-patriot Welsh. Hi Ho it’s Mary Lwyd Wyoming Valley St David’s Day, February 26th Success to the gaudy Welsh Collectors Club Dylan Classic Bedecks Yule TV Waukesha, Winsconsin St Dvid’s Day, February 27th Melvin O Williams named noble of the year by Islam Temple Shrine, San Francisco. Mr Williams is a Welsh speaker. Cape Fear St David’s Day, February 28th Tegwen N. Sacco of Smithfield, Ohio, says “no” to progress. She wants Wales kept as God planned it. Oak Hill St David’s Day, March 5th These selections have strenj wyrds: rwyt ti’n egsajyretio beth ydy’r pê-off? rhaid i mi fynd i’r corner siop am bunch of daffs. The perfect St David’s Day gift: Felinfoel Welsh valley Shampoo Made with real Welsh coconuts. Make St David’s Day last all year with Central Ohio Continuous Leek Supply Baltimore St David’s Day, September 4th © Peter Finch (from Poems for Ghosts, 1991


From Coal to Concrete: Writing For Wales

An interview with Peter Finch by lloyd robson Cardiff, 1947. Heavy snow on the ground. On the hill between the crass and the class, a babe is born. The parents name their boy-child Peter. Peter Finch. Little did they know their little Peter-Rock would not grow up to be a hard-drinking, hell-raising, movie star like his namesake, but he would grow up to be poet extraordinaire and, as is often the nature of these things, poetry entrepreneur, guiding the lost tribes through the wilderness of Wales’ excuse for Modernism into the unnervingly mild climate of the 21st century. This might not be gospel, but it’ll do. Roll thunderclap. In those hazy-crazy 1960s, Finchy emerged from under the bushel of his daytime persona – the mild-mannered, grey suited, pen-pushing public administrator – to smoke cigarettes and edit the poetry magazine Second Aeon (or, for the frivolous of lexicon, Second Ian, Zecondeon, Suck on Deon). The magazine’s influence was not to be sniffed at but the cigarettes were to be coughed at, either way, both came and went. As did the day job. In the flaring 70s, el Fincho grabbed the chance to take a role at the Arts Council of Wales’ little side-street bookshop, Oriel, from where he would expose the innocent to poetry of challenge; poetry that amused, bemused, questioned and really pissed some people off. It was called Modernism, and Wales didn’t like it. Sound, concrete, open field, performance – far from the maddening crowd of odious ode-eus poetry recommended by our Anglo-Welsh betters. Secretly, in their covens and huddled masses of seven, even eight at times, some local poets really got off on it. As Oriel grew through the 80s and 90s it became a haven, a sanctuary, an ʻAlāʼ ad-Dīn’s cave for thieves in need of bizarre syntax and structure, but every goose lays its last and it couldn’t last for ever. From the heady heights of being one the most highly regarded poetry bookshops in the world, Oriel slid the slippery slope of commerce, and poetry was all but kicked out. There’s just no money in it, my love. Having a good old sniff at which way the wind was blowing, The Frinch upped sticks and took on a new challenge, one that saw him clamber above many geographically tribal and poetic Welsh rivalries to head-up the completely revamped Welsh Academy (duw, wash your mouth out when you speak it’s name) – a previously useless organisation that claimed to represent Welsh writing but did little of the sort. We paid the piper, Finchorica blew his horn, and the walls of Mount Stuart Square came tumbling down. All hail the new beginning – finally, a poet was in charge. The resonance created by the quivering lips of every poet in Wales was enough to force a surfable bore down the Severn. They quivered with excitement, they quivered with fear, they quivered, each with the very same question. Dare we state its name? Yes, we must; it will be safe on the page. That heart-stopping question was complex in its simplicity: ‘Yes but what will Finch do for me?’ In his new position as CEO of the rebranded Academi (later, Literature Wales) Finchetto took on an administrative role and used it to wield influence over how poetry was funded, presented and, therefore, perceived. And by whom. He gerrymandered boundaries to override artificial restrictions placed upon the art of writing and upon its practitioners and purveyors. He also kicked poets’ arses by demanding a higher level of professionalism. Not everyone liked it, not everyone felt they were getting their cut, but there was a new sheriff in town and he knew more about poetry – the art and the industry – than you did. God damn his sorry eyes. Finchino created and filled a role that made him one of the most influential figures in the whole history of Welsh literature. And then, last year, after a jolly good innings, he retired. Peter Finch: poet, performer, psychogeographer. Known to his rivals as That Fucker Finch and to his friends as Pete. Known to me as Fincho, Finchero, Finch-a-roo, Finchella, Fincharillo, Pedro El Finchy; Pecky Frinilla the seed-eating passerine; Ah! von Finchy Hugo SliceyTidy River Rivet Pedro. PF, for short. We lived barely a mile apart, just across the railway tracks. We rarely socialized. We’re on the same page, just not the same book. So Mr Finch, what’s changed? I think I’m enjoying more acceptance in Wales than I have ever had before. The battles in the 60s, 70s, 80s had clean and clear lines of demarcation which have massive overgrowth now, so it’s not quite the same today as it was. The position of poetry has shifted. Early on I had this Blakean belief that poets were somehow seers, that they were in society’s avant-garde – not meaning they were revolutionizing things but they were up the front, seeing which way it was going. That implies this should still be the case now. I somehow don’t think it is. At least society does not recognize the poet in that capacity. When poets die hardly anybody notices simply because we don’t hold a position. Yet paradoxically the art of verse is more accepted now than it has ever been. There are more public poetry readings, more visits by writers to schools, more kids involved in verse in some way or another, they just don’t call it verse. Funding is available to writers in a way that’s never been possible before; art has entered areas of our life in a way that never happened before – public art, interventions with public services, the health service… unless you were really exceptional, to make a living out of verse used to be impossible whereas now you can. But which poets make the living? The greatest writers or the greatest careerists? If you had said, “Yes, this improves the careers goals but what does it do for the art?” I would say it leads to a blanding in certain strata, it leads to the work of a number of individuals being apparently elevated beyond their work’s status – wouldn’t have got there otherwise. It’s led to the emergence of the individual known as the ‘non-poet’ or the ‘non-writer’; somebody who is great at all the things necessary to engage with the disadvantaged youth at the top end of the Rhondda or to work in the health service, to deal with poetry classes for accountants, to work up poetry that pulls together contributions from a broad sector of the public, but who can’t write a bloody thing themselves. Now that’s troublesome. There’s too much of it. Some would argue that so-called performance poets are just as damaging, reducing the noble word art to petty crowd pleasing? Where do you stand on page versus stage? Page versus stage, what is the argument? It’s absolutely clear that if you have a good voice and delivery you can take something that’s not all that clever and make it sound a lot more clever. Performance adds dimension, but in recent times it’s more than just added dimension, performance is the dimension. I would argue that, in the 21st century, writing that starts off being called writing but is actually performance is a very valid form. There are always going to be people who are not that shit-hot as writers but are pretty good on the stage. Equally there are going to be people who can craft verse well, so that it works when you read it to yourself, but who are not going to be the best people to deliver it. There are always going to be those differences, and there always were. Now my own position on this, as someone who’s worked in both these forms, is that I never enjoyed the idea that I would move beyond the piece of paper. All of what I do goes back to some form of written text. I never felt happy doing things by rote because that is the start of this separation. However, I have felt very happy with varying what’s on the piece of paper so that when it’s performed, when it’s read, it’s not the same as the version on the page. At what point, when we write the poem, are we considering where it is going? Is it a question of ‘we don’t care’ or are we pointing it at an audience? Sometimes there’s a requirement, like if it’s a commission then it’s clearly for the audience. Other than that, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s ‘who cares if anybody reads this?’ What about the page as stage? The Dadaists took pleasure in the page and Charles Olson claimed the blank page was an electric grid and therefore everything on it should be charged. Mallarmé would say the same thing, this idea that when you open a book the concept of the page itself changes. Now prior to that I really hadn’t got my head around the concept of the page and here was Mallarmé talking about how, when you open a book, you have this big expanse over which the eye would travel; the eye would shift from the left hand, the space, the gutter in the centre, right away across to the right hand and it all had a context, they affected the way the reader would perceive. It’s been claimed you lead, as a writer, with your intellect rather than your emotion. Is this a fair comment? Not always, no. I know I did early on, that’s absolutely true, but as you go through life you encounter life’s wonders and difficulties and you end up writing about them. Until you’ve had tragedy in your own life it’s difficult to write about tragedy and to make much sense of it. Everyone needs a bit of the difficult with the not difficult, but until that’s arrived there’s not much you can do to lead with your emotions because they don’t mean too much. Do I lead with my intellect now? That’s hard to say. What do you think of this idea that it the poet’s role to record or reflect the human experience and therefore great poets and artists must suffer for the greater good? I think something has to happen to the artist; there has to be an experience for the artist to make something; something must happen because if nothing happens then there’s nothing to say, really. The implication is that art is to do with experience and one could argue that you could make art out of no experience at all, and again there’s elements of truth in that. There’s that classic concrete example where there’s a dot of red on a white background. If you were being an expressionist you would call it Sun Blazing at Noon; if you were being a concretist you would call it Red Dot on White Background. The former has an element of experience and possibly emotion attached to it, whereas the latter has neither of those. It’s easy to say that until you’ve suffered you can’t produce anything, and people will point at these examples of nations that have been torn apart and the great works that have come from them, versus nations where that isn’t happening. If we look at Welsh writing versus Irish writing in the last 150 years you have an example of Irish writing which is raging and exciting and Welsh writing which is not quite those things. In Ireland terrible things have happened and continue to happen whereas in Wales this isn’t the case, so you could point to that. You could say it’s more interesting to go where something is happening – Robert Minhinnick did this; he didn’t go to a Caribbean resort he went to the Middle East, he went to Iraq, he went to have a look, to where it was dangerous, to see what was going on and his writing has benefited as a result. But every time you have an example of that you then find somebody who hasn’t done those things and is still managing to produce exciting work. It seems an increasing number of poets are comfortably trapping themselves with certain ‘golden rules’ – Ginsberg’s ‘first thought, best thought’, Pound’s ‘make it new’, etc – and some writers and academics love to dismiss the work of others with a cynical “it’s been done before”. Your appreciation of Dadaism is pretty well documented but that movement’s not far from being a hundred years old. Surely you should’ve dismissed all that Dadaist stuff as ‘having been done before’? Do things have their time? Would I be finding something embedded in the past or would I really be just treading over ground that had already been trodden over? That idea has always haunted me. And still does to an extent. When I look back at the origins of concrete poetry I think, how much relevance does it have? Then I think, well I’m working in Wales and there’s a different context here because Wales managed to ignore virtually the whole of the 20th century, the Modernist art developments, and was occupied by an intellectual elite who celebrated the fact they were not interested in anything that seemed to be going on in the rest of the world. So I’m correcting that; I’m putting that wrong right. And maybe I can make something of the putting of that wrong right. Then there’s the gaps – there are always gaps. You look and say, have Dada and other Modernist art movements reached a dead end? Well no, I don’t think all of them have, and there are ideas in there which you can pull out and extend, or alleyways you discover that somebody didn’t go down, so you might as well go down them. There’s also a kind of cultural amnesia where people you think would know have forgotten, so you do it again, as Gertrude Stein suggested, and do it again and do it again and doing it again is what it is: doing it again. It becomes new just because you’ve pulled it back out and waved it about in the air. And then, finally, there’s the Post-Modernist idea that Post-Modernism is really the entire Modernist movement and all its facets reborn and reactivated simultaneously rather than sequentially. In which case one is perfectly at liberty to come up with a bit of Dada as long as you’ve got some other stuff around it which isn’t Dada. I’m interested in the whole idea of sequences, variations, and that idea is as old as the hills. Bach did it with music. You get a simple piece of music then you get it with a bit more altered then you get another bit altered as the creator goes through the variations to see what would change each time. I think that’s a perfectly valid thing to do. Now that means you’re producing things that are not necessarily new, they are variations on something that already exists, so while that’s true, and does inform a lot of what I write, I still rather like the notion of making it new because, as Clark Coolidge said, in creating writing you don’t really need any new words, you can use all the stuff that’s already around as long as you put it in a different order. Would you say that ‘Clatter’ was a good example of your variation poems? “Yeh, yeh, perfect example of something that was absolutely deliberately a sequence; a series of variations upon a single idea. This conversation, this climbing up the steps on the bus, each component of it with a different variation and some in different voices. What could I do with this? How far can we get away from the original one while maintaining, or retaining I should say, all the original components because that’s what I did there. I didn’t, as one might do, write a whole sequence from different points of view in which you bring in new language, I started off with the same set and varied that same set on each occasion. And that form, and variations on the form of variation, still interests me now. For all this ‘make it new’ malarkey (it’s not the thought that bothers me, it’s the incessant bleating of it), what do you think have been the greatest developments in poetry? One of the things that has most interested me is what was known as vers libre or ‘free verse’, which is a horrible phrase – it didn’t really match what it was describing, even when it was in action back in the era when Baudelaire was writing prose poems. It certainly doesn’t work today, although Welsh-language writers use it like it has current currency but anyhow, the freedom of verse to exist outside the confines of traditional metrical form was, I think, the first great liberation, that verse could work without having to have a metrical pattern behind it. Coupled with William Carlos William’s invention/discovery that you could make poetry out of speech, out of speech patterns, you didn’t necessarily have to elevate the language or change it, you could make poetry from the way people spoke and what they said. Also, the thing that came into being that led us to understand that poetry could be a visual medium. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – one of the earliest examples of the novel – contained techniques that were visual. Uncle Toby goes through a state of confusion and that’s represented by tipping into the book a piece of marbled end-paper to represent his confusion. Later on he doesn’t know what to say, and that’s represented by the insertion of a blank page. These techniques, which then went through the development of visual and concrete poetry, were a huge development. In Welsh literature, it was the slow slow slow dawning amongst what were known as the Anglo-Welsh writers that it was possible to make a verse in Wales that didn’t necessarily mention cariad, bwthyn, or Owain Glyndwr. What keeps you writing? I keep writing the prose books because I’ve got a market for it; I’ve been contracted to write. My psychogeographies uncovered a much wider audience than I’d ever reached before and that was quite exhilarating, encountering this much much larger audience, and that took my eye off the poetry ball. Would I write the same things if there was no contract? Probably not. With poetry it’s slightly different. Poetry has a niggle that rides with it, and that’s the feeling that it’s a fluke; the feeling that next time it’s not going to work out because the previous time, when it did work out, that was a sort of accident. Even though, for me, I’ve got decades of those accidents actually working, I can’t ever rely on it, I can’t ever think I’ve done it before so I can do it again. Can I do it again? Self-doubt, self-doubt. So you do it to find out, to prove to yourself that you can still do it, and you’re permanently in fear of what ability you’re supposed to have draining away into the sands. There’s an element of exorcising some sort of demon, the demon that won’t leave you alone; there’s also the genuine interest in the art itself, which I still have now as I had before. The voyage of discovery, the reading of new writers, finding out something you didn’t know, and seeing how you can reshape it and how it might reshape your own way of approaching the world. Which would you prefer, to be a damn fine poet or to be perceived as a damn fine poet? When you’ve written something you know on a certain level when it’s worked – no, not worked, you know when it’s congealed. I was asked, “What do you enjoy about writing?” It’s the 25 seconds after you’d finished – I think that’s the state of grace, so that would lead me to say, of the two alternatives, I think it’s the former. Achieving is most important. “If you wanna be famous…” Don’t do poetry. Do you ever regret being a poet? No. No. I regret not having pushed myself earlier perhaps. I’ve watched others who have set goals for themselves but I felt more that writing was something that you did and if these things were going to happen then they would. So Pedro el pinko Fincharillo, let’s clear this up once and for all: apart from helping to drag Welsh literature into the 20th and then 21st centuries; apart from giving us some exhilarating, amusing, challenging, provocative and sometimes bizarre poetry and poetry readings; apart from widening the territory; apart from encouraging us to all come and play, what exactly did you do for me? I would like to think that during my time with Academi I did a huge amount in changing the situation for the writer in Wales. I took a vaguely amateur situation where the writer was not treated as a proper professional and I cranked it up so the writers became professionalized, there was a system in place, and the amount of work that went to writers could increase, and it did. It went from a comparatively low level of engagement with writers back in the late 90s to the huge amounts of work by the time we got to 2012. I brought into being any number of projects and systems and I brought writing and the credibility of writers to the attention of politicians. I made sure that the Welsh Assembly Government, when it came into being, engaged with writers. I went to them and made presentations on literature; I read them poems. Did your own writing suffer as a result? William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies while working as a teacher, with two children under the age of three, living in a bedsit above a shop. His circumstances were not good for writing a novel yet that’s when he wrote it. Sometimes it’s true: if writing’s going to get done it’s going to get done and the circumstances that surround it will either be ignored or they themselves will help to contribute to it. In my previous life, running a million things at the same time, it was necessary to operate under a massive discipline to find one or two hours next to each other in which to write. And those occasions were pretty spread out. Now I write every day. Which means something’s happened which never happened before: I have the ability on day two to pick up an idea from day one and continue working with it… This has led me to greater dissatisfaction with what I write. I write it, I’m pissed off with it, I don’t like it. I want to change it. I won’t leave it alone. My personal jury is still out as to whether I’m doing the right thing. I’m worrying it, or am I going back to Ginsberg’s ‘first thought, best thought’? What’s best thought after that one?


Meena Alexander’s Travel Notes

Travel Notes: Coda Back in New York I dig out the notebook with its marbled, stippled covers, earth brown with the blue of peacock wings. I bought it in Venice, in a paper shop close to the church where they play the music of Monteverdi over and over again, in an eternal humming sound of lutes. I took it with me to Jerusalem. Now it is filled with my travel notes, only a few of them are given here, so much more to tell. Twenty one days I have not spoken of yet, including the meeting in Nazareth with the poet Taha Muhammad Ali, the great man mountain, so ill in bed, a lovely gentle man dying in the house surrounded by the garden he had made with his own hands, with plants saved from the destroyed village of Saffuriyya. MA, New York City, March 23, 2012 30 March 2011 It kept ringing in my head. I am going to Jerusalem. The golden sound filled me. I was a child again, sitting between my parents in the car, speeding past no man’s land. The UN flag fluttering. I remember the stones, the dry earth, barbed wire. And in the city we had left behind, tiny streets, the glowing, hunched buildings, donkeys with their burden, pilgrims stooped on Via Dolorosa, the misty darkness and glory of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. After that came the 6 day war. I have not been to Jerusalem since. * In Venice, in my last days there, a year ago, at the end of March, living in Palazzo Malipiero, I worked on a poem. I had gone to Vicenza for a poetry reading. Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico filled my thoughts. It had once been a prison someone told me. I saw a girl running through the yard and then suddenly the separation wall leapt into the poem. I had never seen it with my own eyes, but it leapt into my poem. A live thing, terrible concrete and metal. I saw a boy lying at its base, his eyes shut. He was dead. A woman knelt over him weeping. How did this happen in my poem? The poem was meant to evoke the classic beauty of Palladio’s theater. I could not understand it. * 31 March 2011 I feel as if I were flying into my fate. Sunlight on the plane’s wing. Rome Airport, almost 9pm Italian time. I am waiting in the airport a little hungry and exhausted in front of the gate marked Alitalia A2810 Tel Aviv. Departing 22:00 Why am I doing this? What is driving me? I could be sitting having a nice glass of wine with David. Then dinner in our apartment. When I first met him, in another life, in the city of Hyderabad, he had just come from Jerusalem and was writing a diary of his days there. I have always needed to go back to Jerusalem. If I had not met Sari Nusseibeh in the mountains in India and had he not invited me, I would not have made it there. I will spend a month at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and on the West Bank, as a poet in residence I am in the cold, ill lit airport in Rome. Behind me I hear Hebrew. A woman young and pale , a baby on her back, another woman tugging her child along. Long skirts. One mother pulling a blue plastic truck. The men behind them, dark in Jewish skull caps. Are they Indian? Are they from Kerala, my home state? They are speaking Hebrew, not Malayalam. What shall I say when I enter Tel Aviv airport? I am going to Jerusalem. I am going to stay at the Indian Hospice. I am going to see my husband’s Jewish cousins. Give poetry readings. Perhaps if I say all this they will not take my notes away from me, take away my computer. I have heard stories of friends who were visiting Palestine losing so much in the airport. I tuck my notebook away, tightly in my purse. Pigeons distract me. Pigeons inside Terminal H Fiumicino Airport, swooping low by the D and G sign. Bird wings out stretched and fluttering over the neon signs: Dolce and Gabbana. * 1 April 2011 Driver a gentle older man called Fathi Abu Sha’ban. He had waited four hours for me. The flight was delayed and there was also a time change, for spring. He did not know it. The wall, he pointed it out to me, as we drove in the darkness. Brightly lit. An ugly, scarring thing – concrete hulk by the apartment blocks built on the hill. He pointed out the two sides of the town. “This is Israel,” he said. “This is Palestine.” One on either side of the road. The Palestinian parts we drove through reminded me of India and I felt happy. The son of Sheik Ansari, was waiting for me at Herod’s Gate. Baab al Zehra – the flower gate he told me. He was waiting for me in the half darkness, a long time. His great grand parents came from India. For seven hundred years his family has been there. They married Palestinian women. It was 2am when I arrived in the walled city. Why is the time so important? I jot it down. Something to hold onto. I have my notebook and my computer. My bag feels heavy. I need to let go of it. Indian Hospice, Herod’s Gate, Jerusalem 4:54 am I have a room with a lemon tree outside. The muezzin calls in the mosque. I feel as if I had died and returned to where I was meant to be. In the morning light, Huda al Imam, dear Huda drives me to Sheikh Jarrah to show me the house where she was born, the house that was taken away from her family. I took a photo of her standing there. I can feel her voice break. Her love for the house she cannot enter any more. Palestinian houses are being demolished, here and in Silwan. It is part of the attempt to drive people away from Jerusalem. The city of peace, surely it should be that. Centuries of bloodshed. How to make sense of our human lives? Demolition of house in Sheikh Jarrah This morning I walked barefoot to feel the stone underfoot in the courtyard of the Indian Hospice. Past the orange tree and the lemon tree. Later the oldest daughter of the family showed me her misshapen ankle. Bombs fell on the Indian Hospice in 1967. Killed her grandmother, aunt, and aunt’s seven year old son. My friend had a bit cut out of her foot. Her mother would not let the doctors amputate the foot, though they wanted to. “Why do I need a girl without a foot?” her mother said. So they patched up the bone. My friend always wears either stiletto heels or sneakers. They kept bombing us from the sky she said. And when we ran to this other side of the courtyard, the bombs followed us. Where is Sheikh Ansari they asked – the soldiers who came to find him. They wanted to kill him. My father was covered in burns. It was napalm they used, my friend said. I hate war. She said. She put out her hand and drew me forward, she led me down into the hole in Jerusalem rock where the saint Baba Farid stood for forty days and nights without food, singing hymns to God. The hole where he prayed is next to the room where I sleep in the Indian Hospice. Carved out of Jerusalem rock. * My friend has a parrot in a cage. She has set the cage on the warm cobblestones of this ancient courtyard. The parrot calls her Tutu. Tutu, Tutu it cries. * 2 April 2011 Early morning. I am sitting in the courtyard of the Indian Hospice on a stone wall by an old well – no longer in use. Opposite me the room with the deep stone vent and downwards steps to the hole where Baba Farid slept. I need to think and stretch out in the Jerusalem sun. Find my center here. Not minding the boy soldiers with peach fuzz on their cheeks. Or the settlers with their guns, by Damascus Gate. What can I learn? What are my hopes and thoughts for Palestine. They want me to speak of this. Notes for a talk The lemon tree and the green almonds under Herod’s Gate. The stones underfoot. Quick faces of children. For centuries people have come here as pilgrims and I thank you for inviting me. India and the struggle for freedom from British colonialism. The struggle here. If Gandhi could come to twentieth century Palestine, what would he do seeing the separation wall? One day the wall will disappear as clouds in the sky. It should. I said this after reading out Teatro Olimpico on the terrace at the university. The wall was quite visible. It cut through the fields. * 3 April 2011 Sitting in the garden at Al Quds with two students, two lovely girls. One with a green ID , from Jericho. The other has a blue ID, she is from Jerusalem. After the wall was built they could no longer visit each other. The wall has cut their lives in two. Write about us they tell me. They point to the separation wall where it cuts through the grounds of the university. The faculty had held classes out there in the football field to prevent more land being taken, pitched tents. Later in the evening I walk through Damascus Gate to the Armenian section. My friend Nadera tells me about the corpse of an Armenian taxi driver who lived near her. The corpse could not be buried for four days because the Israeli authorities said that his papers were not in order and they wanted to confiscate his house in Jerusalem. My friend is working on a project called “Birth and Death in Jerusalem.” Sometimes Palestinian women are terrified to give birth – will they be able to get through the checkpoints in time, to reach the hospital? Look at my eyes, she said. See how red. I rushed over to a family in Silwan. Their house was being demolished. They were sitting in a tent, the children terribly traumatized. What will happen to the family? I asked. They will be divided up. The mother will take a few of her children and go to her parents. * Because I cannot bear what is happening to people I turn to the flowers. The iris holds its own. The black Iris of Abu Dis. The cocquelicot too – shaqeq noman – red anemone that lives in Darwish’s poems. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower * A few drops of rain have fallen on Jerusalem. I go to meet Huda’s friend, the Afro-Palestinian guide who told me he was “inside” for 17 years. He took me to Via Dolorosa and the church of Holy Sepulchre. There is a boy who helps him. Ali our guide has difficulty walking. I do not know if it is something that happened to him in prison. The boy is called Isa. Jesus. At one point Ali scolds me for not walking behind him. I am sorry, I say, but I never walk behind. Only teasing, he says. Then adds with a lopsided smile — They call me the old man of Jerusalem. * My love is the color of green almonds. This is a line I write in my notebook. I watch children counting out oranges by Herod’s Gate. Time whirls around. 6pm. Is this before or after I went to Nadera’s house? I am sitting on the stone steps just outside Damascus Gate. It is evening, sun a warm glowing orb, just above the old stone buildings. Women sell winter cardigans under the olive trees. Children play ball. * The internet connection in the Indian Hospice only comes as far as the lemon tree. Not into my room with its rounded circling ceiling that looks as if it’s cut from a grave. I sleep in a grotto, old rock painted over. What dreams will come to me here? M’amour, m’amour what do I love and where are you? That I lost my center fighting the world. I think of old Ez sitting in the Cucina by the sparkling waters of the Zattere. Daniela took me there just five days ago. I think of my high room in the Palazzo Malipiero, the rocking waters of the canal so far away now. The rain in Jerusalem is very cold. * 4 April 2011 In the taxi going to Abu Dis where Al-Quds University is. Westwards past a sign that reads Mt of Olives. The hillsides of Jerusalem scarred with settlements. Geyva Binyamin to the right. Clouds are floating high above the hills, they swirl above the Pharisees. The money changers of Jerusalem eat limestone and cabbage. Passing truck – I do not know what they want to do with these metal rods. Road scarred and dry. The sky has many colors in it, just like Joseph’s coat. Long after he dreamt the dream that scared him. * We pass a Bedouin camp with metal shacks and a sheep herded into a shelter made of sticks. A line came to me but because I did not write it down I lost it. I need to learn the names of flowers in the garden at Abu Dis. Big sign on the separation wall by the University: LOVE SEES NO COLOR. I want to put this into a poem. Separation wall near Abu Dis * I tell Petra who loves music about the shape of my poem. I call her from my room at the Indian Hospice. I am writing down the names of the different gates of this great golden city. I make a drawing with rectangular boxes, in my notebook. Gates Flowers Wall Mountain / Cloud Garden (A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse) Muallaqa Golden Gate Mahmoud Darwish: “I bear the obedient language like a cloud.” (In the notebook, drafts and revisions of the poem “Impossible Grace”) * All together the old city of Jerusalem contains 43 surveillance towers and 11 gates, 7 of which are open. I write down the Arabic names of the gates. Also the Hebrew names. Why was the gate of Mercy sealed? (Final draft of the poem in my notebook, followed by a note: I read this poem out from my notebook in the solidarity tent in Silwan on April 20, the last day of the Palestine Literary Festival. Ahdaf Souief read out the Arabic translation – she did it on the spot. We read stanza by stanza. Tear gas in the air.)


Meena Alexander

A Tent of Words: Meena Alexander by Craig Epplin Meena Alexander opens her recent Poetics of Dislocation (2009) with these words: The new American poet thinks in many tongues, all of which flow into the English she uses: a language that blossoms for her. Places stick to her and with them histories, strands of local knowledge. She is aware of violence and warfare, she has experienced multiple dislocations, not uncommon now in our shared world. The distant echoes of Walt Whitman, the topic of another essay in the same volume, resound in this fragment. The poet’s labor outlines a rich site of encounter, forging a vehicle for the multitude. The local and the specific are not synthesized and certainly not elided: they are watery strands within a turbulent flow, tributaries of a river that is not one but many. The language of the poems and notes presented here is like that. Not so much because it multiplies voices and perspectives, but because it grapples with the question of what a voice is—or rather, from what place a voice might speak. The language of these texts runs over the complex ecology of institutions and land, walls and benches. And as it runs, it is transformed, acquiring new cadences and tonalities along its path. In the texts that follow, we follow that path through Palestine. In April 2011, Alexander was a poet in residence at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. These poems, travel notes, and photographs came from that experience, and the interview is a reflection on it. Together, they outline some of the immense complexities of the present. List Poem – Jerusalem April 3, 2011 1. Lemon tree with fruit specked with sunlight. 2 Bird in a cage in an ancient courtyard singing to a woman in sweat pants tu tu tu tu. 3 I go down into the hut where Baba Farid Shakirganj lived for 40 days and nights without food. Coming out he sang – O Beloved, take these thorns from my body. The delights of honey are in my mouth. 4. This is where the bombing began in 1967 she says. They took a bit of my ankle bone. The Task A task I gave myself at the age of ten Returns to me – Ecris une tristesse, Write a sorrow Dukham erutha. In Balata Refugee Camp when someone dies No time to wash the corpse No time to weep or pray or conjure loss. Carry the body right away Lest it stiffen in the room. Who can break a loved one’s bones? His voice was rushed, a dove in flight Wings scraping an iron wall: Too hot for you here? Too little light? How will we find Jerusalem City of gold, city of grief? Sit on this bench the UN gave us By barbed wire, just as we do. Make it your task — write a sorrow Write it true. Mamilla Cemetery In April 2011, I visited Mamilla Cemetery. This ancient place of Muslim burial is being destroyed by the Israeli authorities in order to build a Museum of Tolerance I. She waits for me under a green almond tree Right in the middle of the cemetery In front of a broken stone marking a man’s death. Glyphs dissolve — her voice clarifies: Why are you here in Ma’man Allah Cemetery? You should have stayed in the market place in Nablus With mounds of sweet konafa Gleaming vessels filled with tea, Or hung out with the children playing ball And flying kites of bristling paper Right by the separation wall – Barelegged children wind in their hair. You could have sat in Bethlehem With women sewing bits of cloth Threads iridescent – like sunbirds’ wings. Why come to this nest of lamentations? II. I come I said for love alone –Though I barely know what this might mean – And because I heard you calling me. Black hair blown back over her face Hair stung with flecks of golden chamomile I watched her gaze at me. Her eyes bloodshot, under her lids, fiery smudges. All about her, on the dusty ground Dropped from the almond tree, half-moons of green Torn and pecked by passing crows. Her voice surprised me though, low Resolute even. III. What is it you want to know? Look at me! She rose, swirling her skirts. Stuck to the gleaming silk, hundreds of tiny shards They looked like crawling silkworms Maggots even, sucked from the earth. Don’t be scared Come closer – After the bulldozers, After the men with cardboard boxes have left I kneel in the grass In between the torn gravestones And the ones defaced with paint I gather what I can. She held up her wrists. Stumps almost Dark as a sparrow’s wing. I have work to do Each night I wash my hands in moonlight I kneel in wet grass To gather up these precious bones. Using my hands and hair Using smooth stones, Bit by bit I polish them I breathe on these ancestral bones Until they glow — miraculous metamorphosis – Winged things, they soar into a wheel of stars High above Jerusalem IV. I admit my life is odd, I sleep in that tree The one with black flowers It blooms by the gate you came through – Easiest that way, No rent to pay, no landlord to trouble me. Don’t you agree? Then something took hold of her. The creak perhaps of a lorry at the gate Or was it the mewl of a cat from the parking lot Paved over the unquiet dead? She wiped her face with the back of her hand Settled her skirts – O incandescent burden – One hand gripping a green branch She leant against the almond tree. V. Her words were notes stoked on a painted oudh An abyss broke between us: When you stand in monsoon rain Remember me – The child of Lamentation And sister of Memory Youngest of the muses The one who whistles into the wind at dawn Who kneels by the clogged stream To release the fountain of joy. I am a creature of water and salt, Of bitter herbs and honey Like a torn sail on the river Jordan, I long to be free.


Simultaneity in Verse: On Nathalie Handal

by Craig Epplin “A simultaneity of inconsolable co-existences”: this is the way Charles Bernstein has described American culture. A plural America, ultimately the Americas. Plural because of its continent-spanning reach and plural, also, because its past is always present. The horizon is never just a thin gray line dividing ocean from sky. It’s also a jagged relief of trees and mountains and water towers. Even the purest of horizons waxes, wanes, and occasionally softens with the play of light. Our future, the future of Americans north and south and, really, of everyone else too, lies on that intermittent horizon. That horizon is the future, founded on the past. And thus, a military raid captures and kills Osama bin Laden, and its codename is Operation Geronimo. A Native American leader, metonym of a history of resistance against imperial fantasies, resurfaces in an ill-conceived conflation of narratives. And thus also, the Argentine 100-peso bill commemorates, on its flipside, the “Conquest of the Desert,” the military offensive against indigenous peoples that consolidated the nineteenth-century nation state. An extermination campaign as the official story. What country in the Americas doesn’t have such a past? And which of these pasts doesn’t continually rear its head, unexpectedly, in the most varied contexts? This is why our co-existences are inconsolable. And what is true of the Americas holds true for every place. Spain, for example. This simple insight lies at the heart of Nathalie Handal’s brilliant new volume of poetry, Poet in Andalucía. In it, her eye abolishes time, combing all pasts into the resonant folds of the present. I feel close to death tonight. I just saw the poets of the Golden Ages and those of ‘27, there was no time between them— They speak to her and through her, these poets, across history: Luis de Góngora and Garcilaso de la Vega, bookends of the Spanish Golden Age; Rafael Alberti and Federico García Lorca, standard bearers of modern Spanish verse. They tell her to drink and sing and also that “illusion creates history,” perhaps because it is the illusion of leaving the past behind that allows us to name it as such. The conversation she imagines runs contrary to illusion, then, just as it re-stages another conversation, one that happened in Seville in 1927 when a group of poets gathered there in celebration of the 300th anniversary of Góngora’s death. Alberti and Lorca were among the group, henceforth canonized as the Generation of 27. They brought Góngora into their present, just as Handal brings them into our own. And she brings one of them, in particular, to the fore: Lorca. Her Poet in Andalucía is a recreation, in reverse, of his posthumously published Poet en New York. Her own introductory remarks sketch out the way we might read her geographic negative. Lorca left as part of his legacy a longing for homeland. My own longing stretches across four continents, due to a life made exilic by the political turmoil in the Middle East. His poems are about discovering a lost self. The poems in this collection confront that same loss, and resonate with that same yearning for a sustaining place. Poet in New York is about social injustice and somber love, and the quality of otherness such forces produce. Poet in Andalucía explores the persistent tragedy of otherness but it also acknowledges a refusal to remain in that stark darkness, and it searches for the possibility of human coexistence. Longing for a place: this is why both titles situate their poets geographically. Loss of self: this is why both collections alternate so visibly among subject positions. Otherness and its reverberations: this is why both poets fixate so much on things and the symbolic forces they channel (and on words as things, especially in Handal’s poems). There are certainly other points of contact between the two, but I’ll just name one: both poets understand the “simultaneity of inconsolable co-existences” that makes up human (and indeed, nonhuman) history. For example, in Poet in New York we read lines like these: It isn’t foreign to the dance this columbarium that yellows the eyes. From the sphinx to the vault there is a tense thread that pierces the heart of all poor children. The primitive drive dances with the mechanical drive, ignorant in their frenzy of original light. From the pharaohs to the titans of Wall Street “there is a tense thread”: history doesn’t repeat itself, as in a spiral, but is rather stitched in a complex of threads, some of which are more tightly spun than others. And those threads are not static. They dance, present and past holding hands. If I had to imagine Lorca’s vision spread out in space it would take the form of a sparsely woven cloth flapping in the wind, some parts of it stained with blood, others reflecting light. Lorca’s mode is frequently that of an accusal. When he reveals the ties that bind present and past, he also seeks to uncover the violence of that binding. And thus the poem titled “Office and Denunciation” begins with these lines: Under the multiplications there is a drop of duck’s blood. Under the divisions there is a drop of sailor’s blood. Under the sums, a river of tender blood; He mentions the death of a human, but he’s really concerned with the animals, as we see later on in that same poem: Every day in New York they slaughter four million ducks, five million pigs, two thousand doves for the pleasure of the dying, a million cows, a million lambs, and two million roosters that leave the sky in splinters. The pain of violent animal death underlies the balance-sheet arithmetic of slaughterhouse administration. This subterranean truth is brought to light in these verses. * Cruelty buttresses civilization; the past inheres in the present. Both formulations repeat the modernist trope, running from Marx to Freud to Debord, of a truth, an awful and awesome truth, that is concealed from our everyday perception, whether through a fetish or through the sound and fury of the spectacle. In Poet in Andalucía, the question is refracted through the lens of language itself. And thus the collection’s title keeps the Spanish “Andalucía” instead of the Anglophone “Andalusia.” The title bears the trace of its own past, its peripatetic origins. And thus too the first poem in the collection is titled “Ojalá,” left in Spanish, a Spanish word that comes to us from the Arabic “Insha’allah”: God-willing, or in lay terms, let’s hope. In the almost eight centuries of Arab occupation of at least part of the Iberian peninsula, thousands of words filtered into the local languages. Handal captures something of this history in the Qit’as presented here, each of which bears the title of a Spanish word of Arabic origin, each of them explicated below the short poem. The truth of the Spanish language is the truth of its hybridity. It, like all languages, is a mestizo tongue. That affirmation has its own history, and it is a history of repression. If Arab-occupied Iberia was a motley pot of Jewish, Arabic, and Latinate cultures (among others), post-“Reconquest” Spain was marked by its intolerance. This was the Spain of the Inquisition, the Spain that expelled its Jewish population in 1492, and a little over a century later the Moriscos (Muslim converts to Christianity) as well. A version of this purity-fixated Spain resurfaced under the government of Francisco Franco (1939-75), when manifestations of linguistic and cultural diversity were persecuted. Handal is sensitive to this past when she writes, for example, in a poem significantly titled “La Guerra” (“War”), You said: After the bomb, I held a comrade’s arm, listened to Radio Cadena Española, and looked at the moon. The bodies weren’t moving. I went closer— we must remember what we looked like once, a country cut in half. And that metaphor of splitting, of one half running up against another, divided by a tenuous border, recurs in her collection. For instance the Qit’a titled “Acitara” (“Wall”): Can the sky recover after a bombing, can a house break into two cities, and secrets hold the wall between two bodies? Tell me, what are borders? The violent past of a nation divided (the idea of the “two Spains” is a constant trope in the country’s essayistic tradition), here acquires poetic weight. And yet, as she herself marks out in the prologue, the collection seeks a path beyond division and alienation: toward the possibility of coexistence, to use her word (and Bernstein’s). And thus the book’s eighth section is titled “Convivencia” (“Coexistence”). How can we live together? Through the intimacy of touch, the section seems to suggest, given the number of sensual, bodily scenes. Perhaps this is a recognition of our shared embodied nature, and the capacity of our bodies to feel pain, weight, touch, and arousal. Recognition of this simple truth lies at the origin of life in common. The politics of that shared life is also an erotics. That question, how can we live together, runs throughout Nathalie Handal’s Poet in Andalucía. I see in it a very American (in the broad sense of the Americas) problem, but this is certainly short-sighted. It owes, I assume, to the simple fact that I live in the Americas, two continents or one where our languages are marked by the violence of conquest and the struggle for coexistence. But this is the story of all humans, at least I think so. And this is why Poet in Andalucía—about Spain, about the Middle East, about shared destinies and hopes—touches me deeply: it reminds us of what’s inconsolable, of what’s multiple, of what’s irreducible, and what’s simultaneous.