The introduction to this selection of one of the most important poets to have been involved in the Eighties Movement in Iraq is written in a way that is both directly informative and suggestive of much wider issues relating to the central role of poetry. Stephen Watts, himself of course a serious poet (see my review of Ancient Sunlight on the Tears Blog, August 2014), refers to Al-sayegh’s youthful visits to Baghdad as becoming ‘suffused with language’ and inspiring ‘his sense of poetry as journey and of the physicality of words’. Watts traces the years of exile endured by the Iraqi poet and offers us a picture of the restlessness of making a home in Sweden after he had been placed on a public death-list by Uday Hussein, before he finally settled in London in 2004. Throughout the search for somewhere to carve out some sense of home the importance of the poet has been a constant:
‘Poetry is a way of life, a breathing existence for al-Sayegh in ways not true of every poet; he has at times wanted to say that poetry is his religion, but for the delusion of language in such a form of words. He would want it said that religion is far less important an expression of the human spirit than is poetry…’
The magnum opus of this remarkable poet is surely the 500-page Uruk’s Anthem, published in Beirut in 1996, and Stephen Watts refers to it as summing up ‘his poetry’s essence, the fractured and fratricidal struggles of modern Iraq, and his own life’s trajectory’. This Arc publication contains two fairly short fragments of this major work, the main body of which still awaits translation, but one can feel the palpable nature of life’s enduring within a world of war-torn cities:
‘Bravo, for the turning of the Earth
for me, the rotation of ink
Bravo for the one they injected with life’s serum
so he can live on
to shout out
Or, with its elegiac grace:
‘(Everyone sings in their dark hours…
And I was singing in the prison block for all that was gone)
Until dawn puts forth leaves
on the branches of the benches
You bade me farewell…
and went off alone
to your exile
Singing, shattered in the wind
like a strange flute’
There is of course a haunting presence behind many of these fine poems and it is that of Gilgamesh ‘who scoured the world ever searching for life’ (Tablet 1 in the Andrew George translation, Penguin 1999):
‘After roaming, wandering all through the wild,
When I enter the netherworld will rest be scarce?
I shall lie there sleeping all down the years’ (Tablet IX)
It is worth making a comparison here with Abdulkareem Kasid who escaped from Iraq in 1978 and who also now lives in London. His fine collection, Sarabad, appeared from Shearsman Books last year introduced by John Welch:
‘In the distance I saw a train
Speeding along the track
But still in the same place.
I got on
And off I went.
How slowly the years of my life go by.
I leave them behind
And I sleep.
O my years. So many times
I have stood like a beggar before you.
The Long Poem Magazine, issue 15 published earlier this year, opens with a further extract from Adnan al-Sayegh’s Uruk’s Anthem and the poet writes by way of introduction that the poem
‘is one of the longest ever written in Arabic literature (549 pages) and gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience…It took twelve years to write (1984-1996). During eight years of that time I was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Many of my friends were killed and I spent eighteen months in an army detention centre close to the border with Iran.’
These extracts are translated by Jenny Lewis, Ruba Abughaida and Dr. Elias Khamis and I very much recommend that readers of this review get hold of a copy of the magazine. This is deeply moving writing of a most serious nature and it is heart-warming to read Stephen Watts’s comments upon translating the poetry published in the Arc selection (also a collaborative effort) in which he refers to the text emerging ‘from one language into the other in the physical presence of those involved’.
The achievement of all these translators is to produce a language of ‘a living breath’. If at the close of The Epic of Gilgamesh the serpent consumes the plant of rejuvenation and Gilgamesh recognises that he has lost eternal life the last tablet records the stone buildings of Uruk:
‘A square mile is city, a square mile date-grove, a square mile is
clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar:
three square miles and a half is Uruk’s expanse’.
Art outlives the transient.
Ian Brinton, 18th December 2016