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Pages from the Biography of an Exile by Adnan Al-Sayegh Trans: Stephen Watts & Marga Burgui-Artajo Arc Publications

Pages from the Biography of an Exile by Adnan Al-Sayegh Trans: Stephen Watts & Marga Burgui-Artajo Arc Publications

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
Vi-i-i-i-i-i-i-VA’

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

Long Poem Magazine Issue 15, ed. Lucy Hamilton & Linda Black Sure Hope 1, ed. Joseph Persad

Long Poem Magazine Issue 15,  ed. Lucy Hamilton & Linda Black  Sure Hope 1,  ed. Joseph Persad

In The Pavilion Hotel, 37 Leinster Gardens, London W2, Ken Edwards gave an interview on 15th February 1995 in which he talked about the world of poetry and the world of poetry magazines. Reality Studios had a ten-year lifespan and Edwards made it clear that he was interested in questioning the ‘basis of belief and acceptance of what writing is’.

‘So that is what I was trying to do in the magazine’.

Ken Edwards also made it clear that he did not want the magazine ‘to have a dogmatic line on anything, because I do not feel I have one…The thing is when you edit a magazine, people do come to you with preconceived notions of what you are doing, like if you publish soandso’s poetry, therefore you support this line and therefore soandso must be an enemy. Unfortunately, poetry is riddled with this kind of factionalising.’ One year later Iain Sinclair’s anthology Conductors of Chaos appeared and his introduction emphasised those points in vivid language as he suggested that poets ‘are a quarrelsome bunch; dealing with them is like dipping an arm into a sack of vipers’. In terms of the publication of an anthology (and the same could be said of a magazine) they demand ‘Who else is involved’.

This month two magazines have appeared and in their different ways they are exemplary in showing how the best can be achieved. Long Poem Magazine has been running for a few years now and it is produced with care and style. The editors, both poets in their own rights, were able to announce in the opening pages of this recently published issue that LPM has been awarded ‘an Arts Council grant to fund issues 15 and 16’. They also presented a clear sense of their own purposes as editors:

‘Since LPM’s inception, we have striven to publish an equal proportion of women to men, and to foster a sense of literary community and engagement across languages, cultures and countries—publishing translations from nine languages to date, with a tenth in the pipeline.’ The range of poetry is eclectic as work by the Russian of Anatoly Movshevich (translated by Peter Daniels) brushes shoulders with that of Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Ian Brinton) and the ‘Extracts from Uruk’s Anthem’ by Adnan al-Sayegh, translated by Jenny Lewis, are simply outstanding. I am reminded here of the published letter of Jeremy Prynne to Andrew George concerning the latter’s Penguin translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh in which he congratulated the translator on his ability to present ‘with great clarity and force… a poem of tremendous nobility and passion, evidently linked by many threads to the social structures of governance and adventure among men who still felt themselves close to the world of an elaborate pantheon of gods and supernatural agencies, but also displaying deep powers of psychological insight and human character and interaction’. To listen to Adnan al-Sayegh reading from his contribution to LPM at the launch was to be stilled for a moment, to be caught in a web of interwoven histories.
Submissions can be sent via http://www.longpoemmagazine.org.uk

Sure Hope 1 is a delight to read and its editorial note looks forward in the very best sense. As its title suggests it is here to stay for a while.

Sure Hope is a magazine of the arts, fairly convinced that writing, radically considered, remains an optimized framework for investigating the continued possibilities of hope, invisibility, equality, expansion, space, history, love…..It is hoped readers will enjoy what is presented, observing that these contents look out to broad horizons of conversation, life, and argument…’.

The range of contributors is impressive as Ian Patterson and Anthony Barnett rub shoulders with Justin Katko and Sophie Seita; Lisa Jeschke & Lucy Beynon appear along with Ian Heames and Luke Roberts. From the migrant camps of Calais we can read Harry Soolia as he chalks up the ‘intelligent and deliberate manipulations of opinions / tintin’s tears dripping from the feed’. This new magazine is worth supporting and submissions can be sent to troposphereeditions@gmail.com

Ian Brinton 23rd May 2016

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