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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

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

Ancient Sunlight by Stephen Watts (Enitharmon Press 2014)

Ancient Sunlight by Stephen Watts (Enitharmon Press 2014)

(10 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL;

When Henry Williamson wrote his collection of fifteen novels, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight he was looking back on a world gone by. Some of the early fiction in the sequence dealt with his own First World War experiences in the Machine Gun Corps and later, in 1917, the Bedfordshire Regiment. The language Williamson uses is often unashamedly nostalgic reflecting the views of a young man brought up in Brockley, South East London, who yearns for the more leisured spaces of rural England. That language, that Orphic turn of the head, is a record of loss and I am reminded of Geoffrey Ward’s words from PN Review 192 (March-April 2010):

In the beginning was the word. Trouble being, the word was always late for the event.
Words can describe, evoke, suggest, delineate, propose, haunt—do all manner of things—except be the thing or feeling or concept to which they refer. The verbal sign, while conjuring in the ear or on the page a simulacrum, (perhaps a beautiful, a crafted and convincing replicant, but a simulacrum nonetheless) can never be other than: a word. This is not a problem in everyday transactions, and indeed our development of language is possibly our greatest and our defining achievement. We certainly handle words better than we handle each other or the non-human world. But living in particular spaces, whereby the hieroglyphs that spell ‘save the planet’ are not the same thing as a saved planet, the injunction ‘pass the salt’ no guarantee of approaching salinity, there is, built into writing, a certain lateness. There is something of death in all its usages.

One of the early poems in Stephen Watts’s Ancient Sunlight, recently published by Enitharmon, suggests something about the act of writing poetry itself in his ‘A Little Message to my Friend Rumi’:

I am writing you this because I don’t want to lose
my sanity.

I am writing you this because I want to be insane.

Everything amounts to the same. There is no best
or better answer. All of language
is a disadvantage.

On the front cover of this delightful collection there is a comment by Iain Sinclair: ‘Integrity and clarity of address illuminate every line of these poems.’ These are poems to return to time and again partly for their quiet acceptance of the inevitability of time’s movements and partly for their poignant awareness of those temporal seismic shifts, shifts which invariably leave an echo, a scent, a lingering in the air that the poet can attempt to hold for a moment.

It is too long since you were with us, though I know
you never left. Even so
in these years lacking alchemy & language all of us
feel bereft, feel we need the conjure of your poetry
your verve, its jest

So many of these poems appear as ‘pilgrims and holy wanderers from / the nomad world.’ Read them; keep them; read them again and then sit, quietly, reflecting on the fragility of a language that can weave the ghostly return of a world long gone. The names of streets, areas, cities rise up within these pages and Stephen Watts, conjuror, gives us Brick Lane, Broslehan Street, Lamb Street, Prague, Frith Street Kraków, Soho Square and Moravian Hills. And then I reflect upon the memory that Geoffrey Ward had already written an earlier version of those words at the beginning of this short review. In 1989 he had published a piece in the issue of Archeus devoted to the work of Andrew Crozier:

Language is doomed to unpunctuality, words chasing, describing, shadowing a reality they can do anything but actually be. But if words miss their goal they pursue in the meantime their own life in the mouth or on the page, powerful figures of speech that predate our individual use of them, constraining or permitting meanings always aslant or surplus to requirements.

As if to hold those words of Sinclair firmly on the front cover the words on the back, by Robert MacFarlane, close this volume with generous accuracy:

‘I am moved and fascinated by Stephen Watt’s poetry in ways I find hard to explain and extraordinarily powerful to experience. He is among the most fine and subtle writers I know on the relations of landscape and mind.’

Ian Brinton 9th August 2014

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