RHC 2017: Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. 

Okay. This selection of fifteen poems each by three of the most prominent modern Arab poets is wonderful. I’ve read it several times since I ordered it in May 2017, but I haven’t had any idea where to even start with this post.

I’m going to try to write out some of my thoughts about this, but I feel a little bit like a gerbil trying to explain Shakespeare (and working from a translation of Shakespeare’s English into Gerbish, for that matter). Oh, and in this analogy I’m a gerbil that knows absolutely nothing about the social context of Elizabethan England, or, like, what a stage is.

But here’s what I’ve got. The poems of Mahmud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, both Palestinian, ache all over the page. Both poets tackle personal and cultural displacement and shattered identity. Darwish’s imagery is very physical – soil, seas, sky. The phrase “the country” is frequently repeated. He also repeatedly uses the land as a medium for birth and death, and several of his poems call forward and backward across generations.

al-Qasim’s style, on the other hand, is incredibly spare. Several of his works are extremely short–some are only two lines long. While the dominant emotion I picked up on from Darwish was profound grief (“We Are Entitled to Love Autumn”), al-Qasim’s work read to me as defiantly hopeful (“Don’t Waste the Tickets”).

Adonis appeared to me to be the most formally adventurous of the three, and the most (technically) challenging. Dreams and mirrors are frequent figures, and several poems are structured as dialogs. His range also includes very brief poems (“Worries” was one of my favorites) and one quite long poem “The Desert” that reminded me a bit of Walt Whitman.

Most of the books I read for this challenge made me really chatty. This one didn’t. I strongly recommend it–it’s powerful stuff. But this was a listening read for me rather than a talking one, if that makes sense.

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