Anyone here in the United States who has paid attention to Nobel Prize predictions these last few years is undoubtedly familiar with the name Adonis, though probably unfamiliar with his poetry. This may have less to do with American philistinism and more to do with the lack of English translations of his work. Luckily, Yale University Press, in conjunction with the Margellos World Republic of Letters, has published Adonis Selected Poems remedying this situation. The book—beautifully packaged and lovingly translated by Khaled Mattawa—works well to introduce the uninitiated to the enigmatic poems of a major figure in world literature. The introduction will be, for some, a revelation and, to others, confounding. To be sure, Adonis has ambition and vision to burn, though the end results of his work can just as often bemuse as inspire.
I am always one to champion international poetry, so I was quick to get my hands on this book. Reading it, however, has been slow. This is not to say it is a slog, but a thought that often arises when wading through some of the less accessible, more inscrutable poems in this collection is whether or not western readers are able to fully appreciate these works. Could there be something lost to cultural relativism? Is it necessary to know a bit about Arabic literature to truly enjoy these poems? Perhaps, though there is no shortage of impenetrable, imagistic American poetry currently confusing grad students and, to borrow a phrase form Robinson Jeffers, duping the duped. That being the case, what is the Western reader to do with “I see a word— / all of us around it are mirage and mud Imrulqais could not shake it away, al-Ma‘ari was / its child, Junaid crouched under it, al-Hallaj and al-Niffari too”? Even with endnotes, moments such as these threaten to alienate the reader unschooled in the history of Arabic letters.
But isn’t part of the reason one comes to a translated work to learn about another culture and gain an insight outside the scope of our experience? Indeed, though the complaints already leveled at poetry (elitist, intentionally obscure) seem to double when reading poetry in translation. The reader of Orhan Pamuk’s novels can maneuver through the cultural and historical references so long as the road is paved with prose. When dealing with poetry, which can be—sure, why not say it?—a little cumbersome both in and out of translation, readers may be turned off and publishers may tune out. Ultimately, this is a shame, though when a book such as Adonis Selected Poems arrives on these shores the hope is that the savvy reader will let go of provincial obstacles and just read the damn thing.
How to read Adonis, a challenging poet to say the least? The approach should be the same as when reading many of the greats: let the poems be and abandon the need for full comprehension, at least the first time through (and the poems get a lot better upon rereading). Not everything is here for our understanding, and not everything suffers as a result. Oh, there are moments when the reader has more than a good idea of what is going on (“A bullet spins / oiled with the eloquence of civilization. / It tears the face of dawn. No minute passes / in which this scene is not replayed”) and as one gets further, and the progression of Adonis’s career is revealed, the earlier, modernist poems give way to clearer, often striking work. This is evident in the penultimate section, taken from the 2003 collection
‘Beginnings of the Body, Ends of the Sea.” Here Adonis demonstrates balance between imagery and emotion: “Your mouth’s light, no redness / can match its horizons // Your mouth, the light and shadow / of a rose.” So while there are rewards throughout the book, the reader is offered little to no favors. This is not a bad thing. Poetry requires that one slow down to appreciate its mystery. It asks the reader to put in effort and attention and to slow the hell down. In an age of streaming videos, tweets, and real time news, poetry offers a rare form of solace. Essentially, works such as Adonis’s ask the reader to rethink how they define poetry. Expectations will undoubtedly be thwarted, but the effort leads to some startling places.
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