Youssef Rakha, Egyptian writer and editor of the international online publication The Sultan’s Seal (aka Cosmopolitan Hotel Cairo), recently posted to his site twelve of his own original poems, translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger. That posting draws significance for several reasons: both writer and translator are professionals published elsewhere in traditional forms – literary, commercial or journalistic; the poems are estimable; as literary online culture continues to evolve, with some longtime bloggers dropping out following more traditional successes or frustrated by the perceived over saturation of unpaid venues, Rakha continues to appear determined to develop even further his site, creating unprecedented opportunities for diverse writers and readers.
As I consider a discussion of Rakha’s twelve poems, I’m reminded of Kirill Medvedev, the Russian poet whose concerns regarding ownership of communication and open access to literature and language led him to renounce his copyright, and in addition to his other work, he began to self-publish his poetry on Facebook. At the same time, Medvedev seemed interested in writing that would not alienate a common reader, as so much poetry often does, even if inadvertently. Reading poetry can seem like studying a foreign language, as indeed it is.
Rakha’s poems behave, it might seem redundant to say, poetically. That is, they move by metaphor and juxtaposition of images, narration sometimes ambiguous, with many unexpected turns. What is their subject? Rakha has always made expeditious use of tags. At the bottom of the “Twelve Poems” post, for example, we find 70 tags, alphabetically ordered, but we don’t find fridge or hug.
We should assume the speaker or narrator of a piece is not necessarily the author. Authors create characters, in both fiction and poetry, and narrators, including those in the first person, are characters. Even the narrator of a so called memoir, perhaps particularly so, is a character created by the author. Louis Menand recently spoke to this issue in a New Yorker article. I’m not sure he clarified or muddied the waters. That business about the “narrative pact,” for example: I prefer Trilling’s argument that everything is an argument – and that probably includes memoirs, essays, poems, novels, ads and commercials, junk mail, the evening news, anything on an op-ed page, and notes left on the fridge from your partner. The old, venerable encyclopedias? Full of arguments. The new Wiki? Likewise. But Menand’s closing point, that no occasion for writing should prevent us from reading, is right on. But what of the culpability of readers who in their creative reading find something the author had not intended? But isn’t one of the purposes of poetry to create and sustain or nurture the possibilities of unintended consequences?
The setting of the poem where we find the man hugging a fridge seems domestic. His wife is there, swinging from the chandeliers, but this doesn’t seem to be a party. The local world is drowning in rain. We might recall Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” “Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?” The man’s legs are submerged. Is he hugging the fridge for its buoyancy potential, a life preserver? The poem is titled “Listen Ashraf,” and Ashraf Fayadh, a poet initially sentenced to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia, is named in the first line. His sentence was subsequently reduced to an eight year prison sentence with 800 lashes. His crime, it seems, wasn’t so much poetry, or being a poet, but of writing the wrong kind of poems. We hug our abodes, our houses, our wives and fridges, our lifestyles, as the waters continue to rise. We hug to say hello, goodbye. We hug the things we love. We hug a fridge or a clothes washer when we want to move it to another location. We hug to hold on. “Listen Ashraf” is the last of the twelve poems.
The first poem of the twelve is titled “First Song of Autumn,” and speaks of joy: “I am the clarinet’s mouth.” This poem is lyrical, cylindrical, like the flight of birds.
In “The Angel of Death Gives Counsel to a Bereaved Parent,” we find one of those poems whose narrator or speaker appears as a character invented by the author of the poem. The poem appears to be the angel’s apology, a rebuttal to the argument that he has no feelings. But he must harbor his hugs to get the job done. And he gives back, not an answer, and certainly not even a hint of a meaning to his work, but a hug of surety.
The twelve poems speak in both the first and second persons. The speaker addresses someone close but at the same time far away, questioning, observing, remembering. There are sparks of sadness and of sarcasm, of hope drowned in irony, of anger:
“Sleep and hug, like the downy pillow, the certainty
That you’re the genius, alone in a society of retards.”
Readers might wonder what it is they hug, to get them through the night or day of a poem, across the invisible wall of a border.
One of the twelve poems, “Stallion,” is a prose poem. Not that a piece written in prose is any easier to grab hold of. It only appears to be one of the more accessible poems here. Written “For Ahmed Yamani,” it moves as a dream of water over oil. Another prose poem, titled “Love (Marriage),” seems an aphoristic apology, though we may not be exactly sure for what. It is not the sentiment often found on greeting cards.
On second and third reading, the poems open more easily. The reading is not difficult; that is because the writer has done most of the work. But there is work required of the reader, too. The settings and references may be unfamiliar, the problems, though universal, hardly equitably distributed. Characteristic of the poetry is the packing together of history, personal observation, everyday events (visiting a cafe, for example), a kind of diarist epistolary form. The movements feel free, without restraint, not hamstrung.