Hugs Penyeach: “I Saw a Man Hugging a Fridge: Twelve Poems by Youssef Rakha in Robin Moger’s Translation”

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. 

 



Some Readings

Course of Mirrors (Ashen Venema); Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali); Southeaster (Haroldo Conti); Envoy and Ward’s Fool (Caleb Crain)

I was cured a couple of years ago of making unsolicited reading recommendations. Having pushed a couple of suggestions into the hands of a suspecting neighbor, who initially faked appreciation but later made me realize he despised being told what to read, I decided to relax into my own reading and leave well enough alone when it came to the reading or non-reading of others.

I remind myself there are books I once loved and re-loved I’ve since dropped into the free library share box on the corner, always full of suggestions of what we might read. Likewise, there are books I once started reading but could not “get into,” as the old reading saying goes, but on a later look did fall incomprehensibly in love with, which is to say reading is not always placed before, but sometimes after. Before or after what? Something draws us to a text – what? why?

In any case, I’ve decided to talk a bit of some recent readings. A book review, mind you, is not the same as a book recommendation, nor is it the same as a kind of what “I’vebeenreadinglately.” Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” At the top of each column he listed “books read,” followed by “books bought” [during the month], discussion following that may or may not cover all the books read in any kind of traditional review. It was a personal reading column. I enjoyed it, and always went to it first, to see what was there, even if I but rarely followed up with reading the books myself. The lists may or may not have matched, usually did not match exactly. Also in the Believer, Greil Marcus contributed a monthly column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a personal Billboard of his monthly music experience, a perfect column, a ten paragraph countdown full of Greil’s unique style where Edmund Wilson takes over “At the Movies,” talking about popular music not as sub-culture but as the culture, which means it can be read into, in to, too. I don’t know if Hornby and Marcus are still writing for the Believer, my subscription of a few years having been let lapse. It now appears the old Believer, out of San Francisco, is giving way to a new life at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

My reading experience with Ashen Venema’s “Course of Mirrors,” a book of contemporary mythical fantasy, a coming of age story, a memoir disguised in allegory, was enjoyable. Sometimes, a reader must let go and simply read what’s there and stop underlining and marking up the text with marginal notes as if he too were going to write something brilliant in the Believer. That is called reading for enjoyment. I remember reading somewhere Harold Bloom saying he never underlined or marked up a book, he remembered everything, he “internalized” the text as he read it. I have to read up and down, back and forth, settle in and settle up, spend time in the dictionary, if not in the loo.

Maybe readers enjoy books most they discover on their own. Lists, which can be useful, lead to argument. Rely on the list in that link, for example, and you’ll miss Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. There are lists and anti-lists, counter canons, counter intuitive lists. Good reading is often subversive to one’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

Youssef Rakha recently mentioned (in a tweet or at The Sultan’s Seal – I can’t find the reference now) “Beer in the Snooker Club,” which I bought and read. It’s a coming of age story of a mid-century Egyptian who is impoverished by the privilege he’s born into. It’s about identity, alienation, love, and the economic and intellectual frustration of compromise amid what Thoreau called in a different time and place the “quiet desperation” of the lives most men lead. It’s both heavy and light. The setting is Egypt and England around the time of the Suez Crisis. The first person narration is witty and sharp, literary and sarcastic, self-aware and penetrating. The characters are real, the events depicted clearly and with a detached empathy that brings world events close to home and headlines into one’s mailbox. The narration employs styles that mimic without becoming parody – the Hemingway set piece, for example. You see it coming, realize you’re there, but in case you missed it, are given his name. It’s a great book. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m going to turn around and read it again.

“Southeaster” I first heard about at the Boston Review, where Jessica Sequeira gave a thorough discussion of the book, its setting, author, and times, and with a focus on the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, including an interview. I might be one of the North American readers Jessica refers to, though I read “Southeaster” not as exotic literature, although I did think of “The Old Man and the Sea” in more than one place, but also I thought of Steinbeck, but I read “Southeaster” as an old surfer might, aficionado of water flow, enjoying the very similar way of being on the water, though not, given the crowds these days, as solitary an experience as Haroldo Conti’s river. This book sat in a stack for over a year before I finally gave it a proper reading.

The summer issue of “The Paris Review’ arrived, with a story by Caleb Crain, “Envoy,” just a few pages, but an extraordinary narration by a first person who lies twice about his age and almost misses the epiphany of a flattery. The appearance of “Envoy” reminded me I had yet to properly finish Caleb’s story, “Ward’s Fool,” in the Winter 2017, n+1. “Ward’s Fool,” set in some non-specific future, appears to be a kind of phrase writer’s bureaucratese, until another epiphany slowly dawns across another river.

I enjoyed a beer yesterday late afternoon with a few colleagues from my past. Not fiction readers by vocation or avocation, they were nevertheless aware of my “Penina’s Letters,” and had even read the Amazon reviews, and had perhaps glanced through the “look inside” Amazon feature. I was not offended, but happy they had showed any kind of interest, shared any kind of mention. I thought of audience and occasion and the discipline of respecting both. Marketing can at times rival literature for its subversive practices. The marketing of literature might be doubly subversive.

“The airport was jamming, very jazzy…”

Over at тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ, Youssef Rakha, Egyptian novelist, journalist and photographer, has posted an excerpt from “Penina’s Letters.” Penina has just picked up Salty at the airport, and they are driving to the beach and up into Refugio. Fly on over to Youssef’s “Cairo’s Coolest Cosmoplitan Hotel” and check out the the excerpt.

“Penina’s Letters” has turned up in some interesting places the past few weeks:

Migrations

Migrations“Not far from seedy Sandy Boulevard,” a local newspaper article read, some time ago, attempting to describe a seeming paradox of a nice neighborhood limited by the desolation of the average urban street, where Easter bonnet parades have given way to noir glassed evenings, streets that help distinguish the right from the wrong side of the tracks, spring from winter, beauty from irony.

The planet Earth seems a benevolent seedy place, and how from this abundance of fruit and flowers moved easily about by breeze and bees come the ideas of poor taste, of good form, of appropriate policy and procedure, of social mores?

History is an argument whose occasion has lapsed, the audience mesmerized, hypnotized, and a quick exit of pathos, the persuasion a torn curtain. For Joyce’s Stephen, in “Ulysses,” history was “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Part of that nightmare might include migrations: caused by drought or famine; escape from prejudice and persecution; exile from war; fallout from economic, climate, or technological calamity; eviction notice from landlord; or perceived opportunity, where the grass simply looked greener on the other side of the street. There is an ongoing, small but worldwide, migration of corporate workers essentially homeless from forced relocation every few years, happily scattered about though, rare seeds, often heirlooms.

The nightmare is humanity’s pollinator, its vector, its wind and breeze, river and sea, bee and fly.

Gentrification causes migrations. Local news recently broke of a 127 year old building to be torn down on Belmont, where the century old trolley rail lines occasionally reappear, rising through the wear and tear in the asphalt street. By local standards, a 127 year old building is old, but not so old, maybe, by Parisian standards. Some might see the old Belmont building as having gone to seed, seedy, associated with sleazy; others might see history, a story that cannot be razed or covered. Whether it’s torn down or fixed up, the building’s current occupants will have to find new digs.

But what is seediness? Why is the seedy scorned? Who creates the seedy? And how does seediness move? Who moves toward the seedy rather than away from it? How is life different for those gone to seed from the well bloomed and harvested? Behind the façades, however rich or seedy they might appear, is life in the back of the five star hotel the same as life behind the one star motel? Is five star bitterness five times more bitter than one star bitterness?

One year, in Los Angeles on a boondoggle, we met up with some of the old gang for a couple of days adventuring in the façade capital of the world, Disneyland. We got rooms at a local hotel. The lobby looked friendly, the lounge ready for a beer, the courtyard intimate, the rooms dark but plush. Not five star, but not one star, somewhere in between, we imagined. We settled in for a nap with plans to reconvene later in the lobby and head out for some gumbo at the Blue Bayou.

And then we saw the rats scurrying up and down and all around the courtyard palm trees, arms length from the balcony, plump, healthy looking rats, but did we want to share the night with them? We rustled up the energy to confront the front desk clerk concierge, and checked out free and clear for a clean well lighted place without rats. It did not take long to relocate and we were happily ensconced in a new place apparently fortified against rats. I did not disturb the group’s peace of mind, but I wondered where management might have kept the rats in this new place. In an urban landscape, one is never more that fifty feet or so from a rat. Something is always going to seed, never mind the season.

The classy squirm away from the seedy, the swank from the stink. But they often meet in the noir. The cancer of cynicism does not distinguish the posh from the pinched. Textbook history often sounds like it was written from an airplane circling over a city cleansed of its seeds, and we see nothing of the city’s underground, where we might come face to face with its rats.

“To become imbued with shades of grey, to blend into the drab obscurity of blind spots, to join the clammy crowd that emerges, or seeps, at certain times of day from the metros, railway stations, cinemas or churches, to feel a silent and distant brotherhood with the lonely wanderer, the dreamer in his shy solitude, the crank, the beggar, even the drunk – all this entails a long and difficult apprenticeship, a knowledge of people and places that only years of patient observation can confer.”

We are in Nazi occupied Paris, in Jacques Yonnet’s “Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City.”[i] Most able Parisians have escaped and are on the run, many at the last minute, by train or car, bicycle or walking, long crowded lines moving generally south to southwest, ahead of the advancing Nazi army about to reach Paris. This migration is of course history: dates, names, and numbers dutifully recorded, but for a bird’s eye view of the ordinary trauma, conversations, blunders, hopes, and fears of the average Parisian fleeing the city, many packing as if for a vacation to the Midi, turn to “Suite Francaise,” a recently uncovered account in the form of a novel by Irene Nemirovsky, who died in Auschwitz.[ii]

Yonnet’s book takes place in Paris during the occupation and after. The narrator works for the Resistance, running several missions and establishing connections and communications, always an eye on the patrolling Nazis, living in squalid conditions, associating with all kinds of gone to seed characters with names like “Keep on Dancin’.” The narration reads like a journal or diary.

For the characters in Nemirovsky’s book, the trip out of Paris is a nightmare. Food is quickly scarce, as is petrol, cars are abandoned, train schedules uncertain, everywhere long lines of refugees on the move, unable to carry much, villages and towns empty of provisions, families sleeping out, feeling lucky it’s June and the nights warm, but then again it’s too hot. There’s nothing to drink, nothing to eat. A few enemy planes buzz overhead, explosions heard in the distance, and a few bombs drop near, the strategy uncertain, apparently to take out train stations, rail lines, fuel depots, but there are civilian casualties and injuries. And throughout the telling of it, Nemirovsky focuses close in, describing ordinary people caught unprepared in extraordinary circumstances.

Samuel Beckett and his life long partner Suzanne would have been on the road out of Paris, walking, sleeping out, hiding by day, moving at night. Later, it would be said the roadside scenes in “Waiting for Godot” might have been first suggested to Beckett on his way out of Paris. And James Joyce and his family would have been on their way out of Paris, for Switzerland, Joyce concerned that the war would distract people from reading his latest book, “Finnegans Wake.”

Some of Nemirovsky’s characters describe their predicament as horrible, nothing like it ever seen before, but they are reminded by others they are not the first, nor likely to be the last.

New ethical environments quickly evolve, wrongs are met with a patient retribution, if not justice, both in Yonnet’s occupied Paris among the down and out, the deadbeat and seedy, the sick and infested, the fallen, and in Nemirovsky’s trail of humanity moving away from Paris, away from the city, away from an old life toward something new and unknown.

Back in mid-January, the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha posted to this blog, “The Sultan’s Seal,” a photo essay by the Reuters cameraman Antonio Denti (@antclick on Instagram). Titled “Upstream,” Denti’s essay begins:

“I drove alone from Rome to the Balkans to cover the refugee crisis on the borders of Eastern Europe in September 2015. I saw the physical and human landscape changing slowly. I saw the faces, and I heard the sound of the words. I saw history flowing from Florence to Venice, to Trieste, to the forests of Slovenia, to the Alps and the well kept chalets near Austria, to the flat agricultural peripheries deeper into the former Austro-Hungarian empire, eastwards, towards Serbia and Hungary…”

Denti’s photo essay focuses on the parents and children of the recent migration and refugee crisis. He calls his project a photo diary. It is “terrifying and beautiful.”

[i] Jacques Yonnet, Paris Noir: The Secret History of a City, translated and with an introduction and notes by Christine Donougher. First published in France in 1954, first Dedalus edition in 2006, reprinted in 2009. 280 pages, paperback.

[ii] Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise, a novel, translated by Sandra Smith. Originally published in France in 2004, first Vintage International Edition, May 2007, 431 pages, paperback.

Notes on Youssef Rakha’s “The Crocodiles”

  1. Instead of page numbers, “The Crocodiles,” a novel by the Egyptian writer Youssef Rakha, is marked by 405 numbered, block paragraphs, the whole symmetrically framed by references to Allen Ginsberg, the US Beat poet, to his “The Lion for Real,” signed “Paris, March, 1958.”
  1. Opening Rakha’s book, one finds a hand drawn map labeled “The Crocodiles’ Cairo,” which includes a drawing of the head of a lion, which might somewhat resemble, in caricature, the photo portrait of Youssef Rakha that appears on the inside back cover of the book, at least the seemingly ironic smile of both suggests they know something one or the other or the reader may not.
  1. Napoleon’s March to Moscow, 1812: Description. Lineal novel. Variables. How to tell the story? What happened along the way, and back? They were marching through snow, in below freezing temperatures, and you want to know the exact temperature at daily geographical interval locations? Body counts alone won’t tell the story. How to present data and information? Multivariate analysis in a single photograph. How to revision history? On the way back, there were no ramparts, just fields of snow and a sea of time. Napoleon may well have dreamed of warmer days, when he lived in Egypt, of unlocking a language, and of a code that would provide protection for all against the cold. A wise leader rules with allowances, and instead of burning books, gets everyone reading.
  1. In Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life,” Michael Hardt sets out in a rowboat in a privileged pond to argue the meaning of revolution. What does it mean to make revolution? What is the relationship between freezing temperatures, direction, and a line of march that grows thinner with each step each man takes? “Carte Figurative.” Data flow, “one ruling elite replaced with another” (Hardt), credits and discredits following, merits and demerits, kudos and kicks upside the head. Note: Hardt rows backwards – he can’t see where he’s going – at one point “…running aground, shipwrecked.” Figurative language, the hyperbole of revolution.
  1. “Carte Figurative.” Figurative language. Not to be taken literally. And don’t confuse Minard the author (cartographer) with Napoleon the character. Regression analysis becomes necessary. What is the relationship between the author and the narrator? Perhaps none, except that one sees what the other does not. Irony. “The Crocodiles” is a figurative map of multiple variables that attempts a regression analysis to explain past events and predict future probabilities. Note that Rakha is also journalist and photographer; each paragraph of the novel may be taken as a still photograph, a variable, part of a portfolio.
  1. “On the Road” with Kerouac (para. 248) and Bonaparte. My kingdom for a 1949 Pontiac Chieftain. Interactive notes: what was the cost of a 1949 Hudson new using the value of today’s poem to that of a muscle car driven by a youthful single male in 1964? Sal knew to take a southern route on his winter trip: The novel as map of a trip.
  1. Custom as costume. Napoleon as grammarian, his Code a multivariate blending of revolution, revelation, and reform. The novel as procedure that everyone can follow, the interaction of nouns with verbs. Custom as vernacular, empire as formal attire. Due process as drug.
  1. The Beatnik as attitude, beatitude. Jazz as revolution, the novel of improvisation. Notes out of context. Bonaparte’s men dropping (like) seeds (para. 256). Napoleon as lion.
  1. At times, reading “The Crocodiles” is like watching a foreign film with subtitles, because while all the common characteristics of the novel are included (plot; narration; characters – major, minor, dynamic, static, protagonist, antagonist, foil; dialog – though sparse, and blended with the prose, the paragraphs all block formatted; setting – places, times, seasons, dwellings, streets; diction that creates style; irony, satire, and sarcasm), something strange appears, and that strangeness is what the Crocodiles’ group calls poetry: “self-sufficiency…desire…intention” (para. 316).
  1. Like Minard’s “Carte Figurative” of Napoleon’s march to and from Russia (1812-1813), Rakha’s “The Crocodiles” is a figurative coming of age graphic that plots multiple comings and ages (decades, variables) packed into a single view.
  1. The juxtapositions of disparate subjects and actions (of real Lions with Visions of Lions; of Beats with Crocodiles; of poetry with prose; of people with bridges – para. 80) connote something new, new views: the flower children having dropped their petals now sticks of thorns (“just ask the nearest hippie,” Scalia).
  1. Transparency does not necessarily lead to transcendence. Neither honor nor shame stand alone as values, but they are the crossroads at which people gossip, tell stories, barter and eat and drink.
  1. Affinities, themes, motifs: the Beats, poetry, revolution, change, maturation, growth, body, sex, predicament, society, margins (paragraphing, units of composition, sentences), ambiguity, protest, independence, exploitation, reflection, writing, file, premature, people, obstacles, brain, chemicals, women, work, matrix, publishing, poverty and ignorance, position in group, generations (lost, beat, hippie, next), translation, drugs (real and imagined), neighbors, values, wants, needs, humor, music, violence, aggression, excuses, decadence, pop culture, misinformation, criticism, destruction, suicide, sacrifice, counter-culture, lion (cat), crocodile, logic, argument, howl, pain, Ginsberg (Howl and Moloch), dissolution, analysis, invasiveness, love, ambition, relationships, disdain, synchronicity, human nature, signifiers.
  1. There is something too of the noir to “The Crocodiles,” a mystery, with the narrator, “Gear Knob,” whose nickname suggests some 1950’s hard-boiled detective story character, assuming the role of the detective as corrective if not moral force. But noir is cartoon. Or “The Crocodiles” might have been a graphic novel. Instead, it is a poetic novel that breaks with genre convention and creates formal purpose and revisions value, what people want.

“The Crocodiles,” by Youssef Rakha, 2013. English translation 2014 by Robin Moger, Seven Stories Press, New York, November 2014.