A Review of Adonis: Selected Poems

M. Lynx Qualey

Edited and translated by Khaled Mattawa. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2010. 399 pages. $30.00.

It was 1988 when Adonis’s name was first connected with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In his 2006 memoir, Memories in Translation, pioneer Arabic-English translator Denys Johnson-Davies writes of meeting with a woman sent by the Nobel committee to discuss the 1988 award. The delegate, he said, wanted to know more about the best Arabic-language writers. Four names were on the committee’s list: Naguib Mahfouz (who won the prize), the great Egyptian short-story writer Yusuf Idris, the celebrated Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, and the Syrian poet Adonis, pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Asbar.

Johnson-Davies notes that he dismissed Idris and Salih because too little of their work was available in translation. The committee, he felt, would not be able to form an opinion of their significance.

He could perhaps have dismissed Adonis for similar reasons. More of Adonis’s work has been available in French, particularly since 1990. But until this past decade, little had been translated into English. And, until 2010, no single work in English gave an idea of the poet’s range. Adonis: Selected Poems is thus a landmark: the collection matters not just because of its internal beauty, but because it provides a window on the career of one of Arabic literature’s transformational poets. It begins with Adonis’s first works, published in 1957, and takes us through changes in his style, moving through experimentations and openings, often dizzying in its sudden leaps.

Translator Khaled Mattawa, who selected the poems, sets us on this journey with the relatively simple opening of “Love”:

The road and the house love me,
the living and the dead,
and a red clay jug at home
loved by water.

We move from here to the philosophically and imagistically more complex Songs of Mihyar of Damascus, published in 1961, first translated by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar as Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs (2008). The collection’s “Voice”:

He lands among oars and rocks,
encounters the lost
in jugs proffered to brides,
in the whispers of seashells.
He declares the birth of our roots,
our weddings, harbors, and singers.
He utters the rebirth of the seas.

By the 1980s—an exceptionally fruitful decade for Adonis—the poet found the full power of his voice. He published the love poems of The Book of Similarities and Beginnings (1980), the largely prose exploration of Lebanon’s Civil War in The Book of the Siege (1985), the wonderfully wide-ranging Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter (1987), and, just a year later, the sparse and suggestive Celebrating Vague-Clear Things (1988).

From the title poem of Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter, which uses traditional Arabic poetic elements while also experimenting with textual placement, punctuation, type settings, mirrored stories, and word innovations:

                                I summon angels and ambulances—
I turn into water and flow in the pool of my sorrows
I become a horizon and climb the heights of desire.
I know that we die only once                           and are many times reborn
And I know that death is only useful if we live it through.
I know that the hereafter is this rose
                      this woman
                      and that a human face is the other side of the sky.

One of the great joys of this collection is that we move from experiment to greater experiment. The air we breathe changes as we climb through one phase of Adonis’s career to another. Mattawa wrote, in his introduction, that one could not present Adonis’s later work without his earlier poems as context. And indeed, the poet’s work feels more complete in this setting.

By the early 2000s, when Adonis had published more than a dozen collections, the poet’s name was regularly connected with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Year after year, he has appeared on bookies’ charts. Journalists ask and re-ask about his feelings toward the prize.

Perhaps Adonis: Selected Poems is the translation that will turn the committee’s head. But, back in 1988, Johnson-Davies did not dismiss Adonis because of a paucity of his work in translation. Johnson-Davies says he dismissed Adonis, who by then had moved to Paris, because he “could not be called a popular poet, and his decision to give up his actual Muslim name in favor of ‘Adonis’ did not endear him to many Arabs, quite apart from the fact that his poetry was above the heads of many readers.”

Mattawa, in his introduction, objects to the characterization of Adonis as a foreign name, saying that it is “more deeply rooted in the history of the region than its current inhabitants realize.”

But it’s not likely that Adonis would object to Johnson-Davies’ portrayal of him as a difficult and “not popular” poet. Part of Adonis’s lack of popularity stems from his sometimes outrageous socio-political statements and from his dismissal of other Arab writers, including Mahfouz. Some of it stems from the difficulty of his poetry, which requires significant readerly engagement.

As part of his most recent book tour, Adonis visited one of Khaled Mattawa’s classes at the University of Michigan. According to the New York Times, in response to one student’s question about poetry’s lack of popular appeal, Adonis said:

Poetry that reaches all the people is essentially superficial. Real poetry requires effort because it requires the reader to become, like the poet, a creator. Reading is not reception.

Mattawa’s Adonis: Selected Poems honors the idea of reader as creator, particularly in its presentation of the work. In their translation of Mihyar, Haydar and Beard offer explanations of their individual choices, inviting readers behind the scenes. Mattawa gives us the poems qua poems, for us to create and re-create rather than view or dissect.

Perhaps Mattawa is not, in every instance, able to transmit the fullness of Adonis’s linguistic play. But by engaging with a long range of Adonis’s work, English-language readers are finally able to explore and create their own versions of his poems.

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