I’m learning a lot about poetry lately, thanks to my travels virtually around the poetry world. My favorite part of doing this, where I randomly select a country and randomly select a poem from a poet, is when I Google to learn more about the poet, it turns out that they are like THE poet of that country. How rewarding and beautiful is that? In this case, I cam across the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, more commonly known by his pen name, Adonis or Adunis. For the sake of consistency, here on out, I’ll go with Adunis. He’s also an essayist and translator.
So, he’s not only THE poet of Syria seemingly, but he’s been called by The Guardian and others, the greatest living poet of the Arab world.
According to the Poetry Foundation, he was born to a family of farmers in Syria’s Al Qassabin village. For those not familiar, Syria is a Western Asian country near the Mediterranean Sea, and sandwiched (if uh, a sandwich could be a weird triangle) by Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
As the Poetry Foundation biography goes on to note, his father couldn’t afford Adunis a formal education, so taught him how to read and helped him memorize poems while he worked on the family farm. At 14-years-old, Adunis recited a poem to the president of Syria when the president was visiting nearby, and after which, the president offered to grant the boy’s request to attend school. WHAT. What sort of magical, you-can’t-script-this story is this?! A boy born to a family of six on a farm in Syria, who learns how to read and write thanks to his father, and somehow ends up in a position to recite poetry to the president of the country, after which he goes on to be known as THE poet of the Arab world? To use a highly technical term: wowzers.
I love this description of the pen name from The Guardian:
“Aged 17, he adopted the name of the Greek fertility god (pronounced Adon-ees, with the stress on the last syllable) to alert napping editors to his precocious talent and his pre-Islamic, pan-Mediterranean muses.”The Guardian
17! … 17! Guys, I was writing at 17, and I didn’t have this idea, much less the talent to back it up. He’s now 90-years-old and still alive, mind you, and has been doing this whole world-changing poetry for more than 70 years. And how beautiful, his dear mother, 107, is alive and living in Syria (he immigrated to Paris in the 1980s).
Interestingly, contra what I’ve been saying recently, he told The Guardian he can’t be both poet and politically engaged, as ideology is “against art.” Perhaps this follow-up quote gets at why he thinks that, “The world is not created to be understood, but to be contemplated and questioned.” Perhaps (get used to this word as I flail around in the dark) he sees the power of poetry as to question and examine rather than to provide answers or illumination on that which has been “understood.”
Adunis seems like a complicated figure in that, everyone seems to want him to be everything at once, but he wants to be a secular, apolitical poetic force. I’m not sure of his project of separating ideology from art, as again, I find it inconceivable you can detach the two, but I’m intrigued by his musings before I even get to the poem. And this idea of identity and attachment is a perfect segue into the poem I selected from him (before even knowing who he was or what he was about). The poem titled, “History is ripped apart in the body of a woman,” from the collection, Tarîkhun yatamazzaqu fî jasadi imra`a (which, folks, I’m stumped as to what that translates to or means; Google seems to recognize it as Arabic, but can’t translate it), and published by Dâr al-Adâb, Beirut, 2007, as translated by Khaled Mattawa in 2013.
Here I am spilling into everything . . . shattering
and I still do not know myself.
Who am I? Stranger, have you hidden me
in my own words, in my heaving?
How can I see what I hold secret, how can I make peace with my own face,
and embrace myself?
My desire shames me. My desire has separated me from me.
And I know the hell of this earth as if I were a hell of my own.
Whew, this is a tough one to disentangle. First, the title, what does that mean? History, which is a collection of human beings engaging in activities ultimately, can only occur due to procreation, obviously, and procreation can only happen thanks to all of us coming from a womb. So, in a literal sense, history is manifest from the womb, as is … everything. But ripped apart? Since the womb is the nexus of all things, then perhaps it can be said that when there are “rips” in the body politic, the body metaphorically is a woman? I’m brainstorming through typing here. But then where it throws me is the poem thereafter appears to be from the point-of-view of the woman, the same metaphorical woman where history is being ripped apart within? Is this the aftermath of the ripping apart? So, “she’s” spilling into everything … shattering, and still, we do not know history or understand it? How can we make peace with our own history, and embrace it?
For someone who moved to the West, broadly speaking, and seems to take criticism for not being, well, Arab enough or embracing Arab culture enough, not to say nothing of being secular, and as I mentioned, trying to divorce himself from politics, ideology and revolutionaries, doesn’t this poem seem to wrestle with that identity crisis? It’s wrapped in a broader sweep of history idea, perhaps of Arab history, and maybe there’s something to be said as well for feminism and womanhood in Arab culture (after all, according to The Guardian, he’s interested in freeing women from Sharia law, and believes religious dictatorship controls both mind and body), but it mostly seems about Adunis’ identity, and how to understand himself.
I don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with saying that. I’m both fascinated by the man and his work. What a complicated life story (of which I only scratched the surface), and what a complicated, if short, poem.
What do you think of this poem, my spit-balling interpretation, and what is your own interpretation, if it differs?