Anything Can Be Said, Nothing Much Is

Plague Lands and other poems
, Fawzi Karim,
versions by Anthony Howell after translations by Abbas Kadhim
(115pp, 12.95, Carcanet)

, Toon Tellegen,
translated from the Dutch by Judith Wilkinson
(110pp, 12.95, Carcanet)

Although poetry might finish up in a book, easy to take from a shelf and the next day put it back again, sometimes it does seem, as a reader, I should have been there with the author, in a cafe somewhere, watching my back when the secret police appear. Or perhaps it is that, if the poetry is worth anything, all this is conveyed and is even inescapable, conveying something else from merely - a big merely this - being there.

But I am commending first of all a go-between, Marius Kociejowski with his lengthy Afterword to Plague Lands and Other Poems, part interview with the author and on wider themes a very fine essay in its own right. Fawzi Karim was born in Baghdad in 1945, left Iraq for Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, and since 1978 has lived in London. I think I'm right in thinking, even so, that he was not party to the translations, made independently by Abbas Kadhim becoming 'versions after' by the non-Arabic speaking Anthony Howell. There is only a brief note by Howell on the process.

The Introduction by Elena Lappin may have a purpose as a quick biographical note, but this is all covered and more by Kociejowski, whom I read after sampling a few of the poems. I recommend this approach. But then the poems do not stand alone, Carcanet didn't ask them to, and it's a book well worth having.

The translations - versions - do provoke questions about whose English, what kind of English, whether, for example, Karim's Arabic is closer to the Anglo-Saxon or the Graeco-Latin of contemporary English. The former predominates and is sharp and lively; an occasional line, for instance, 'Is there to be some revivification of their torn bodies?' runs counter to it, and I wonder if there is some similar intent in the original.

As soon as I discover someone else's translation or version of even part of a poem, other questions show themselves. It is easy to find a web site, Sima Rabinowitz's, with one by Saadi Simawe and Mellisa Brown (sounds like the same kind of arrangement), The Dissident Student' (2 of 3 sections here). The book has this:

   For many years he listens to me
   As the trees will listen to the seasons.
   In my wake, he wades against the flow,
   Getting to the source.
   Yes, but the truth is, he never lets up,
   even wrecks my siesta,
   Dictating through my tired mouth the most confusing gibberish,
   Though he's forever mindful, as if holding back.

   One day, when I'm getting on in years,
   Flashing like some diamond, he bursts in on me
   Spins me out of my turban,
   Throws my ink and papers in my face,
   And takes off for his rendezvous with fate.

and the web site has this:

   For years he listens to me
   Like the trees listen to the seasons.
   With me he crossed the current
   To the fountain... He never lets me rest, even during my siesta,
   Dictating into my tired mouth the most confusing gibberish.
   Yet always mindful, as if he is holding back.

   One day in my old age, he, blue like a diamond, bursts onto me
   Strips off my turban,
   Throws my ink and my tattered papers into my face,
   And takes off as if for a rendezvous with fate.

There are obvious, even curious differences; I as reader might prefer some for meaning, some for flow, for what is pleasing to me. Rabinowitz wonders about siesta
and rendezvous, asking whether these words 'appear in Spanish and French in the original.' The book's version has them, too, so are they there in spoken Arabic and transliterated on the page? Does it matter? Well, it's interesting.

And that word gibberish
(does it need confusing?) confidently in both translations: what sounding word might that be in Arabic?

The book works by direct statements, mostly more directly than the poem I've quoted. Placed centrally is a long poem as Part 7, 'The Dawn Is Near', and while nothing in this book can be wrenched out satisfactorily, these few lines might tell something crucial about it:

    I ask: 'Did you see the quiver?
             Did you turn towards the breeze?'
    He says: 'I saw. The breeze was chill.
    I turned. I heard the sound it made.
    How calm the clouds are,
              And how deep the ashes
              that are dissolved in the clouds,'
    Whew, that was close!
    Yards away, some buckled chunk of shrapnel
    smashes into the water's face.
    Plume of foam.
    Reek of smoke.
    Fish on their sides on the surface.

and so on. There is a movement through the whole book of being there and wondering and holding out, making sense, unable to make sense.

It's another relatively mundane point when glad as I am, if humbled, to accept such a book into my library, but do his Arabic lines have initial caps? It inhibits the flow, this old-fashioned Englishing, if that is what it is.

Like Fawzi Karim's,  Toon Tellegen's poems are in talking style. When I opened the book I thought, 'Ah, Dutch now', but neither book has its original language poems, it was my imagining. The poets' lives are very different, their intention is different, yet I find myself wondering whether English translators are bringing a certain kind of colloquial flow. I can't know.

Raptors has a big idea, every poem - each more or less half a page - begins 'My father', on a line of its own and is the opening of a sentence, which seems (I haven't back-checked every page) freely to run on, in more or less phrasal lines, no capital letters anywhere, until it stops. Occasionally there is a minor halt for a question mark.

The book has no essay, no interview, the translator says she worked in 'close consultation with' the author, occasionally, she says,  he would think his own poem could be improved and this new thought was incorporated. Uncertainty about we have here creeps in most obviously when we are told she 'tried to keep the English as idiomatic  as the Dutch and to find English proverbs and expressions that matched the Dutch as much as possible,' and 'when there was no real equivalent I looked for solutions that allowed for a similar play on imagery as in the Dutch.'

It's something one often hears about translations. The originals do slip away somewhat in such ways, but then imagine Fawzi Karim and Toon Tellegen on stage one after the other, I'd like to be there, perhaps in a mixed Arab and Dutch audience, pick up the vibes, if no precise meaning.

I find it hard to hear a Dutch voice, harder than to hear Karim's Arabic, or so I imagine, something to do with some subtlety of reference, or an idiosyncrasy of translation; or perhaps Iraq and that region have been in the news in the way the Netherlands hasn't been, and Tellegen, born 1941, seems to me borders on being a stand-up comedian. This is not to disparage that art, only to wonder at it book-length. Here is the opening on page 26:

     My father
     sat on a mountain
     overlooked the world from there
     'how small you are!' he called out to my mother,
     'as if you don't exist!'
     'and you,' he called out to the world, 'how insignificant you are!

     as if you'll never matter again!'

and so on, the mountain then becoming a molehill. Once a scheme like this is set up, it can be used to say anything, and for me the exercise soon wears thin.

     My father
     kept up appearances -
     oh let everyone please keep them up!

     but my brothers smashed them to pieces,
     'we'd rather you kept us up,' they said

     my father went on a journey
     in search of even finer appearances

and so on, and because anything can be said, then nothing much is. Or so it seems to me. By profession he has been a GP, and we are told he is well known in Holland for his poems, has given many readings and has won prizes.

          David Hart 2011