Monday, October 23, 2006

Muhammad al-Maghut

A recent article in PN Review on the Arabic poet Muhammad al-Maghut caught my attention, and I went to Amazon and bought a selection of his poems in translation, Joy is Not My Profession, published by Signal Editions of Canada.

From what I read so far, the translators, John Asfour and Alison Burch, are right when they talk in the introduction about him 'juxtapos[ing] modern colloquial speech with the occasional traditional poetic idiom... In his poetry the satire is pervasive at every level'. The most striking poem I have read is one quoted both in the PNR and in Asfour and Burch's introduction, 'When the Words Burn'. Its opening would not shame any poet I can think of:

Poetry, this immortal carcass, bores me.
Lebanon is burning - it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert
and I am looking for a fat girl
to rub myself against on the tram,
for a Bedouin-looking man to knock down somewhere.
My country is on the verge of collapse,
shivering like a naked lioness
and I am looking for two green eyes
and a quaint cafe by the sea,
looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.

There's something both familiar and alien about the poem to this English reader. The tension between public and private concerns, apparently a habitual theme of al-Maghut's, must resonate across all cultures. But the high-flown Arab nationalism of 'Lebanon is burning' (which the poem expands upon as it continues) is strange to my ears and mind, even though I can see it is ironised. The structure and effect of the poem is fairly clear. The particular public concerns, and the attitudes towards those concerns which the poems assume and play with, are unfamiliar, so that in reading the poem I feel simultaneously impressed, amused, doubtful and irritated. It hardly helps that the picture of Arab nationalism that the rhetoric suggests - 'Scream, voiceless country!' - accords in its simplicity, passion and nakedness with my own, no doubt orientalising, prejudices, with regard both to the nationalism itself and to the poetry that reflects it. While al-Maghut's poetry undermines that prejudice by showing me an Arabic poet taking up an ironic attitude to all that, it confirms it by implying that he is working against a tradition which is really like that.

Not his fault, of course, and the solution is for me to read more modern Arabic poetry in translation. But I've got the rest of Joy is Not My Profession to tackle yet, not to mention twenty German poets and a hundred writing in English, and the rest. The more you read, the less you feel you've read...


Blogger iamnasra said...

You write up on an arab took my attention...I was just looking on Arab poets and blogging really but it led me to your blog was great and yes the more your read the less you feel that you read

9:03 AM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Hi Nasra
Thanks for reading

9:45 AM  
Blogger qunfuz said...

try Nizar Qabbani. But if you don't like Arab nationalism you will be irritated again.

3:56 AM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Thank you, I shall.
It's not that I dislike Arab nationalism, just that I have to reconfigure my expectations when readng poems that participate in it, howver obliquely. Part of the (variously useful/frustrating) dislocation involved in reading across cultures.

8:36 AM  

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