06 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/14

Take all the books
That I read in my childhood,
Take all my school notebooks,
Take the chalk,
The pens,
And the blackboards,
But teach me a new word
To hang like an earring
On my lover's ear.

I want new fingers
To write in another way,
High like masts of ships,
Long like a giraffe's neck
So I can tailor for my beloved
A garment of poetry.

Nizar Qabbani, translated from the Arabic by Bassam K. Frangieh & Clementina R. Brown

Love poetry may be the most familiar of all types of poetry – in fact, I suspect that when a lot of people mention poetry what they really mean is love poetry. And so though each lover's love feels unique and radiantly special to him or her, to the reader it can all start to blur indistinguishably. Out of this dilemma Qabbani forms a distinctive love poem. He starts off by offering to surrender all the things that made him a user of language (that is, a poet): the books he read in childhood, the notebooks in which he did his lessons, the usual classroom equipment. But in exchange he asks for a new word. He doesn't specify what type of word, exactly, but it's clear from his simile (to hang like an earring / On my lover's ear) that it is a word related to his love. It must be stylish, beautiful, and valued, like the jewelry you would give someone you love, and it must hang by her ear, where she can always hear it whispering his message. Though others may see this word – it glitters right there from her earlobe – it really belongs only to her. In a delicate way, it pierces her flesh.

This word he seeks, the word that can express the love he feels, cannot be found in the standard vocabulary he learned in his childhood (perhaps there's an implication there that now that he feels love as a man, he cannot use a boy's vocabulary?). He clearly values the language he was taught and the books he read: as mentioned earlier, they're what formed him as a poet, and they're what he is using to write this poem; he must call on them even to express their own inadequacy. But they are not enough to express his elusive ecstasy. He feels that even his fingers need to be replaced to write as he wishes; he wants to change his body so that his fingers are almost comically high and long – covering vast areas, striking and graceful. He compares the fingers he would need to produce this new way of writing to the masts of ships (bringing to mind the voyages and explorations of old sailing ships, a way of adventuring into the unknown) and to the necks of giraffes (graceful, elegant, and undulating, belonging to creatures that walk gently on the earth).

These are striking and unusual comparisons – perhaps a movement towards the new language he needs to demonstrate his love. But they also hearken back to a very old tradition of Middle Eastern poetry, one that indicates love by comparisons to fruitful, bounteous things of the earth, which often leads to striking and even surreal images. This tradition is probably most familiar to English-language readers from the Song of Solomon: "Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves' eyes within thy locks; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them." (Song of Solomon, Chapter 4, verses 1 - 2, King James translation). In the final lines of Qabbani's poem, the speaker's love mounts to such a pitch that he no longer wants just a word to hang in his beloved's ear; he wants to clothe her in an entire outfit spun of radiant poetry. He both implies and refutes the impossibility of finding new ways of expressing things that are universal and yet also individual.

Nizar Qabbani was a twentieth-century Syrian poet. I took this from the new anthology Arabic Poems, edited by Marlé Hammond, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series. It includes the original Arabic on the facing page of each poem, if you can read that language (sadly, I can not).

And since this is National Poetry Month, here comes your annual reminder: with every poem I post I include a link to a place where you can purchase the book in which I found that poem. If you enjoy something I post, please buy the book if you can. The best way to show support for publishers who still issue poetry and to ensure its continued survival in our commercial society is to buy books of poems. You could do a whole lot worse than going to the Everyman's site and selecting any of their Pocket Poet series. I only have a few of their volumes dedicated to individual poets (I tend to favor buying complete works rather than selections), but I have many of their anthologies and can vouch for the thoughtfulness and care that go into both their selections and their design – they are handsome and enjoyable books to hold and read.

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