Saturday, July 07, 2007

sarah maguire's 'the pomegranates of kandahar'

Guests at the launch of British poet Sarah Maguire’s latest collection “The Pomegranates of Kandahar”, at Daunt’s Books, West London, were treated to a bilingual reading of the title poem by Maguire and the renowned Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef. Saadi read his own Arabic translation of the poem, which appears in his collection of translations of Maguire’s poems published in Damascus. The title of the Arabic collection is “Haleeb Muraq”, the title of one of Maguire’s best known poems, “Spilt Milk”. Maguire is said to be the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic.

One of those attending the launch said that 73-year-old Saadi’s moving reading of the poem in Arabic made him think not only of Afghanistan but also of the bloodshed in Saadi’s native country. This is just one example of Maguire’s ability as a poet to cross national boundaries and address questions of universal concern.

The powerful title poem moves between the famed pomegranates of Kandahar and the deadly legacy of landmines in Afghanistan. The collection’s cover illustration is of a cluster not of fruit but of landmines, and of a pair of vulnerable bare feet. The picture is a reminder of the many Afghans, especially children, who have been injured by land mines. The poem ends by telling the reader to open a pomegranate with a knife and tease each “jellied cell” from its white fur of membrane “till a city explodes in your mouth / Harvest of goodness, / harvest of blood.”

Maguire has dedicated the new collection, published by Chatto & Windus, to Saadi Yousef who has lived in exile from Iraq since 1979 and has resided in London since the late 1990s. Maguire has written that he is “widely acknowledged as having had the deepest impact on poets now writing in Arabic today.” He is the most significant translator of poetry into Arabic, and his translations “have transformed the way in which poetry is written.”

Maguire is one of the most highly-regarded poets writing in English today. In recognition of the high caliber of “The Pomegranates of Kandahar”, the Poetry Book Society has chosen the volume as its Summer 2007 choice. As the poems in the collection confirm, Maguire is truly a poet of our times, in language that is at once precise and charged with mystery.

Maguire’s concerns range across the world, particularly the Middle East. She was the first writer sent by the British Council to Palestine (in 1996) and Yemen (1998). She has taken a particular interest in the work of Palestinian poets, working on translations of poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Zakariya Mohammed and Ghassan Zaqtan.

In 2004 Maguire founded, and became director of, the Poetry Translation Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. The centre’s collaborations between British poets and linguists have resulted in top-quality translations of work by poets from countries including Sudan, Somaliland, Mexico, India, South Korea and Peru.

Maguire has also jointly translated with the Afghan Yama Yari the novel “A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear” by Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi. The poem “Almost the Equinox” in her new collection is dedicated to Yama. In it she writes of sharing a walk in London with an Afghan friend. The “huge nave” of St Paul’s cathedral reminds her companion of the Great Mosque in Kabul, “sunlight falling on pillars of stone, the hushed intentness / of prayer. Shattered, war-torn, it’s still standing, /somehow, next to the river by the Bridge of Bricks, /just as Wren’s great dome once soared above the Blitz, / intact.” The poem’s lines “the constant pull of elsewhere / mooring us outside ourselves” have echoes elsewhere in the collection.

Maguire wrote “From Dublin to Ramallah” for Ghassan Zaqtan, at a time when the situation in the West Bank prevented him from travelling from Ramallah to Dublin for a poetry event. The defiant poem plays with images of water, which knows no boundaries. “And instead of a postcard, I post you a poem of water. / Subterranean subterfuge, / an indolent element that slides across borders, / as boundaries are eroded by the fluency of tongues.”

The plight of migrants caught up in the international tides of human traffic is the subject of “Passages”, which was shortlisted in the best single poem category of the Forward prize in 2005. The stimulus for the poem was a news report of a stowaway falling to his death from an aircraft which was coming in to land at Heathrow.

In the poem“Europe”, young men on the coast of Tangier at night, lured by the prospects in Europe, “climb these crumbling ramparts // and face north / like true believers, while the lighthouse of Tarifa blinks // and beckons, / unrolling its brilliant pavement across the pitiless Straits.”

Maguire’s poetry is deeply informed by her passion for, and expertise in, plants and gardening. Born in West London, Maguire trained as a gardener after leaving school, before going to university and later becoming a poet and broadcaster. She has been Poet in Residence at Chelsea Physic Garden in London, and at Hungercombe Place Young Offenders’ Institution.

Maguire’s first collection “Spilt Milk”, published in 1991, was followed by “The Invisible Mender” in 1997. Her 2001 collection “The Florist’s at Midnight” comprises poems about flowers and gardens. She has edited two plant-related anthologies: “A Green Thought in a Green Shade: Poetry in the Garden” (2000) and “Flora Poetica: The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse” (2001).

Some of the poems in “The Pomegranates of Kandahar” are directly related to botany, and imagery from the plant world is threaded throughout her work. “The Grass Church at Dilston Grove” was inspired by the work of two artists who sowed grass seeds all over the walls of a deconsecrated church. “Glaucium flavum” focuses on the adaptation of the yellow horned-poppy to the harsh saline environment of the coast near Sizewell nuclear power station.

Throughout her career as a poet Maguire has written compelling love poetry, and there are several memorable examples in her new collection, which portray the difficulties of love in these times of dislocation, separation and unease. The lover seizes moments of intense joy amidst periods of waiting and yearning, and the poems have an elegiac tenderness. “Vigil” begins: “Late June, the night air stitched with the scent of lime-blossoms./When you left, these trees were bare.” Later, the poet writes: “I measure out the cloth to sew a new cover for our bed:/ the warp and weft of fabric, its journeys, the places we will meet.” In “A Bowl of Transvaal Daisies”, the wilting over time of a bunch of these flowers, also known as gerberas, parallels the painful decline of a love affair.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette July 2 2007

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