Monday, August 10, 2009
jordanian poet amjad nasser's 'shepherd of solitude'
A Bedouin wind blows in the ‘Shepherd of Solitude’
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 10 August 2009
The collection “Shepherd of Solitude: Selected Poems 1979-2004” is the first selection of works by Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser to be translated from Arabic to English and published in book form. Its publication provides an opportunity for English-language readers to encounter the work of an acclaimed poet who is regarded as an important voice in contemporary Arab literature.
The volume, newly published by Banipal Books, comprises 56 poems from seven of Nasser’s published collections translated by the Libyan-born scholar, poet and translator Khaled Mattawa. The translator also provides an invaluable 24-page introduction, which is full of insights into Nasser’s work and his place in modern Arabic poetry.
The collection covers Nasser’s work over the quarter of a century between his first collection “Praise for Another Cafe”, published in 1979 and the 2004 volume “Life Like a Broken Narrative”. The prominent American poet, critic and teacher Alfred Corn writes on the book’s back cover: “Confronted with the problem of finding a voice that honors tradition as it opens new ground, Nasser has developed an unusually wide expressive range.” His poems “manage ingeniously to blend what he calls ‘the Bedouin accent’ with European literary Modernism.”
Nasser was born in the Jordanian town of Mafraq in 1955, in a community of recently-settled Bedouin. He adopted the name by which he is known when he decided to become a poet and to leave home. He went first to Amman, and then in 1977 to Beirut which was then in the throes of civil war but was where he was exposed to exciting new currents in Arab poetry.
A supporter of the Palestinian cause, he left Beirut in 1982 when the Palestinian resistance was expelled from the city. He lived and worked in Cyprus, and then moved in 1987 to London where he is the cultural editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. This history of repeated displacement and exile, and its link with the wider Arab experience past and present, has profoundly marked Nasser’s work.
The title of the selection is derived from the title of Nasser’s 1986 third collection “Shepherds of Solitude”. Khaled Mattawa points out that the word “shepherd” resonates in, and even haunts, Nasser’s poetry. In some poems Nasser is “like a shepherd watching over a flock of wayward, reckless versions of himself. He gives these selves free rein to act out their crises and victories, and they in turn reveal to him various shades of the glory and folly of human nature. Their flaws recounted and noted, he shepherds them home at the end of the day and closes the stable door behind him.”
The lengthy poem “Shepherds of Solitude” is the highlight of the collection. It tells of the poet’s departure from his village and the beginnings of his wanderings, and is at the same time a narrative of the Bedouin past, alluding to its values and ancient poets.
Nasser’s translator Khaled Mattawa was born in Benghazi in 1964 and emigrated to the USA in 1979. He is the award-winning author of three published poetry collections, with a fourth due to be published next year.
He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has served as president of the Radius of Arab American Writers Inc (RAWI). Mattawa has translated seven volumes of works by leading contemporary Arab poets including Saadi Youssef, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Maram Al-Massri and Hatif Janabi, and has co-edited two anthologies of Arab American literature.
His beautiful renderings of Nasser’s poems capture the potency and striking imagery of the originals, and have compelling rhythmic structures.
The poems display a biting wit. In “Lampoon”, the poet compares himself to “a broken-hearted falcon” or a “toothless storm”. He refuses to “fantasize about the Arabs’ great conquests” or to “weep over the Pyrenees”. Instead, he will remember “the bribes of gold and silver”, the “hunger on desert plains” and the “brigands and stags that came to drink from my wounded palm”.
While there are recurring themes in Nasser’s work, each of his collections has a distinctive character, reflecting the poet’s odyssey. In the fifth volume, “Joy to All who See You”, the emphasis is on love between man and woman. The subsequent collection, “The Ascent of Breath”, was inspired by the poet’s visit to Andalusia in the early 1990s. It revolves around the last Moorish king of Andalusia, Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Saghir. The poems include “Farewell to Granada”.
In “The House After her Death” the poet writes of his four sisters’ efforts to keep his dead mother’s house as it was. There are the same rituals of coffee in the mornings, ginger at midday and mint in the evenings: “At my family’s home you do not need a watch/The scent will tell you the sun’s place in the sky.” In a related elegiac poem, memories are triggered by his discovery of the family’s old Phillips radio.
Other poems in the seventh volume are set in London. “The Ring from Karouan” is a tribute to the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef who has been such an influence on other Arab poets and who, like Nasser, has settled in London.
The prose poem “An Ordinary Conversation About Cancer” is dedicated to the late Saudi journalist and photographer Salih al-Azzaz who died of a brain tumor in 2002.
Two other prose poems feature an elderly woman neighbor with whom the poet is on chatting terms. She is convinced the poet is Indian, despite his reminders that he is from Jordan.