Let Me Tell You What I Saw by Adnan-al-Sayegh, edited and translated by Jenny Lewis with Ruba Abugaida (Seren, 2020).
Reviewed by Jude Rosen
Denise Levertov referred to ‘translations which truly appear to have ferried poetry safely across from language to language’ but the more distant the languages and cultures are from each other, the more the translator needs to be steeped in the original and a poet able sympathetically to reimagine the poem in its new element. In this case, the poet, Adnan Al-Sayegh has reached across cultural and literary traditions combining classical Arabic poetry and textual references with modernist forms to translate his own experience of fighting for eight years in the Iran-Iran War and a year and a half detention in Abu Ghraib in his own country into a kind of international, intercultural anti-epic of epic proportions. In Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida he has found culturally erudite and gifted poet translators.
Set in the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, renowned as Gilgamesh, the original poem is called Uruk’s Anthem. Published here in part, under the title Let me tell you what I saw, it bears witness to the cruelty of the war and the dictator in power – ‘the Governor’ and his underlings – and mourns the physical, psychological and moral damage to the survivors and to the country. By juxtaposing high, low, official and vernacular registers, educated and crude voices from different centuries and places, the poem carries historical echoes of the inescapable burden of the country’s past – and links it to the litany of dictators from ancient Roman and Chinese emperors to Ghengis Khan to Hitler, whilst also retrieving words of resistance from Iraqi history.
As the title indicates, this is based on Adnan Al Sayegh’s first-hand testimony. Unlike dry documentary, it takes the form of vivid nightmare and surreal dream, invoking the terror of war and imprisonment: ‘…the sniper hiding under my eyelashes does not let me dream…’ (p.97) in counterpoint to childhood memory, lyrical landscapes and erotic encounters. Yet these do not escape the ravages of the war and terror, as it impacts on the inner life of mind and emotions, as well as outer world of nation and history, through a panoply of figures the poet encounters, invokes or recalls – fellow soldiers Al-Halaj, Kadhim Abed, and imprisoned Aboud, the torturer, the sniper, the General, the Governor, fleeting women, contemporary poets in the cafés, figures of myth like Orpheus and Cassandra, poets and sages from ancient Kurdish, Persian and Arab culture, and historical figures who defied those in power: a heretic, a water carrier, a serving maid.
The translators had to choose which elements of the language and poetic forms they could carry over from Arabic to English – as Jenny Lewis explains (p.187) direct address, bathos and anaphora are characteristic of Arabic poetry. They are also familiar enough to an English poetry audience from biblical, classical and modernist references.
The direct address is to God, torturer, world famous poets, country and sometimes it feels, to the wilderness. It works at different levels – putting the poet on intimate footing with the landscape, the nation and poets to register lament: ‘O my country… O my forbidden poems’; or sexual desire: ‘O girl blossoming under your student’s blouse’; or memory of childhood and the fields:
O river of our youth winding
between the mulberry orchards
and the secret police station.
The bathetic leaps in register from elevated or lyrical language to the common, profane or scatological often have crudely humorous and disquieting effects, as in this comic grotesque comparison of the treatment of troops now and then under the 9th C caliph:
If Al-Musta’in in Baghdad forgot
to give his troops their wages
they would have eaten him up
and shitted him out
on the roads.
The anaphora reiterate the poet as witness, as sufferer, as dreamer of a different place glimpsed and violated in the present. Through the variations, the poet stitches together contemporary and ancient, reportage and lyric, imagined and real:
I saw bugging devices
slipped into the cleavage of girls
[. . .]
I saw gardens made empty
by your absence
[. . .]
I saw time fall
from the high-rises.
I saw Khayyam
– In Shiraz’s bar–
sipping cups of existence
[. . .]
I saw my father sleeping
on his plough
and government thieves looting his stalks and songs.
In breaking the censor’s taboos, erotic moments are conjured up of sexual pleasure snatched from the jaws of war but the war also scars these moments leaving ‘decayed human beings’. The male gaze in dream and recall draws on a narrow range of images of women as youthful innocents – shy, giggling, blossoming, ‘with a chest like a full moon’, (p.71) as luring temptresses in transparent chiffon or ‘with lust hissing in her black eyes’(p.113) or, as hardened and heartless – e.g. in the historic invocation of the eighth century slave girl, Al-Khaizaran, whose marriage to the caliph made power go to her head (p.105). Wives or partners are largely and tellingly absent – not only owing to physical separation due to the war, but also in the imagined forms of desire. However, here is a poignant invoking of the figure of dead wife and child in a moment of moral reflection on what the sniper and he, himself, as a soldier have in common:
. . . each is carrying the death of the other in his
palms… do you hear me you doltish sniper: each carries between his
gripping fingers and the gun trigger, a widow and an orphan.
Endless questioning and lament run through the whole poem sometimes to the point of despair – ‘O night, when will morning come?’ (p.87) – returning the poem to ancient expressions of grief and the contemporary ever-present terror and fear: ‘Who guarantees – in this world – a life caught in the cross-hairs / of a sniper?’ (p.111) However, mental defiance alternates with despair in surreal juxtapositions of the violence with small acts of everyday life: ‘From the flour of bombs / we make the delicious bread of life/and we milk the mirage …’ (p.121) and touches of lucidity and dark humour co-exist with but also counter the horror: ‘The war smokes you like a cigarette lit from / dog-ends in the colonels’ mouths… And are the years that fall out before our teeth do – mistakes?’(p.125).
The poem also carries a self-reflective commentary on poetry and the status of poets:
– of the ambition of his poem:
into an anthem to Uruk
that is the sum
of the earth
[. . .]
It’s for me to turn the millstone of words
to grind my soul for a girl drinking coffee in the morning,
to see other than the blue of this sky, a sky for your shining eyes
behind the iron of prisons and melancholy songs.
We suffer because poems last forever.
– of his treatment as a poet:
I shall be cursed by the critics for this bitter babbling.
The doors of publishers will slap my face.
I’ll be stoned by poets.
– and turning the joke onto the ‘official poets’:
of the General’s shoes, whose heads are filled with cow-muck.
– of his alienation from his homeland that has turned poetry into his sole refuge:
(there’s no home for me
except the shade of a poem,
which I throw to the ground like a mat to sleep on)
As it is published as a bilingual translation in free verse, Jenny Lewis chose to mirror the line lengths and layout of the original. Some indentations and line breaks are spaced like a stairway down, in what is primarily finely phrased, prose lineation that gives the poem a wonderfully relaxed English diction. Some lines are italicised – quotations from ancient poets, caliphs or sages, contemporary snatches of dialogue with fellow soldiers, men and women on the street, lines of poetry the poet shouts out to others – or voices recalled inside his own head, reminiscent of David Jones’ extraordinary interchange between the external and internal worlds capturing the horror and mental fragmentation of the First World War in the divergent voices, snatches of conversation and song and intrusions of myth and history in In Parenthesis (not a direct influence though, as the poet did not know Jones’ work at the time the poem was being written). You have to work quite hard as a reader, if not versed in Arab history and culture, to take in the cultural references on initial reading. Yet looking up footnotes is a familiar modernist enhancement of the text, that enables the reader, at least partially, to bridge the gap between cultural worlds and deepen understanding of the work, if so wished. Here it is a necessity.
Just as the translators chose to carry over certain features that give the poem a classical Arabic feel in English yet make it familiar, through strong visual images, as a modernist dream-cum-nightmare… inevitably other features of the Arabic poem have been lost. At the online book launch by Seren, the publisher, Adnan Al -Sayegh read from the original and it became clear that meter and rhythm play an equally vital role as the surreal flow of images in the poem in Arabic. Indeed there is an ironic reference to one of the meters in the text: ‘She pressed a button and the elevator/moved to the rhythm of Mutadarik. / It was the most beautiful poem in the history of poetry.’(p.91)
The original poem as the poet and translator have explained, has an interplay of mutaqarib and mutadarik in the text –the one with short unstressed syllables either side of a stressed one (similar to the amphibrach in English) with a slow, even pace, deployed in the dreamy, reflective and philosophical sections of the poem, the other more insistent, swifter, percussive rhythm with the two unstressed syllables either side of a faster stressed beat with the following unstressed syllable shorter, giving it an earthier, more urgent and embodied feel, used in sections of the poem more actively engaged with the violence and its effects.
Yet though the specific Arabic meters and music are lost, Let me tell you what I saw, is a wonderfully achieved translation, reimagining a great anti-war epic, or more accurately an anti-epic in a vivid, haunting English with a diction, pitch and music of its own that conveys a wide range of questions, hopes, ironies, griefs and other emotions in their full historical breadth and tragi-comic absurdity.
 Some Affinities of Content, (1991) in New & Selected Essays, New Directions, 1992 p.12.