archives spring 2008



Gates to the Sky, but They Are Narrow

I will not defile my face feigning optimism.
I will spread the board of my chest for the birds
coming from sea or desert and I will exhale
a bundle of living smoke. Then I will stop speaking.

The heart was stubborn,
a boy with reckless hair
stumbling through night’s dilapidated branches.
The city had not yet become
a losing bet.
They usually shot hot lead between the eyes of
the horse that lost. My cramped fingers
did not obey me,
but reached for a net of emptiness
or a grave without a corpse.
I touched a hand made of pliable steel.
I did not fire.
The city was drowning
in the sound of neighing.

Where does sadness go, where do cigarettes
if the cafés disappear?
The small poets,
their foam,
and their impartial criticism,
and the stories suitable only for diaries of wretchedness…
Where will you establish you fabled kingdom, dear dream?
Cafés are more rooted here
than fingernails are in fingers.
So what is the harm in this?

The heart is a morsel of rare sponge.
It cannot shield itself from tremors
coming at it from all directions.
The city had not yet become a raised sword
and despair is the widest of the sky’s narrow gates.

I will not defile my face feigning optimism
to please the wife and the seven neighbors.
Sadness, the horse most likely to win,
met me on the road
and reached out his dark, veined hand to me.
I reached out my hand too
and we laughed together:
The city’s night is long
without those celestial bodies
made of phosphate and human flesh.
And the cafés, though they are pavilions
of bad poetry and impartial criticism
and the ever smoked cigarettes,
are low stones, rest places
for the birds coming from the dessert
or from the sea.

Amman smells of horses
and of the lone shirt hung in the widow’s wardrobe.
Amman smells like tired bodies.
I recall:
         Was the Arab Bank
         close to where the river shrank,
         close to dawn’s first spark?
         Was it far from my heart?
They begin to tremble those fingers pointing to the sky.
No . . . It was a summer whose fires would not be put out,
a time of collapse.

In a moment the scene takes shape:
leather bags, different sizes
and contents,
faces that go long
and cloud up,
features that take the shape of cramped muscles.
The train heads north or south,
no difference.
The long whistles
become a thin, agitated
And the scene folds upon itself.

Cities more distant than this dream,
this whistling will never reach you.


A Song and Three Questions

Talk is silver,
poetry is gold,
and women are the ringing of both metals.
will be our songs from now on.
Let’s start then without borrowings or embellishments
and look at the living things between us
with an eye for praise.
Let the song
celebrate our contentedness
and those joys only shepherds know,
whose song and the smell of their armpits
have spread
among goat paths and scrub grass
and who have disappeared never to return.

Shall we blow into a silver trumpet?
But how can shepherds live without songs
and sheep
and desires?
No, we’ll sing,
How could there be shepherds without horses and violins
and wounds that never heal?

Talk is silver,
poetry is gold,
and women are the ringing of both metals.
Poetry will be our songs from now on.
Let’s dedicate them
to those who will never return,
to the shepherds of freckled dawns,
to the chants dressed in wedding clothes,
to the women who loved the fiercest stags
and who preferred the Eros of copper,
spring grasses and buried wells,
falcons and night predators and the tiger of Arabia,
cymbals, bayonets, skiffs and saddles,
studded with the blood of the tribes,
the shouts of young lads yet to learn how to
tame their mares,
and the flight of whole tribes from open country
pulling hard at iron bits.

And even further than that—
broken flutes
and hollow bones
will surprise us with three questions:
How much time has passed?
Have the old wounds healed?
What names are still in use?
How do we answer?
Will it be enough to say,
Talk is silver, poetry is gold
and women are the ringing of both metals
and poetry will be our language from now on?

Fellow shepherds, let’s dig into our bowls filled to the brim.
Let us begin our chants. 


Amjad Nasser was born in 1955 in al-Turra, Jordan. From 1976 he worked as a journalist in television and newspapers, then in the cultural section of Al-Hadaf journal in Beirut, and in Cyprus was arts editor of Al-Ufuq magazine. Since 1987 he has been Arts Editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily newspaper in London. Nasser has published nine collections of poetry, a travel book, and a memoir. Volumes of his selected poems have been translated into French and Italian, appearing in 1998 and 2000.

Khaled Mattawa is the author of two books of poetry, Zodiac of Echoes (Ausable Press, 2003) and Ismailia Eclipse (Sheep Meadow Press, 1996). He has translated five books of contemporary Arab poetry by Saadi Youssef, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Hatif Janabi, and Maram Al-Massri, and co-edited two anthologies of Arab American literature. Mattawa has been award the PEN award for literary translation, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Alfred Hodder fellowship from Princeton University, an NEA translation grant, and two Pushcart prizes. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Best American Poetry, and many other journals. Mattawa was born in Libya and came to the United States in his teens.