Mary-Jane Holmes translates Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Arfa’ Ra’suh

And the Girl Sings. Girdle Poem # III

In my heart, something unspeakable,
something even tears can’t quench, while
her body –a mere footprint of flame.
Only my eyes are left to dream, to fuel
the embers from the ash of my chest.

Oh, what a fire to spend the night
alone in. Each creak of this bed echoes
the ache of this pulse. I have cried ‘Oh
my soul’ and that soul has melted amongst
the craters of this indifferent moon.

This indifferent moon, who desires
comparison to the sun, yet no adjective
exists for this, none. I am conscious
of nothing except the sideways glance
of what I hope to own but fear have lost.

I can’t let her escape me, I can’t allow
the censor see my right as wrong,
you are mine doncella, you are loved,
unclasp your sabre. Sleep well. No-
one, nothing should make you doubt.

What girl doesn’t fear her lover? What girl
doesn’t ask her mother what should she do?

And the girl sings:

He is ready to kill if I venture outside.
I see it in the burn of his gait, his eyes;
each small gesture I make, scrutinised.
Mother —tell me, what should I do?

translator’s note:

The Iberian Peninsula in medieval times was home to a society unique in the history of Western Europe. Al-Andalus, although by no means a democracy in the way one would think of it today, was a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together under a political system that advocated religious tolerance. One of the legacies of this multi-culturalism was a rich literary tradition including a complex form of Hispano-Arabic poetry called the Muwashshawah ( موشح‎) which translates in to English as ‘girdle’ poem, so-named because the individual stanzas were often linked by a refrain in the same way a belt might be linked by chains. The form is similar to the more well-known Ghazal.

The girdle poems of Al-Andalus were written almost exclusively by men in Hebrew and Arabic and often with an ending written in Andalusi Romance called a kharja or exit verse. It is thought that the kharjas were women-authored songs imitated or borrowed by their male counterparts. These exit sections are full of desire, they are often salacious and at times suggest sexual violence nearly always ignored by the male poetic voice. Modern scholars have attempted to reject the kharja as a representative of ‘feminine poetry’ and to down play the fact that a woman is protesting a male-imposed state of affairs. In so doing, there is a sense of silencing the female voice twice over – once by the initial action of the poet in appropriating the text and then by the scholar by calling into question its authenticity. Throughout history, women’s voices have remained largely unrecorded, primarily because they haven’t been deemed important enough to preserve but also because women were largely thwarted in their creative endeavours having limited access to a literary education. Their only recourse was to turn to the vernacular, the language of the street and wash houses, to songs and ballad, forms which sound refreshingly modern today in their concerns and approach. The kharjas do not disappoint in this regard – whether they are directed to lovers, confidants or mothers, they are frank and honest appeals that give us a glimpse into the life of women in medieval Andalusia, women whose words continue to reverberate today.

In this translation, I chose to dismantle the classical structure of the Muwashshawah but to retain a discipline pertaining to stanza length. There is a sense of the formal in the male poet’s language through use of classical metaphor as well as a sense of refrain through the use of repetition. The female led kharja stems from an early translation into Spanish that scholars dismissed because they deemed it too shocking. I have decided to reinstate that version here.

My hope is that through the act of interlinguistic transfer and the process of translation the female voice resists marginalisation and what emerges is a dialogue of equal standing between both the male and female voice.

Mary-Jane Holmes has been published in such places as Modern Poetry in Translation, Myslexia, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prole, The Tishman Review, The Lonely Crowd and The Best Small Fictions Anthology 2016 and 2018.

She is the winner of the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize, the Martin Starkie Poetry Prize, the Bedford International Poetry Prize and the Dromineer Fiction Prize. Her poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass was published by Pindrop Press in 2018. She is chief editor at Fish Publishing Ireland, consulting editor at The Well Review and Guest Editor at V Press. Mary Jane is currently studying for a PhD on resistance strategies in poetry. She holds an Mst. in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Arfa’ Ra’suh was a poet at the court of al-Ma’mun ibn Di-l-Num of Toledo, in the Taifa period of the 11th Century in what is now Andalusia, Spain.