The skin of the black cow is stretched, stretched without setting to dry, stretched on a septuple shadow.
But who was it struck the black cow, dead without mooing, dead without lowing, dead without being pursued through that prairie, flowered by stars? She who lies on the half of the sky.
Stretched is the skin on the sound-box of wind that have sculpted the spirits of sleep.
And the tambourine’s ready when gladiola-encrowned are the horns of sacred cow who gallops and gazes on hill-grass.
It shall resound and its chants become dreams until the black revives white and rose, ‘fore a light-flow.
Old Songs From the Lands of Imerina #1
—Tell, O young sisters, who rest amid-road on that mountain, below: what she told you of my proposal, Great Sister at the foot of the coast? —“I am bathed in the time of replanting,” (she said for the first-born son) “and thus I cannot come like the rest.” —These are the words of one already forgetting: but for me, still sorrowed, this cannot be the word! The rice itself sorrows for food, O young sisters; and thinking of her takes my sleep! Since I’ve been bereft of this, my woman, how I’m a fool, and unable to count! Two children turn three, three children turn two! How shall I come to the highest renounce? —”Chew, chew, an end of your lamba; drink, drink, from the hot-water pot; push, push, a huge block of rock, and go the peak of the tomb, for there are hid five unspeakable men, seven women despoiled of jewels.” —I’ll go to mark the bounds, so earth sends back this woman: leaving Ambohimanga towards South; leaving Tananarive towards North. If later I’ve searched and never found, if later I’ve asked and never obtained, I shall return to consult you again.
In the Shade of the Ficus #38
I am a bull from Idilo’s foot. When I come forth, how much attention! When I compete, how many bets! When I have won, how much applause! Those who regard me: all here regard me. Those who applaud me, applaud me as one.
But come to Babay, they don’t offer water to drink, nor grass to graze. I’ve known naught but stoning, but rod-blows, but thick cords. For they’ve made me trample the paddies, whacking me all round my body; they’ve made me sleep on the mud, and, in the end, they’ve sold me.
Ah! Make me live near Iarive, there, where all are breeders, lovers of cows, spreaders of straw!
Take me there, where I want to live, where fertile’s the land. Take me to Iarive’s summit, where the beautiful’s loved, where the perfect’s respected; take me there, where I’ll live off the roars, where I’ll feed on applause, I, whose charms are flattery.
I descend from you savage bulls, I descend from you feral bulls, I am truly the grandson of you powerful bulls! Don’t come with hands to make me move on, to make me get back on my way: I am a bull from Idilo’s foot!
Rabearivelo was in love with the French language, “a key that grants access to all the treasures” of world literature. Yet Madagascar was not among these treasures; it was still a “sealed garden” to the world. By means of French, Rabearivelo wished to offer the world the “amphora of jade” containing Madagascar’s “wine, pure but heavy, / wherein I’ve placed my heart’s blood.”
For most of his short life, he strove to do this by means of his original French poetry; at first, he wrote like the early Apollinaire, modernist in style, yet with traditional rhyme and meter, though often with Malagasy subjects. But he later came to write in a free verse style—as his Malagasy poetry had always been—and his style became weirder, often described as “surrealist.” The collection Translated From the Night (1935)—written in both French and Malagasy—is the most famous of this period, alongside Almost-Dreams (1934).
Near the end of his life, he dove deeper into Malagasy tradition, and he prepared his three collections of translated and adapted Malagasy folk songs (hainteny): Old Songs from the Lands of Imerina, In the Shade of the Ficus, and On the Royal Valiha. None were published in his lifetime. One of his final journal entries, written less than a half hour before he took his fatal cyanide, begs a friend to have the Old Songs published (which he did).
These three collections are far removed from the structured verse of his early period. Old Songs is written as prose-poems, while the other two collections are in free verse, as is Translated from the Night. In my translations, each line is a designed to be read in a single breath, followed by a pause, while the indentations (inspired by the triadic verse of William Carlos Williams) provide a phrase- or sentence-level super-structure, often emphasizing the parallelism of the poems. My line divisions do not always match Rabearivelo’s; I sometimes divide his longer lines into shorter ones.
A note on Malagasy words and places: a lamba is a piece of fabric, of various forms, won on top of other clothing; it could often be translated shroud. Ambohimanga and Tananarive (also called Antananarivo or Iarive) are, respectively, the former and current capitals of Madagascar. Idilo and Babay are both mountains. Imerina is the region of the Merina people, in the central highlands of Madagascar; by conquest, the Kingdom of Imerina came to control almost the entire island, before the French invasion and colonization in 1897 (only a few years before Rabearivelo’s birth).
The texts are taken from the critical edition of Rabearivelo’s works, edited by Serge Meitinger, Laurence Ink, Liliane Ramarosoa, and Claire Riffard (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012); for the poem from Old Songs, I have incorporated a few variant phrases found in Rabearivelo’s manuscripts.
Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (1903-1937) was a poet, playwright, and novelist from Madagascar, writing in both French and Malagasy. Though he grew up poor and was unable to finish his schooling, he educated himself and became an editor of journals and poetry anthologies at a publishing house. After a series of professional and personal misfortunes—including the death of his daughter and stint in jail for failing to pay taxes—he committed suicide while embracing a family photo album and blowing kisses to the books of Baudelaire.
B.P. Otto is a translator, poet, author, and homemaker whose work has previously appeared in The Lyric.
How death creates a dead man and his image A poem in 43 lines
a number of dead is a number full of creatures during the news one morning we think of cemeteries in the sun of people pouring small drops on cracked lips of people cleaning the dead the earth breathes between the dead the earth is long a dead man greets the earth with his dead shoulder the larvae the worms like a durable garment to tamp down the earth go back to the darkness like a fine powder on the bodies of the living do the ears of the deaf open in a coffin light is transferred we never see light we see what it illuminates we don’t see what makes us see maybe light has understood blood is only a puddle inside the dead bodies evaporate in the slowness the calm then the ghosts go hide in the bricks the cement the souls of the living I wanted to hold your face on a single finger the floor of the dead above our thoughts each time a person dies another doesn’t die the stomachs of the dead launder like the stock market I think of nothing in a single space between seconds some saliva a tooth a canine gathers the bones the small creatures I distribute molecules at random with my mouth I imagine maggots longer than me a hand owns nothing a family of insects we bury the dead man with three thousand two hundred shovels the adult insects show the young ones the proper way to eat a dead man a piece of gravel stuck under a nail an insect wing in the cold surrounded by frost the dead don’t have a memory anymore each corpse looks like a corpse each corpse imitates a corpse
How bread gathers people A poem in 66 lines
calm white wounds calm easy wounds and the evening calmly
mix bread with bread water with water just mix flour with an idea the soul reeks
when I was younger I had a basket I put everything I lost inside it my fingernails my old strands of hair the scabs I pulled off I put dead skin teardrops saliva I put everything I slept next to my basket I wished it good night honestly sometimes I even kissed it sometimes I grasped my basket in the dark the world started to overflow stuck in a room with its substances like living in a bag made of itself
I write the words WHITE BOAR in the search bar I think it looks like me the hand sighs the bread sighs as a kid I destroyed the walls of the house I scratched with forks with a hammer I destroyed I thought there must be something good behind something else
imagine bread as a fetus its eyelids hold themselves up the world is simple and no one crosses paths
everything sleeps everything is guided I dream that I’m working I dream that I’m cutting a body at work I dream that I’m taking care of patients in my work I cut in my dreams in my work the parasite is long I open it up stretch out your hands and something happens in the flour my gestures were bathed in silence my gestures bathed in darkness the gesture in a density you can’t grasp in silence you fumble you create a form inside bread you find a feeling the flour looks like the bodies the ghosts it looks like almost everything it looks like a group of nurses running around a patient
in reality things don’t speak bread doesn’t speak lick to learn if you put a baby on a road it ends up licking children lick the road the crumbs on roads children suck on things they gather children put substances inside their bodies eyes assembled into one inside their skulls to carry things outside themselves
a woman walks around with her organs in her hand she carries her organs in a bag in her hand she says: I’m leaving soon she says: I won’t be late I’m not going to be late
Vazquez published these poems in 2020 during the heights of the pandemic, and they explore the fear, anxiety, and isolation of that time. The cycle is comprised of ten poems, and these pieces are the fifth and sixth. The repeated elements of theses texts are representative of the whole series, which for me, explore an active mind in isolation and the potential of the anxiety spiral as a poetic form. The looping final lines of “How death creates a dead man and his image” present an example of Vazquez’s repetition as a vehicle for describing trauma: “the dead don’t have a memory anymore each corpse/looks like a corpse each corpse/imitates a corpse.” The repetition of the word “corpse” and the idea that each corpse is an imitation expresses a quality of alienation, a numbness at the sheer magnitude of death that the author has witnessed.
As a translator who works with many different styles, I feel a particular frenetic intensity when I translate Vazquez’s work. The first draft of the English flies from my hands, and I am easily swept up in the rhythm of her lines. This is something I often sense in the work of poets, such as Vazquez, who are also performers. This physicality and musicality to Vazquez’s work vibrate in the translation experience, and I hope the readers of her work in English feel this energy as well.
Laura Vazquez is a French poet and novelist who lives in Marseille. She has written five collections of poetry in addition to her novel, The Endless Week, and her poems have been translated into Chinese, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian, Dutch, German, Italian, and Arabic. In 2014, she received the Prix de la Vocation for her first collection of poetry, and she regularly gives readings around the world. Her work has been supported by many institutions, including the Michalski Foundation, and she gives masterclasses in writing at the International Poetry Center in Marseille, L’École supérieure d’art in Aix-en-Provence, and several other establishments in France and Belgium. Photo by Daniele Molajoli.
Alex Niemi is a writer and translator from French, Russian, and Spanish. She is the translator of For the Shrew by Anna Glazova (Zephyr Press, 2022) and The John Cage Experiences by Vincent Tholomé (Autumn Hill Books, 2020), as well as the author of the poetry chapbook Elephant (dancing girl press, 2020). Her poetry and translations have appeared in Asymptote, Columbia Journal, The Hopkins Review, The Los Angeles Review, and The Offing, among other publications.
My name is Mohammed Pirjawi Unnab Jaliledin Osrama Lumary. Jacobo, to my friends in Barcelona. Throughout the seventies and better part of the eighties, everyone called me by that new fake name. Even my mother, who lived and still lives in the desert that spans Palestine and Jordan, called me Jacobo. She was confused at first, then resigned. Why Jacobo? Basically, because of the minor but frequent altercations I got into during my years in the City of Countsin Catalonia. Because of those little adventures, I made more visits to police stations than to the university, which was the real reason for my being in Barcelona.
What I remember most from the stations is the walls. They were some indefinite color, peeling, and they reeked of urine. Inside the station you heard shouts, insults, moans, expectorations. After my first visit, though, none of the chaos seemed strange to me. One day at the station, a cop who barely understood me asked me to identify myself. The friend I was detained with told him I was a Jew named Jacobo. As with all Palestinians, the fact that I was stateless meant that I had some provisional documents at my disposal. On that occasion I took out a document issued by the occupying Israeli forces. The policeman barely glanced at it. On the front page it said “ISRAEL” in big letters. That word facilitated my national cross-dressing. I still didn’t get out of having to spend the night at the station on Conde del Asalto Street, though.
It was clear that my compatriots’ ignorance and my own regarding the severity of the Franco regime gave wings to our mischief. We never even thought of Franco’s guys as the police. Contrary to what we were accustomed to in our land, here you hardly ever saw police on the street. It cracked us up when the officers would make that anticipatory salute to any citizen who approached them to ask a question. We tested this on more than one occasion, without any other reason for going up to them, just to confirm that yes, they would greet us that way, too. Surprising.
I was a good immigrant back then. I still am, albeit in another corner of the world, and will continue to be, a good immigrant. I’m referring more to “immigrant” than to “good.” Anyway, being a good immigrant, I immediately adopted a new identity when Franco died and democracy, autonomous governments, and the recuperation of Catalan identity and language arrived in Spain. I exchanged my unintelligible surnames, which belonged to ancient and legendary Palestinian families, for one that was much shorter but also more incisive and convincing. Initially, I didn’t know how I would do it. My first name, Mohammed, was given to me in honor of the prophet, and so it was untouchable. On the other hand, it pained me to lose any of my surnames, each of which represented my belonging to the honor and glory of the lineage. It finally occurred to me to do the following: I took the first letter of each surname and put them one after another. So, from the first surname, “Pirjawi,” I took the “p,” from the second, “Unnab,” the “u,” and so on and so forth. Imagine my surprise when I read them all together: Pujol. Yes, yes, it was that simple. “Hallelujah! Allah is great!” I exclaimed. A more harmonious integration of identities would have been impossible.
It took my friends a long time to stop calling me Jacobo, now my ex-fake name, and get used to the new name, no less contrived than the first, though slightly more logical. Thanks to my will and insistence, however, they ended up calling me by my name: Mohammed Pujol. At least, they called me that whenever I was around.
When I was filing my petition for a name change after the transition to democracy, I confess that the idiotic expression on the face of the civil registry official really bothered me. Looking at his round, red, oily face, I could tell he wanted to wring my neck, or at least tell me to go fuck myself. Sitting behind the counter, he began to mumble and curse in Spanish, “change Jorge to Jordi, amen, María de las Nieves to Neus, sure, but change this mess of a name to Pujol—that’s too much! Don’t get me started! I’ve had it up to here with Polacks and their BS about being Catalan. And now, just what I needed: I’m supposed to Catalanize the Moors!”
I heard everything he was muttering and, in a subtle but intimidating tone of voice, hinted that I would report him for being anti-Catalan. The man, a little confused, began to soften his tone. As it softened, I pressed him even more. He finally processed my petition, sending it along for a judge to rule on whether or not to change my name to Mohammed Pujol. Naturally, I didn’t leave until the civil servant had given me a receipt for the petition that bore the new name I was requesting. Aside from wanting me out of his sight, I’m sure he also gave me the receipt because he was more than convinced that my petition would go nowhere.
I began a new phase of my life with that receipt. I never learned the judge’s decision, and the truth is I didn’t care. I got through all my day-to-day activities thanks to the receipt. Hoping to make things easier for myself, I greeted Catalans as Mr. Pujol, and my compatriots as Mohammed. But life is very cruel and stubborn: in an ironic twist, Catalans would call me by the name Mohammed, which they still haven’t learned to pronounce, and my fellow countrymen, not without sarcasm, called me “en Pujol.” Yes, “en Pujol,” in polished Catalan, and not “el Pujol,” like most Catalans would say. Anyways, what can you do. I guess you can’t just go around using whatever name you want when you live among Catalans and Moors.
Years have passed since all that. Things have changed a lot, especially for me. Even so, it’s worth remembering the historical and personal convulsions from that time, with their treasure trove of knowledge and stories. Being a Palestinian in Catalonia allowed me to see clearly not only the reality of the end of the dictatorship and of the Transition to Democracy, but also the truth of the lives of a cast of characters who would become my Catalan family. Above all, it allowed me to star in a thousand episodes that were lightyears from what I could have imagined as a young man back in the desert. Everything I am going to explain here really happened, to me or to those around me. Does that make this a biographical novel? Yes, for the most part. I must emphasize that biographical does not necessarily mean autobiographical, however. The whores, the friends, the police commissioner, the Senyora, the bothersome neighbor… all of them have names and surnames, but their real identities don’t matter. What matters is what all of us experienced those years we were together.
I got some empty cardboard boxes from the patio to make a table, on the theory that good presentation is one of the pillars of culinary pleasure. It was a bit low, but it went with the sofas I had fashioned from some pillows. The Senyora and I had never used a table or chairs in the Bedouin hideout. I set the table with white towels and two white plates. I placed glasses—simple, with tasteful engravings—in front of the plates, a fork to the left of each plate, and a knife to the right. Forgetting nothing, I put down a small vase with two roses, and a candle off to the side.
I let her know dinner was ready. She emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a towel and began to dry herself in front of the mirror, humming. I didn’t move from where I stood. It was a delight to watch her sing and sway like a mermaid. Mesmerized, I shamelessly looked at every inch of her body. She let herself be gazed at with satisfaction.
Taking her hand, I escorted her to the table. I invited her to sit and made her wait a bit before surprising her with the dish I’d prepared.
“Wow!” she exclaimed, “where did you get the table?”
“I knew where to look.”
“I can imagine. And it’s so nicely laid. Where did you learn that, Bedouin?”
I was too embarrassed to talk about my job at the restaurant and the money problems I was having. “At the restaurants where I have dinner,” I replied from the kitchen, adding the finishing touches to the beans.
She went around the table discreetly adjusting the tableware as we talked. She asked me if I had prepared soup. I said no. She removed the spoon and changed the position of the knife so that the sharp part faced the plate, and not away from the plate, the way I had left it.
“These roses smell great!” she said, switching around the vase and candlestick.
I returned with plates and, setting them down, noticed the changes to the table. I fell silent, cautious. As I thought about it, I realized that the changes she had made were correct. The dancing flame of the candle at the center of the table spread its light evenly over the details, the most beautiful of which was her angelical, glowing face.
“Do you think that’s too much light? This candle is so bright.”
“I had it on the side of the table and you moved it to the center,” I said.
“Sorry. It’s just that having it on the side isn’t aesthetically pleasing. And this might sound silly, but having it there also goes against the rules of table setting.”
“Then let’s break the rules and move the candle,” I suggested. “It’s not like we’re dealing with famous candles of Caliph Al-Ma’mun.”
“That name sounds familiar. I think you’ve mentioned him before.”
She took a bite from her plate.
“It’s thanks to him that you and I are here.”
“I don’t understand what you mean… Hey, this is good!”
“Yes, you do! Al’Ma’mun was the caliph that spared the lives of the hedonist prince and his—”
“Oh yeah! And his concubine, Badi,” she interrupted me excitedly.
“Did you forget how you’re Badi now?”
“I didn’t forget. But I didn’t remember the name of the caliph. So what happened with the candles?”
“During his wedding celebration, which lasted forty days, he ordered that candles weighing six hundred kilos each be set up around the palace. He changed night into day in order to please his beloved and future wife.”
The Senyora rested her head in the palm of her hand. “How romantic, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but the faithful were very critical of this.”
“That makes sense, because it must have been wasteful.”
“No! It wasn’t because of the waste; it was because of the blasphemy. Some religious leaders argued that the Qu’ran says that only Allah can turn night to day. Wastefulness had nothing to do with it. The candles were nothing compared to the gifts that the caliph handed out to his friends and to the people.”
“Who gives and who receives the presents at weddings in your world?”
“In Moorland, we—”
“What did you say?”
“Moorland. The land of the Moors. The other Arab students and I get a kick out of calling it Moorland. It’s like England, Holland, Disneyland… Moorland comes from Moor, which is what you all like to call us, and land, which means—”
“I know what land means. But don’t you realize that the word ‘Moor’ has derogatory connotations?”
“What does ‘connotation’ mean?”
She clarified what she meant.
“Oh, yes!” I let out a little laugh and continued, “we know, but we don’t care. What do you want me to say? Look, we like the Moorland thing. You don’t?”
“So you don’t like Moors.”
“I don’t know any.”
“But you went to Morocco.”
“Yes, for a few days of tourism. We stayed with some European friends.”
“Well, you know me, anyway. And you brought me into your house the first day we met.”
“I recall you saying you were from Bethlehem.”
“No, I said I was from Palestine. You were totally uninformed and didn’t know what I was talking about. That’s why I resorted to saying Bethlehem. I thought you might have heard of Jerusalem or Bethlehem.”
“Hey, Bedouin, I’ll have none of this about me being uninformed,” she replied lightheartedly. “As far as I know, Palestine doesn’t exist as a country, that’s why I was a little confused. The same would happen to you if I told you I was from Catalonia.”
“That actually isn’t a country.”
“Because it’s part of Spain—”
“So what?” she interrupted me, “about a century ago a lot of countries in South America were also part of Spain, and now they’re not.”
“But Catalonia is too small to become something important.”
“I don’t think Palestine is all that big. In any case, I have no interest in belonging to a big empire. Catalans—the patriotic ones, that is—probably love, defend and fight for Catalonia because of its smallness. The truth is, deep down those who love Catalonia do so out of pity,” she replied in a lofty tone.
“Fight for it? I haven’t seen a single attempt at fighting.”
“Every people fights in its own way,” she declared.
“How? By going to see arthouse and experimental films? By wearing corduroy jackets with high-necked sweaters? Or by going up to ‘Mosserrat’ to sing ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’?” I said.
“Do you think fighting to the death is better? Boy, we live comfortably here. No one wants to die.”
All of a sudden there was silence, the fruit of a dialogue that had taken us both by surprise and somehow made us angry.
“So… do you want to go back to talking about gifts and weddings, or not?” I asked.
“Sure, fine. That’s more entertaining.”
“Ok. So as I was saying, it’s the rich and powerful who hand out gifts to the guests. And you know what Caliph Al-Ma’mun gave on his wedding day?”
“I don’t know, the usual? Irons, washing machines, toasters…” she trailed off.
“Silly Christian! I’m telling you about the ninth century and you bring up washing machines!”
“For your information, the Caliph, in addition to throwing gold coins into the crowd, also handed out folded papers at random to all the guests. Their present was written on each of the papers: a horse, a concubine, terrain, a palace, government positions, titles of nobility… Those in power see these events as a business operation. They don’t celebrate them out of any innate generosity. They spend on banquets and gifts in order to garner more prestige and, from there, more power. It’s just another investment.”
Then, instead of just ending my little sociological analysis there, like an idiot I proceeded to ruin the magic of that afternoon saying the stupidest thing.
“Did the groom give out gifts at your wedding?”
She didn’t get upset, surprisingly. She didn’t have to. I knew how to sense her disappointment, her feelings, and the reaction that followed. Instead of punching me or calling me a jerk, she responded discreetly and indirectly. Getting up from the table, she took the wine glasses to the kitchen and exchanged them for others. She said:
“You shouldn’t serve wine in engraved glasses. The glass isn’t transparent and it changes the color and appearance of the wine. Understand?”
“I understand perfectly. I understand that and everything else.”
I paused. I looked at her and reached out my hand in search of hers. She moved hers closer so that I could caress it.
“I’m sorry. That was thoughtless and inappropriate of me.”
It was time to leave, but she didn’t want to go with such a bad taste in her mouth. For the first time, we stayed in the apartment until late into the night. That delay getting home turned out to be a mistake. When it was time, she refused my offer of accompanying her.
“Do you think we’re in New York or something? We have peace in this country. Nothing ever happens! Don’t worry about it.”
She gave me a kiss and, before leaving, said, “I’ve been in the United States these last few months.”
“Is it nice?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. I went from the hotel to the hospital and from the hospital to the hotel.”
And then she left without giving me a chance to ask anything else.
I was quiet and pensive in the apartment after she left. I wondered how it was possible, after getting to know her over the course of so many passionate hours, that I didn’t know her at all. The truth was that it wouldn’t have required much tenacity to find out everything I wanted to know. Just inquiring the name of the owner of the Maresme mansion would have been enough to follow the thread to its end. But I didn’t do that. Deep down, I was probably excited by the mystery, the nightlife, the game, the imagination, and the fantasy that was, at the end of the day, hers.
from Lluny de l’horitzó perfumat
Em dic Mohammed Pirjawi Unnab Jaliledin Osrama Lumary. Per als amics de Barcelona, Jacobo. Al llarg dels anys setanta i part dels vuitanta tothom, fins i tot la meva mare, que vivia i continua vivint al desert que abasta part de Palestina i de Jordània, es va acostumar —ella al començament confosa i, després, resignada— a aquell nom nou i artificiós. ¿Per quina raó Jacobo? Senzillament a causa dels petits però freqüents altercats que vaig protagonitzar a la Ciutat Comtal i a Catalunya durant molts anys. Com a conseqüència d’aquelles peripècies de poca volada vaig fer més visites a les dependències de la policia que a la universitat, que, al cap i a la fi, era la raó de la meva presència a Barcelona. De les comissaries recordo sobretot les parets pelades, d’un color indefinit, i l’olor d’orina que destil·laven. A l’interior de vegades se sentien crits, insults, gemecs, expectoracions… Tot aquell terrabastall, però, després de la primera vegada, ja no em va semblar estrany. Un dia, a la comissaria, quan el «gris» amb qui amb prou feines m’entenia em va voler identificar, l’amic que m’acompanyava, i que també havia estat detingut, va deixar anar que jo em deia Jacobo i que era jueu. Com tots els palestins, el fet de ser apàtrida feia que disposés de diversos documents provisionals. Per tant, en aquella ocasió vaig lliurar la documentació expedida per les forces d’ocupació israelianes, que ni tan sols es van mirar. A la primera pàgina i amb unes lletres grans hi deia «ISRAEL». Allò va facilitar el meu transvestisme nacional que, de tota manera, no va evitar que aquella nit dormís a la comissaria del carrer Conde del Asalto.
Era molt evident que el meu desconeixement i el dels meus paisans sobre la rigidesa del règim de Franco donava ales a les nostres bretolades. De fet, als policies de Franco mai no els vam considerar com a tals. En contrast amb el que estàvem acostumats a la nostra terra, aquí, pel carrer, pràcticament no es veia policia. I ens feia molta gràcia aquella salutació anticipada que tributaven els policies a qualsevol ciutadà que se’ls acostés per formular-los alguna pregunta. Nosaltres ho vam voler comprovar més d’una vegada, sense tenir cap raó per dirigir-nos-hi, només per constatar que sí, que a nosaltres també ens saludaven. Era xocant.
Quan va arribar la caiguda formal del franquisme, la democràcia y els governs autonòmics, la recuperació identitària i lingüística catalana, immediatament, i com a bon immigrant que era —que encara sóc, tot i que sigui en un altre racó de món, i continuaré sent; em refereixo més a immigrant que a bo—, vaig adoptar una nova identitat i vaig canviar els meus cognoms inintel·ligibles, que pertanyien a antiquíssims llinatges llegendaris de Palestina, per un que va resultar molt més curt però també més incisiu in contundent. Al principi no sabia com fer-m’ho. El meu primer nom, Mohammed, me’l van posar en honor al profeta, per tant, era intocable. I, d’altra banda, m’angoixava haver de prescindir d’algun dels cognoms, perquè tots representaven la meva pertinença a una família ancestral i comportaven l’honor i la glòria de la casta. Al final se’m va acudir el següent: triar la primera lletra de cada cognom i posar-les l’una darrere l’altra. Així, del primer cognom, Pirjawi, vaig agafar la lletra «p», del segon, Unnab, vaig agafar la «u» i així successivament. Quina no va ser meva sorpresa quan les vaig llegir totes juntes: Pujol. Sí, sí, així mateix. «Al·leluia! Al·là és gran!», vaig exclamar. Aconseguir una immersió d’identitat més reveladora hauria estat impossible. Als meus amics els va costar molt desfer-se del que ja era el meu exnom postís, Jacobo, i acostumar-se a un de nou, no menys protètic que el primer, tot i que una mica més coherent. Però gràcies al meu anhel i la meva insistència van acabar anomenant-me —només quan eren amb mi— pel meu nom: Mohammed Pujol.
He de confessar que em va molestar molt la cara d’imbècil que se li va posar al funcionari del registre civil quan, acabada d’estrenar la democràcia, vaig presentar la meva sol·licitud de canvi de nom. Vaig llegir a la seva cara rodona, vermella i seborreica, les ganes que tenia de torçar-me el coll o, en el millor de casos, d’enviar-me a la merda. Assegut rere el mostrador va començar a murmurar en castellà i entre renecs:
—Jorge en Jordi, amén; María de las Nieves en Neus, amén, però aquest cony de nom convertir-lo en Pujol… és massa! Ni parlar-ne! N’estic fins als ous dels polacs i de la matraca de la seva catalanitat… I ara, el que em faltava: catalanitzar els moros!
Vaig captar tot el que remugava i, amb un to subtil però intimidatori, li vaig insinuar que el denunciaria per anti-catalanisme. L’home, una mica confós, va començar a suavitzar el to —i a mesura que se suavitzava, jo el vacil·lava encara més— i va acabar tramitant-me la sol·licitud per ser sotmesa al criteri final del jutge i convertir-me o no en Mohammed Pujol. Lògicament no vaig marxar sense que el funcionari m’hagués lliurat un resguard de l’expedient en el qual constava el nou nom sol·licitat. A banda de les ganes que tenia de perdre’m de vista, el funcionari segurament me’l va lliurar perquè estava convençudíssim que aquella sol·licitud no arribaria enlloc.
Amb aquell resguard vaig començar una nova etapa. Mai no vaig saber la decisió judicial, i en realitat m’importava poc. Gràcies al resguard gestionava tots els tràmits del dia a dia. Amb la intenció de facilitar les coses em presentava als catalans com a Sr. Pujol. En canvi, amb els meus paisans ho feia com a Mohammed. Però la realitat és molt crua i tossuda; els catalans, amb molta sorna, m’identificaven amb el nom de Mohammed —que encara no han après a pronunciar— i els meus paisans, no sense sarcasme, m’anomenaven «en Pujol», en català polit, i no «el Pujol», com acostumen a dir la majoria de catalans. En fi, què hi farem. Realment, entre catalans i moros, un no pot anar pel món amb el nom que vol.
Ja han passat uns anys de tot allò. Ara les coses han canviat molt, sobretot per a mi, però aquella època, convulsa històricament però també personalment, va ser rica de coneixences i d’anècdotes, i val la pena recordar-les. La meva condició de palestí a Catalunya em va permetre descobrir, amb una mirada verge, la realitat del final de la dictadura, la transició i la democràcia, uns personatges que van convertir-se en la meva família catalana i, sobretot, protagonitzar mil episodis que, de jovenet, quan era al desert, quedaven a anys llum del que jo podia imaginar. Tot el que explico va passar realment, a mi o als del meu voltant. ¿És un llibre biogràfic, doncs? Sí, en bona part. Però cal recalcar que això no vol dir necessàriament que sigui autobiogràfic. Les putetes, els amigots, el comissari, la senyora, el veí carregós…, tots ells tenen nom i cognoms, però no importa la seva identitat real. El que de debò importa és el que tots plegats vam viure durant els anys que vam estar junts.
Vaig recollir unes caixes buides de cartró de la terrassa i vaig improvisar una taula, perquè una bona presentació satisfà un dels pilars més importants del plaer culinari: la vista. Va resultar una taula una mica baixa però justa i adequada als divans que vaig disposar a base de coixins. En aquell amagatall beduí mai no havíem tingut ni taula ni cadires. Sobre la taula, vaig col·locar unes tovalles blanques, dos plats buits també blancs, i la cristalleria, senzilla i amb uns discrets gravats, davant dels plats. A l’esquerra del plat, la forquilla i a la dreta, el ganivet. I perquè no hi faltés res vaig posar un gerro petit amb les dues roses i, en un racó de la taula, un canelobre amb una espelma.
Vaig avisar-la que el sopar ja estava a punt. Ella va sortir de la banyera embolicada amb una tovallola gran i, davant el mirall, va començar a eixugar-se cantussejant. No em vaig bellugar d’allà. Era un plaer veure-la cantant i bellugant-se com una sirena. Em vaig quedar clavat, inspeccionant descaradament cada centímetre del seu cos. Ella es deixava mirar amb complaença.
La vaig agafar de la mà i la vaig acompanyar fins a la taula. La vaig convidar a seure i la vaig fer esperar uns segons per sorprendre-la amb el plat preparat.
—Quina meravella! —va exclamar—. ¿D’on has tret la taula?
—Un que s’espavila…
—No ho dubto. I tan ben col·locada. ¿On ho has après, beduí?
Em feia vergonya a parlar-li de la meva feina al restaurant i de les angúnies econòmiques que havia passat.
—Als restaurants on vaig a sopar —li vaig respondre des de la cuina mentre feia els últims retocs a les favetes.
Mentre em parlava, ella anava canviant i desplaçant, de manera discreta i sense pedanteria, els objectes de la taula. Em va preguntar si havia preparat alguna sopa. Li vaig dir que no. Llavors va retirar la cullera i va canviar la posició del ganivet de manera que la part esmolada mirés cap al plat i no cap a fora, com l’havia deixat jo.
—Fan molt bona olor, aquestes roses! —va dir i va intercanviar la posició del gerro i del canelobre.
Vaig tornar amb els plats i, en col·locar-los, vaig adonar-me dels canvis a la taula. Vaig callar prudentment i, pensant-ho bé, els vaig trobar encertats. La flama dansant de l’espelma al centre de la taula repartia al seu voltant per igual el reflex i en feia destacar alguns detalls, el més bonic dels quals era el seu rostre angelical lleugerament il·luminat.
—Potser hi ha massa llum, ¿no? Il·lumina moltíssim, aquesta espelma.
—Jo l’havia posat en un costat i tu l’has desplaçat al centre —vaig replicar.
—Perdona. És que en un costat és antiestètic. I sé que el que et diré ara et semblarà una bajanada però també contradiu les normes de la taula.
—Doncs trenquem les normes i apartem l’espelma —vaig suggerir—. Per fortuna aquí no tenim les famoses espelmes del califa El Maamun.
—Em sona, aquest califa. Em sembla que me’n vas explicar alguna cosa.
Llavors va començar a degustar el plat.
—Gràcies a aquest califa tu i jo som aquí…
—No entenc què vols dir… Ei, que bo que és això!
—Sí, dona! El Maamun era aquell califa que va perdonar la vida al príncep gurmet i a la seva…
—Sí, sí! I a la seva concubina Badi —em va interrompre entusiasmada.
—Ja no recordes que tu ara ets la Badi…
—Mai no ho he oblidat. Però no recordava el nom del califa. ¿I què va passar amb les espelmes?
—Durant la celebració del seu casament, que va durar quaranta dies seguits, va ordenar col·locar al voltant del palau espelmes de sis-cents quilos cadascuna per convertir, a plaer de la seva estimada i futura esposa, les nits en dies.
La senyora va recolzar el cap sobre el palmell de la mà i va dir:
—Que romàntic, ¿no?
—Sí, però va ser molt criticat pels creients.
—Lògicament. Pel malbaratament…
—No! No va ser pel malbaratament sinó per la blasfèmia, perquè alguns líders religiosos van insinuar que només Al·là, tal com diu l’Alcorà, pot convertir la nit en dia. El malbaratament no hi té res a veure perquè les espelmes eren una misèria comparades amb els regals que el califa va repartir als amics i al poble.
—¿Però, qui regala a qui, a les bodes del teu món?
—Nosaltres, a Moroland…
—Moroland… El món o la terra dels moros. Als estudiants àrabs ens fa molta gràcia el nom de Moroland. És com England, Holland, Deutchland… Moroland ve de moro, que és com us agrada anomenar-nos, i de land, que vol dir…
—Ja sé què vol dir land… ¿Però no us adoneu que la paraula «moro» té connotacions despectives?
—¿Què significa aquesta paraula, «connotació»?
M’ho va aclarir.
—Ah, sí! —vaig deixar anar una rialla sorneguera i vaig continuar—: En sabíem alguna cosa però ens importa un rave. ¿Què vols que et digui? Mira, ens agrada això de Moroland. ¿A tu no?
—O sigui que no et cauen bé els moros.
—No en conec cap.
—Però vas ser al Marroc…
—Sí, uns dies, en un tour túristic. Dormíem a casa d’uns amics europeus.
—Bé, en tot cas, em coneixes a mi. I el primer dia ja em vas ficar a casa teva.
—Recordo que em vas dir que eres de Betlem.
—No, et vaig dir que era de Palestina i tu, totalment desinformada, et vas quedar igual. Per això vaig recórrer a Betlem, perquè vaig suposar que Jerusalem o Betlem et sonarien més.
—Ei, beduí, de desinformada, res —em va replicar desenfada—. Pel que tinc entès, Palestina no existeix com a país, per això em vaig quedar una mica dubtosa. A tu et passaria igual si jo et digués que sóc de Catalunya.
—Això sí que no és un país.
—Perquè forma part d’Espanya…
—¿I què? —em va interrompre—. Fa pràcticament un segle molts països de l’Amèrica del Sud també en formaven part i ara ja no.
—Però Catalunya és molt menuda per arribar a ser alguna cosa important…
—No sé si Palestina és gaire gran però jo no tinc cap obsessió de pertànyer a un gran imperi. Probablement la petitesa de Catalunya és el que ens incita als catalans, bé, als patriotes, a estimar-la, defensar-la i lluitar a favor d’ella. En realitat, els qui s’estimen Catalunya ho fan perquè, en el fons, els fa llàstima —va replicar amb un to transcendent.
—¿Lluitar per ella? Mai no he vist cap intent de lluita.
—Cada poble lluita a la seva manera —va sentenciar.
—¿Com? ¿Anant a la filmoteca a veure pel·lícules d’art i assaig? ¿Portant jaquetes de pana i jerseis de coll alt? ¿O anant a la muntanya de Mosserrat a cantar «Blowin’ in the wind»? —vaig contestar parafrasejant el Gallina.
—¿La lluita a mort et resulta més convincent? Noi, aquí vivim de manera acomodada i ningú no vol morir.
Es va fer un silenci sobtat, fruit d’un diàleg que ens havia sorprès a tots dos i que ens resultava, en certa manera, enutjós.
—Bé… ¿Vols que tornem als regals i a les bodes o no?
—Sí, sí. És més distret.
—Doncs mira, són els poderosos i els rics els qui reparteixen regals als convidats. ¿I saps què va regalar el califa El Maamun el dia del casament?
—No ho sé. El que s’acostuma a regalar: planxes, rentadores, torradores… —va dir, i es va quedar tan ampla.
—Natzarena boja! T’estic parlant del segle IX i tu em dius rentadores!
—Perquè ho sàpigues, el que va fer el califa, a banda de llançar a la multitud monedes d’or, va ser lliurar a l’atzar uns papers doblegats a tots els convidats. Dins de cada paper hi havia un escrit que indicava la mena de regal: un cavall, una concubina, un terreny, un palau, càrrecs per governar, títols nobiliaris… Tots els poderosos conceben els esdeveniments assenyalats com una operació mercantil. És a dir que no els celebren sense estar-se de res empesos per una generositat innata, sinó que, en realitat, el dispendi en forma de banquets i regals té com a objectiu guanyar més prestigi i, posteriorment, més poder. No és més que una altra fórmula d’inversió.
I, ruc de mi, en lloc de concloure aquella «anàlisi sociològica» que havia parafrasejat del Pollet intel·lectual, encara vaig deixar anar la següent estupidesa que va acabar amb aquella tarda màgica:
—¿En el teu casament, el nuvi va repartir regals?
Ella, sorprenentment, no es va immutar. No calia. Jo sabia copsar les seves desil·lusions, els seus sentiments i la posterior reacció. En aquell cas, en lloc de donar-me un cop de puny o de reprendre’m per ser un esgarriacries va reaccionar de manera discreta i indirecta. Es va aixecar de la taula, va portar les copes de vi a la cuina, les va canviar per unes altres i va dir:
—No s’hauria de servir el vi en copes amb gravats perquè el vidre, com que no és transparent, altera visualment la tonalitat del vi. ¿Ho entens?
—Perfectament. Ho entenc. Entenc això i tota la resta.
Vaig fer una pausa. La vaig mirar i vaig estirar la mà buscant la seva. Me la va acostar perquè la hi acariciés.
—Ho sento. He sigut matusser i inoportú.
Era l’hora de marxar però li sabia greu fer-ho amb aquell mal gust de boca. Ens vam quedar a l’apartament, per primer cop, fins a altes hores de la nit. Aquella tardança a tornar a casa va ser una relliscada. Arribat el moment, no va acceptar que l’acompanyés.
—¿Et penses que som a Nova York? Aquí, en aquest país, hi ha tranquil·litat. Mai no passa res! No t’hi amoïnis…
Em va fer un petó i abans de marxar va dir:
—He estat als Estats Units, aquests darrers mesos.
—No ho sé. No vaig poder veure-hi res: de l’hotel a l’hospital i de l’hospital a l’hotel.
I va marxar sense donar-me l’oportunitat de preguntar-li sobre el que acabava de dir.
Em vaig quedar quiet i pensarós a l’apartament, després que hagués marxat. Pensava: ¿com és possible que després d’intimar amb ella durant tantes hores i tan apassionadament, en realitat en sàpiga res? De fet, si m’hagués entossudit a esbrinar tot el que volia saber, no hauria estat una feina gaire àrdua. Només preguntant el nom del propietari de la mansió del Maresme ja n’hauria tingut prou per seguir el fil fins al final. Però no, no ho vaig fer. Probablement, en el fons, m’excitava aquell misteri, la nocturnitat, el joc, la imaginació i la fantasia que era, en realitat, la seva fantasia.
The novel Far from the Perfumed Horizon (2004, Lluny de l’horitzó perfumat in Catalan), by the Palestinian-Catalan writer Salah Jamal, reimagines Jamal’s biography as a Palestinian exile in 1970s, pre-democratic Spain. Jamal’s firsthand account of the absurdities and political shortcomings of Spain’s Transition to Democracy offers an unfamiliar perspective on the uses of nationalism, the limits of liberalism, and the racialization and criminalization of the migrant working class—issues that remain pressing in many parts of the world today, not just Spain.
Although Far From the Perfumed Horizon won a Palestinian award in 2014, it remains little known. This is in part because it is still accessible only to readers of Catalan; it also presents an inconvenient critique of Catalan liberalism.
The translation that appears here is a selection of two representative excerpts from the novel: the first, the complete introduction chapter, establishes the character of Jamal’s semi-autobiographical narrator; the second, a scene from late in the novel, reveals the dynamic of exotification and commodification that fuels his affair with a wealthy, self-described progressive Catalan referred to only as “la Senyora” (“the Mrs.”). The first chapter is a preview of some of the novel’s most important scenes, including Mohammed’s encounter with the police culture of Spain in the 1970s; his fluid practice of ethno-racial, religious, and national “cross-dressing”; and his satirical misuse of Spain’s societal shifts in nationalist/racial constructs (Muslim immigrants as “Moors” and Catalans as “Polacks”). Mohammed changes his name in order to facilitate his movement in Catalonia, ultimately weaponizing the surge of Catalan nationalism against the racism he experiences. Shortening his Palestinian surnames to their acronym, he adopts an extremely common Catalan surname, Pujol, which also happens to be the surname of the most famous Catalan nationalist of the time, Jordi Pujol. In the sign of this felicitous acronym, the novel presents Mohammed as a kind of Catalan everyman. In the second excerpt I’ve included, Mohammed and the Senyora’s relationship frays as geopolitical realities creep into their fantasy of a romance out of Arabian Nights—a fantasy that is really, as Mohammed acknowledges at the end of the scene, her fantasy.
A Barcelonian of Palestinian origin, Salah Jamal was born in Nablus in 1951. He left home three years after the Israeli invasion of 1967. Life’s twists and turns led him to Barcelona, where he has lived for over 50 years. Settled in the City of Counts, Jamal learned to speak not only Spanish, but also Catalan, at a time when the latter was still banned under the Franco regime’s command that Spain “speak the language of the Empire.” He studied and worked, ultimately becoming a medical doctor, surgeon, and dermatologist. He later earned a degree in contemporary history and geography from the Central University of Barcelona.
Jamal is a professor in the Arab and Islamic World Master’s Program at the University of Barcelona, and was a professor of cultural diversity at the University of Vic. As an invited speaker at different universities, he has given classes and conferences in multiple disciplines. He has also been a speaker at the cultural center Ateneu Barcelonès. Jamal is the author of several books, published in multiple editions and translated into many languages, including: Aroma árabe, recetas y relatos, which won the 2000 Gourmand Award for best foreign cookbook; Palestina, ocupación y resistencia; Lluny de l’horitzó perfumat; Todo lo que debes saber los árabes; Catalunya en cuatro pinceladas; La resistencia de la economía palestina; Resistencia a la guerra total, co-authored with Noam Chomsky and others; and, most recently, Nakba, 48 relatos de vida y resistencia en Palestina. He has also written numerous articles published in various media outlets. He won the Nijmet Al-Quds Prize, awarded by the Academy and General Union of Palestinian Writers and Poets.
Holly Jackson is a translator and professor. She interprets and translates for Spanish speakers in the Bay Area and Arizona. She is working on a translation of Lluny de l’horitzó perfumat.
Golden blur, Why all abuzz? Will you disappear? Do you love My Liza as Much as I do?
Find you fragrant combs in her honey-colored hair? Find sun-shot rose In her scarlet lip, And in her breast A nectar white and sweet?
Golden blur, Why all abuzz? In your sigh I hear you say: “Honey will be The death of me.”
Пчелка златая! Что ты жужжишь? Всё вкруг летая, Прочь не летишь? Или ты любишь Лизу мою?
Соты ль душисты В желтых власах, Розы ль огнисты В алых устах, Сахар ли белый Грудь у нее?
Пчелка златая! Что ты жужжишь? Слышу, вздыхая, Мне говоришь: К меду прилипнув, С ним и умру.
LORDS AND RULERS
Rise God, most-high, and judge the host Of earthly gods. How long (Warns God) will you all spare the unjust And not redress a wrong?
You whose duty is to keep the laws And not withhold your help, Not leave exposed orphans, widows, Aid the strong nor hold them up.
Your duty is to shelter weak And innocent, protect And free from power’s abuse the luck- Less poor enchained in debt.
With bribery-blinded eyes these gods Don’t comprehend or heed; They shiver earth with evil deeds With seeming truth they bend
And blur all sight of heaven. Czars! I deemed you powerful, divine, No judgement ruling above yours, But we are ruled by passion
Both you and I alike mortal; Die we both the same And like the leaves of trees both fall, Your last slave and you the same.
Resurrect, God of the just, and heed Their prayers; condemn And scourge the guileful. Be Czar, O God, Of earth yourself alone.
ВЛАСТИТЕЛЯМ И СУДИЯМ
Восстал Всевышний Бог, да судит Земных богов во сонме их; Доколе, рек, доколь вам будет Щадить неправедных и злых?
Ваш долг есть: сохранять законы, На лица сильных не взирать, Без помощи, без обороны Сирот и вдов не оставлять.
Ваш долг: спасать от бед невинных, Несчастливым подать покров; От сильных защищать бессильных, Исторгнуть бедных из оков.
Не внемлют! видят — и не знают! Покрыты мздою очеса: Злодействы землю потрясают, Неправда зыблет небеса.
Цари! Я мнил, вы боги властны, Никто над вами не судья, Но вы, как я подобно, страстны, И так же смертны, как и я.
И вы подобно так падете, Как с древ увядший лист падет! И вы подобно так умрете, Как ваш последний раб умрет!
Воскресни, Боже! Боже правых! И их молению внемли: Приди, суди, карай лукавых, И будь един царем земли!
With swan-like leap into the air I will Distinguish from the dying world, With wondrous, soaring flight And immortal song and soul;
Undying two-fold form, without A pause at purgatory’s doors, Exulted above envy, Worldly kingdoms and their light
I’ll leave below. Of lusterless birth, Yet I, beloved of Muses, – yes! – Unlike the other lords Will be preferred by death.
The tomb will not clutch; nor will I lessen, Not narrow into dust among the stars But like the pipes of Pan Be resounded into heaven.
I feel it now, the goose-bump skin Pricks my feathering body tight, The down on breast, on back The shimmering wings of the swan.
I fly and soar, beneath me spread The world, its seas and forests, which raise Their heads aloft like peaks To hear my song to God.
From Kuril Islands to the river Bug, From White to Caspian Sea, all those Who walk the half of earth, The peoples of Russia, each age
In time will know me, all who fire Quarrelsome words today, the Huns And Finns, the Scythians, Slavs Will say and point a finger –
Look, he flies, who tuned his lyre And spoke the words that speak in hearts, Urged peace on all, rejoiced In joys of every other.
Away with pomp and glorious burial, My friends! Muses, hush. My wife, Put patience on, and him Thought dead do not bewail.
Необычайным я пареньем От тленна мира отделюсь, С душой бессмертною и пеньем, Как лебедь, в воздух поднимусь.
В двояком образе нетленный, Не задержусь в вратах мытарств; Над завистью превознесенный, Оставлю под собой блеск царств.
Да, так! Хоть родом я не славен, Но, будучи любимец муз, Другим вельможам я не равен И самой смертью предпочтусь.
Не заключит меня гробница, Средь звезд не превращусь я в прах; Но, будто некая цевница, С небес раздамся в голосах.
И се уж кожа, зрю, перната Вкруг стан обтягивает мой; Пух на груди, спина крылата, Лебяжьей лоснюсь белизной.
Лечу, парю — и под собою Моря, леса, мир вижу весь; Как холм, он высится главою, Чтобы услышать богу песнь.
С Курильских островов до Буга, От Белых до Каспийских, вод Народы, света с полукруга, Составившие россов род,
Со временем о мне узнают: Славяне, гунны, скифы, чудь, — И все, что бранью днесь пылают, Покажут перстом — и рекут:
«Вот тот летит, что, строя лиру, Языком сердца говорил И, проповедуя мир миру, Себя всех счастьем веселил». —
Прочь с пышным, славным погребеньем, Друзья мои! Хор муз, не пой! Супруга! облекись терпеньем! Над мнимым мертвецом не вой.
Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816) wanted to be remembered more for his role as a statesman than for his poetry, which, in accordance with the values of his age, he compared to “delicious lemonade.” Nevertheless, it is his poetry that has made him “immortal.” Born into a family of the minor gentry in Kazan’ and tracing his ancestry back to the Tartar nobility of that city, he went on to serve in the imperial army during the Pugachev rebellion and to become a confidant of Catherine the Great; his interest today, however, is to be found in his sense of integrity and independence in his relationship to those in power. In this respect, while “speaking the truth to Czars with a smile,” in his work he urged humanity above all and dedicated his odes to heroes precisely as they fell from royal favor, courting the same fate himself out of a deeper sense of justice. He was among the first to introduce subjective, aesthetic experiences into the Russian lyric, at a time when poetry was largely devoted to praising the majesty of the Czar. Ranging from satirical realism to sublime disorder, his poetry contains a profound call on individual virtue in inconstant times as well as a sense of how the maw of eternity swallows all human things. It was Derzhavin who personally passed the baton to Pushkin, who in turn considered Derzhavin a poet of universal significance. Now he is remembered wherever the Russian tongue is spoken, and he has been an important touchstone for such modern poets as Khodasevich, Mandelstam, and Brodsky.
The poems translated here represent anacreontic lyrics and adaptations of the psalms and Horatian odes. The translations are not made to reproduce all formal and semantic features of the originals, although in an important sense they do remain faithful. Instead, they derive inspiration from the English baroque and 18th century tradition (Milton; Gray, Collins, Young) to create a language that translates Derzhavin’s sensibility, standing at the threshold between Classicism and Romanticism, into English.
John Hamel grew up in New Jersey but now lives in Minnesota. He has been a school teacher all his life. He has published several poems and translations of poems in the past (Arion, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Forum Italicum, American Journal of Poetry). You can find him on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/johnerichamel/
Peter Orte grew up in Minnesota and, having come by circuitous routes, currently lives in Maine. He teaches Russian language and literature.
Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816), arguably the most significant Russian poet before Pushkin, was born in the city of Kazan’ into a family of the minor nobility tracing its ancestry to the Tartar nobility of the city. Having won the favor of Catherine the Great through his honorable service in the Pugachev rebellion and for his poetry, he went on to become her confidant and gadfly, falling in and out of favor before retiring to his estate. Well acquainted with the precariousness of life, the turns of fortune, and capriciousness of authority, his poems contain some of the first subjective sensuous descriptions in the Russian lyric, a powerful summons to humanity, and a universal reminder of the mortality of human things.
to be used specifically by a sudden supervision adjusted with pieces of equipment to the speech apparatus inserted into the stem’s flower whose interior shines in an outline of their organs marked for skin openings smooth commonalities of seashells apricots come to mind like pleasant accessories felt by differences of narration centers when the couple first meet in gender are visible naked lying on a colorful sheet of subsequent montage series rashly causing a volcano of quick clippings of fish eyes somewhat unstable in an intense color of the bulb x-rayed into palpable shape visions usually unlike the shivering of structure bodies like pulp parenchyma pomace create an analogy with objects in themselves call forth contraries of the search of radiating sacrifice of a contagious celebration
the more messages before sleep the more the map of the territory exhausted with transrepetition of possibilities oozes occasions of the sensational burnt make-believe sparkling in tall cocktails at live sales parties of violent salty fresh sensations of boredom packaged in frames of those smeared with hands with a bullet of sweat on the forehead in macro lens published on the front page of the domino effect without moving anybody’s spinal cord at the moment of circuitous pressure beating against the hearts of armchairs arranged softly ahead of a pesky presentation of the bilateral defeat of expectation of a sudden plot twist along the audience trajectory in the fourth dimension they are measured in viewership doses but we disappear when they doze off at the intersections of specters tearing the remains of national substance from the series’ further episodes
interpretation encounters resistance in the model of a dream always in someone unclear content due to upending the trauma leads to the hidden that imposes with irrefutable violence when it becomes repressed in the embroiled impression references the plane murkily hidden in the lack of automatic recognition the commotion gets deepened defeated at the multistoried difference by the plenitude of a fiction category it entwines entangling with the place dimension and a consequence brought instead of someone
unloading of the physical memory in progress the lack does not account in the sources for the forbidden trickles deconstructions of tissue into the muscles meets expectations of confession of the common peace a parade of elation weighs in this moment absolutely over the gap’s place intoxication daze ecstasy roll on convicted for a possibility of differentiation they hide in the open looking at not seeing the gap where the event’s passage is underway what escapes the singing in the march of hours for grinding celebration cared for from the flag to the gun volley horizon breaks the weather of satisfaction with the loss spent alone when the parade passes by the gap of places one way turned toward a procession of pictures and images bought for one term of the past they stay in their directoriate positions anticipatory assurances that in gaps of places they continue the montage of plastic remains of emotion motioned again to occupy the place in gaps
I don’t suddenly swim to the surface but actually the other way round the subtitles remain separated from me by a clipping a blind spot of paralysis a scratch caused by a crack in the film they show an accident but actually the other way round the subtitles remain a cut overgrowing the outside pointed at me on the other end something cannot be given back returned to the scar but actually the other way round the subtitles disappear
Maria Cyranowicz’s book den.presja, from which the five translated poems have been excerpted, is a conceptual project that interrogates the poetry of witness genre through linguistically innovative lens. In the sequence of thirty “documents”, the poet creates a complex archive, based on the visual model of a screen interface, through which she investigates impossible states of language and interrogates opaque notions of postmemory and witnessing that bring to mind the concept of “no one’s witnessing”, proposed recently by the Canadian poet Rachel Zolf through Paul Celan’s apophatic writing.
Reflecting on an uneasy status of those who have become witnesses of testimonies, the texts also constitute an intimate record of depression and psychic suffering. Cyranowicz situates her writing as a ground of contestation of hegemonic discourses and an environment for reorganization of our internal capacity for psychic survival. Her machine-like writing is poised between a state of language positioned as a cold medium (gesturing towards protocols of concrete poetry) and extreme emotional intensity, both enacting the pressures of postmodernity and striving to reconstitute the reader’s capacity for intimacy, emotion and sensation.
Cyranowicz’s poetry shows a long-standing interest in the Polish historical avant-gardes (among others, the work of such Polish poets as Miron Białoszewski, Tymoteusz Karpowicz, Tadeusz Peiper, and Julian Przyboś, as well as the concrete poetry of Stanisław Dróżdż) with a strong emphasis on various forms of social pressure leading to overdetermination of identity.
Maria Cyranowicz (b. 1974)—Polish poet, literary critic, teacher, and editor. In 1999 she received the Ludwik Fryde Award for Young Critics. Associated with the avant-garde writing known as “neolingwizm”. Author of five books: neutralizacje (Biblioteka Frondy, 1997), i magii nacja (Zielona Sowa, 2001), piąty element to fiksja (Staromiejski Dom Kultury, 2004), psychodelicje (Staromiejski Dom Kultury, 2006), den.presja (Fundacja Mammal, 2009). Co-editor of two anthologies: Gada !Zabic? Pa)n(tologia neolingwizmu (Staromiejski Dom Kultury, 2005, with Pawel Koziol) and Solistki. Antologia poezji kobiet (1989-2009) (Staromiejski Dom Kultury, 2009, with Joanna Mueller and Justyna Radczynska). Co-editor and contributor to art/literary magazines Meble (now defunct) and Wakat/Notoria. Her new poems have recently appeared in Strefa wolna. Wiersze przeciwko nienawiści i homofobii (Outside the Box, 2019), Queer. Dezorientacje. Antologia Polskiej Literatury Queer. Eds. Alessandro Amenta, Tomasz Kalisciak, Blazej Warkocki (Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2021) and the anthology Świat Się Wiecznie Zaczyna. Antologia Juliana Przybosia. Ed. Uta Przyboś (WBPiCAK, 2022). Her new collection of poems machinacje is forthcoming this year. She lives in Warsaw.
Malgorzata Myk (b. 1975)—teaches in the Department of North American Literature and Culture, Lodz University, Poland. Author of the monograph Upping the Ante of the Real: Speculative Poetics of Leslie Scalapino (Peter Lang, 2019). Co-editor of the two volumes: Theory That Matters: What Practice After Theory and the Polish Journal for American Studies Special Issue on Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry. The Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow in the academic year 2017/18 (UCSD). She currently serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief and Content Editor of Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture, published by Lodz University. She has translated into Polish the writing of such North American authors as Leslie Scalapino, Lisa Robertson, and Kevin Davies. Her translation of E. Tracy Grinnell’s poetry appeared in the volume Odmiany Łapania Tchu: Pięć Amerykańskich Głosów (Variants of Catching Breath: Five American Voices) (Dom Literatury 2022). Her translations of Maria Cyranowicz’s poems have recently appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics, and AzonaL. She lives in Warsaw.
I was born before this time… Before myself. Look at how my words twirl around and around in you. How I steal them from you. Mother… Can you see through the magic behind this? How it all leaps and beats dripping in silence the blood of this motor the life vein of a heart that is perhaps impossible to find. Yes you know that sometimes I don’t have eyes for certain things, I am uncertain, I create myself from eagles and transcend my body in their eyes, all because the few times that I have transformed I find myself more and more in you. And it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Not what you can see, nor what you cannot. Look… see how similar we both are and different, too. See how deeply we stare into each other’s hearts as we carry them like packages weighing us down even as they cure the links between the eternal world we hold inside. Mom, is it true one day we’ll leave ourselves?
à minha mãe
Nasci antes deste tempo…Antes de mim. Olha como esta minha grafia circunda e circula em ti…Como te a roubo. Mãe…Vê em magia como isto se sucede? Como isto pula e pulsa gotejando em silêncio o sangue deste motor a veia da vida de um coração talvez impossível de descobrir. E tu sabes que eu às vezes olhos não tenho para alcançar certas coisas, coisas certas e invento-me em águias transcendo-me em seus olhos, tudo porque nessas poucas vezes em que me transfiguro descubro-me mais em ti. E não me importa nada. Nada me importa. Nem o que se vê e nem o que se não pode ver. Olha… vê como parecidas somos e diferentes também. Olha como a fundo nos olhamos nestes corações alheios que carregamos como trouxas e que nos pesam mas no mesmo instante nos curam das eternas mundanas que temos dentro. Mãe, será que algum dia iremos partir de nós?
As in much of her poetry, genre-defying author Hirondina Joshua uses “Portraits” to examine origins, in this case, of both self and the language used to express it. The narrator, addressing their mother, finds the source of all things in reflections, that is, reflected back at them by others. The narrator is formed in the eyes of eagles that they have themselves created. They claim to exist before birth, within the mother who will come to produce and shape them. The other’s heart, even as it may weigh us down, is as much a part of us as the “world[s]” we hold inside. In the poem-world of “Portraits,” the boundary between creation and being is blurred.
Words, too, bounce back and forth between interlocutors. Much like the narrator, language itself depends on duality. There is no language without speaker and listener, without someone to produce the code and another to understand it. The narrator claims to steal a sort of language from their mother, finding that their idiolect draws more and more from hers. They are linked by their common language, and the poem’s very medium, and thus, the poem itself, becomes caught up in this self-referential cycle of dependent existence. In the world Joshua interpolates, in which mother and child are inseparably entwined, individual identity is put under interrogation, namely, what is me and nobody else?
Hirondina Joshua was born in Maputo, Mozambique in 1987. She is the author of several books of poetry and writing, including Os Ângulos da Casa (2016), with a preface by author Mia Couto, Como um Levita à Sombra dos Altares (2021), and Córtex (2021). She has appeared in a variety of anthologies of Lusophone poetry and appeared in literary festivals in Macau, Portugal, and Spain.
Grant Schutzman is a poet and translator. He is fascinated by multilingual writing and that which has been deemed the untranslatable. He received a commendation from the 2022 Stephen Spender Poetry Translation Prize, and his poetry and translations appear or are forthcoming in Rust + Moth, The Shore, The Inflectionist Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Asymptote, and Bennington Review.
Boobies. She had the biggest boobies in the world, the longest hair in town and an enormous beauty spot under her left eye. Almost a third eye and even then, she was nearsighted.
We called her Dada I don’t know why Well, yes Yes, of course: because her face went blah blah, no esthetics.
One day me and my sister put makeup on her— Mama’s expensive makeup. Mama was furious. Commoners don’t have the right to Dior.
I really liked my Dada with big boobies With her, I watched porn for the first time We drank Cola, we laughed, we went Oh!
In reality her name was Zohra, Just like the planet Venus My Dada with big boobies Who is no longer here, here No, no.
I roll kefta balls between my palms. I roll a dead animal between my palms. I role the inside of a dead animal between my hands. I roll the death of an animal between my hands.
I roll death. I roll the interior of a dead animal with the exterior of a live animal.
a) With this death, I will feed my child. I feed death to my child, who transforms it into life, grows through eating death. Children are machines for transforming death into life. For transforming life into death into death into life. Who wins from life or death—
Win what, is it about winning—
b) The odor of this meat is strong. I wonder if I smell the same inside. The deepest I’ve been inside myself is the length of my middle finger. Into my mouth and into my pussy.
Mistaken is the one who says we only have one life (and I’m not talking about reincarnation).
Rim Battal is a French-Moroccan poet I accidentally stumbled across in a collection of essays entitled Lettres aux jeunes poétesses, a spin-off of Letters to a Yong Poet but addressed to women and non-binary aspiring writers. Her letter was unashamedly brave, full of music and raw emotion. I knew right away that her poetry, and her approach to practice, could potentially teach me many things about form and music.
In these two poems, one on childhood and the other on motherhood, we are invited into a world where small details are the most intimate, and violence is simultaneously present and hidden. When I embarked upon translating them, I realized how many risks she takes within strict French poetry conventions. She challenges the most well-known forms of French verse, employing more casual rhyme schemes and wordplay than the revered 12-syllable alexadrines used by Rimbaud or Baudelaire. This gave me the liberty to pay more attention to the weight of the words and the line breaks instead of the rhythm, as Battal’s poetry approaches prose-poetry in its music.
I also found a certain crudeness in her poetry that gave me the space, in my translation, to use words like “blah,” “boobies,” or “pussy,” to think less about the poem as a sacred form of pure language and more as a means to explore human experience and all its macabre, gritty, natural aspects. Especially in untitled, I removed many articles after finding the directness a sharper way of communicating this quality of her poetry in English.
The speakers in Battal’s poems address the body, womanhood, and motherhood in a way that hides nothing and that made me feel less alone as someone raised as a woman. From putting makeup on the babysitter like a doll, to reflecting about how to keep children alive we must feed them death, the poems speak honestly about female empowerment and struggles. They exhibit an unstoppable pride in their contradictions.
I challenged myself to step beyond what I consider as traditional English poetics in translating her work. I stopped trying to be “pretty,” I followed the childishness of the sounds of the words and embraced the sometimes clumsy line breaks. In doing so, I hope to help readers discover Rim Battal’s potential to inspire us all, young poets and beyond.
Rim Battal, born 1987, is a Moroccan artist and poet who lives between Paris and Marrakech. Her most recent poetry collection, Les quatrains de l’all inclusive, was published by Le Castor Astral in 2020. Other collections include Vingt pòemes et des poussières (LansKine, 2015) and L’eau du bain (Supernova, 2019). Her photography has been shown internationally, including individual shows at the Galerie Verdeau in Paris and the Voice Gallery in Marrakech in 2019. Photo by Dorothee Sarah.
Ella Bartlett (they/them) is an Iowan-born, New York-educated, Paris-based writer and translator. The recipient of the Gigantic Sequins Poetry Award of 2021, judged by Arisa White, Ella’s work has been published, among others, in Jet Fuel Review, decomP Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Rust + Moth. Their debut translation, a collection of poetry by opera singer Elodie Kimmel, was published in May 2022. For more, follow @EllatheRewriter. Photo by Lea Volta Photographie.
He left their little eggs behind on the piano keys and the keyboard of his laptop—nobody could guess what sort of dust this was. He liked to pick them out of his hair. Trapped between two human fingers dragging it ruthlessly from its resting spot, the incubating insect slid down the pole of hair like a firefighter descending to his truck at the sound of the alarm.
You can’t tame a louse, even if you do let it out to graze on your head. You can’t explain to it that it has to play dead to go unnoticed and not wave its arms and legs helplessly when it lands on the porcelain of the bathtub. Death is incomprehensible even to a louse.
At school they have advanced to the Last Resort. The enforcers are called lousemothers. They are the mothers who inspect the children’s heads—every class has its own. You didn’t get special treatment if your mom became a volunteer, and anyway, in your case, that was out of the question.
The first time they took him and his father by surprise. A woman they didn’t know stopped them at his classroom door. When she explained her mission, his father turned pale. He was afraid not that he would be caught with lice, his father explained to the boy later, but how Mom would take it. Mom took it badly even though they didn’t find lice on him that day. It wasn’t even about the lice—she railed again and again, turning more and more red with anger every time—but about his school sufficing with such ineffectual inspections in the first place. Had they known, they never would’ve even enrolled him in this school.
“And how do they inspect you? Go on, tell me, how do they inspect you.”
“With a pencil.”
“A sharpened pencil? Are they joking? Are they trying to get a rise out of me?”
The reason they used a pencil with a rounded nose was to make it seem to the children a little more like a game. Could they avoid covering their small skulls in pencil marks? The boy had told his mother the whole story to lighten the mood, but the very idea that they had pitched lice hunting to them as a game made her turn an even deeper shade of red.
By the time it was his turn to be searched again, the pencil had developed a gleaming, smooth finish from its many rounds around the classroom. He heard it moving through his hair, like a little plastic shovel that’s been worn down by struggle with the sand. His ears weren’t used to the sound, nor his nose to the smell: the lousemother combing his hair wore the same clothes she’d worn yesterday, doused with a perfume that had spoiled. Something about the way in which she held his head still, setting her hand at the base of his skull and pressing two fingers into his nape, reminded him of a hairdresser who used to come to the house to cut his hair when he was younger.
“You’re not the first and you won’t be the last,” the lousemother pronounced finally, laying her tool down to rest. Everyone seemed to be saying this, yet they all meant something different by it. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last little genius, teased his sister Violeta. (“Little geniuses can catch lice?” she’d ask him now, with a wry smile.) You’re not the first and you won’t be the last child to have a hypersensitive mom, said his father. Anyway, this hypersensitivity wasn’t unrelated to the fact that he had such a great aptitude for math, his father would add.
The boy’s cellphone rang before he got home. His father had been notified, but he didn’t sound angry. Why is contracting head lice still so common? His father had explained this to him last time too. Immunization. He contracted head lice at a young age to build resistance to other body lice, which were actually dangerous, and which he’d have contracted as an adult if he were to go, say, to jail, or war. This whole business of lice hunting however was ridiculous and didn’t solve the problem. (The boy had heard this before too; his father was repeating himself.) The proof lay in what the lousemother had said, You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Despite their routine inspections, the school didn’t manage to rid all the children of lice. Before they got off the phone, his father suggested the boy prepare himself something to eat and make use of his free time by playing the violin.
Certainly, his father would find a way to break it to his mother gently. But if Mom came home before she found out, then he would have to tell her himself. He would have to make sure not to agitate her. She would assume he was sick—that’s why they had sent him home, because he was sick. But his mother was as disgusted by illness as she was by head lice. (How many times have I told you? Don’t walk around barefoot, you’ll catch a cold. How many times have I told you? Don’t play with sick kids. How many times have I told you? Don’t stick your head so close to others’… )
The boy put off playing the violin. But the more he put it off, the better the chances she’d catch him playing when she walked in. So, he wasn’t sick, she would realize…
Mom liked the sound of the violin.
Instead of picking up the violin, he gets on the internet. Science waits at his fingertips. Singing Dunes. That would be his excuse for not having been practicing. An avalanche is for the sand pile what the bow is for a cello. The sound waves the avalanche creates as it tumbles down the slope get trapped in a dry layer of sand that acts like the resonator of a string instrument. The secret is that underneath all the dry sand, there remains sand that is still wet. When sound hits and reflects off of it, it attains otherworldly frequencies. The dunes’ string instruments are simply sand piles that have begun to dry out. What sand pile would want to sing during monsoon season?
Now it was dark outside. On Wednesdays, his sister came home late. Upon entering the house his mom said nothing to him at all. She went and shut herself inside her bedroom. He decided to go get his violin. He started playing Boccherini’s minuet, a piece he knew well.
“Will you stop that scratching?” came Mom’s voice, from inside.
She meant the violin. Though in the meantime, she’d probably heard about the lice, which would explain why she was mad. Now someone would have to clean him. And the music wasn’t helping, because unlike the little kids who, enchanted, followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin contentedly, lice couldn’t care less about music.
He put his violin aside and went into the bathroom. He knew that Mom could hear him from her bedroom. After hearing the bathroom door shut, she’d be listening closely. He opened the left drawer under the sink and started moving things around; meanwhile the little metal comb, with the aerodynamic appearance it had when it was clean, lay right on top. He threw it in the tub from a modest height. A loud clang would only make things worse. The sound of metal striking porcelain could not be mistaken. This, combined with the absence of a flush, would’ve had—with a little luck—the desired effect. Mom would assume he’d shut himself inside the bathroom to clean out the lice on his own.
By the time Violeta had arrived home, he’d finally come out of the bathroom. Violeta was on her cell phone when she opened the door. How is the little genius? she asked him merely with a glance from across the room. Then she made herself comfortable on the other end of the sofa. The television was on, loud. Violeta was still on the phone, speaking in a low voice and in code. So even if he or their mom had been eavesdropping, neither of them could have made out what she was saying. Some time went by like this. Then they shuddered from a sudden avalanche: the sliding doors behind the television that usually remained shut were opening. Mom had materialized between them. She wore striped pyjamas like those worn around a prison yard.
Mom started to yell at Violeta. “You will be the one to clean up his filth! I’ve spent my whole life cleaning you… You disgust me.”
They heard the line on Violeta’s phone drop.
He and Violeta locked themselves in the bathroom.
“You cried, admit it!” she tried to tease him, but when he wouldn’t bite, she stopped. “We’re not going to call Dad,” she said, determined, having him kneel onto the wet bathmat.
The nit comb was still lying at the end of the tub. Violeta reached for it noiselessly. She managed to pass it through his hair and then immediately turned on the faucet. Lifting his head just a little, he could see the fountain of water as it cascaded over the comb. It wasn’t enough to carry away whatever was lodged between its teeth. His gaze rose to the bracelets on Violeta’s wrist and to her fingernails, painted in a dark color that was now chipping at the edges. Chipped nail polish—his sister thought—betrayed an artistic temperament. Violeta obliged him to bend over again, passed the comb through his hair once more, and turned on the faucet. This time she let the water run for longer.
It wouldn’t last long, that was for certain. Violeta would quickly get bored and tell him that the whole delousing process was pointless. It was a vicious cycle. Even if she did manage to clean him up, he would just catch them all over again from someone else at school. They would keep sucking his blood for years. They feed on blood, hair, and dead skin, said the label on the lotion.
Violeta put down the comb after the third try. The water running forcefully down the spout had still not pulled the last little black things down the drain.
“In any case, at some point they just disappear,” sounded her voice over the water. “You don’t believe me, but it’s true,” he heard her say again. “Sometime during puberty they disappear on their own without any special shampoos or lotions. I thought I’d never escape. I buried dozens of mine in school books—I stuffed them deep inside the gutters. I had hundreds of abortions. The most innocent-seeming abortion in the world, unpeeling their eggs from your hair. Until one day it was over. By then I’d gotten so used to them that I hardly noticed I had stopped scratching.”
He didn’t believe this, either, but he kept quiet.
If his sister was interested in physics, he’d explain to her how sand dunes that’d started to go dry could play the cello. And how a comb could produce sound effects just by chafing against strands of hair—the hair-chords. But Violeta was dreadful at science; she wanted to be an actress. Now, she asked him to bend over again and she started washing him with regular shampoo, which definitely would have no effect on the lice.
He surrendered to her touch, for the first time with a vague urge to cry.
“Louse, Ψείρα” is excerpted from Dimitra Kolliakou’s Insect Alphabet (2018), winner of the 2019 Greek State Prize for the short story. When Kolliakou first published Insect Alphabet she intentionally refrained from categorizing it as a novel or a short story collection, preferring to leave more room for the reader’s own interpretation. Because Insect Alphabet has twenty-four chapters, organized according to the Greek alphabet—where each chapter corresponds to an insect beginning with that letter—I wanted to preserve the integrity of the Greek by setting each title in both languages, where feasible. This way the reader brushes up repeatedly against the Greek. The sense of defamiliarization, which after all lies at the heart of translation, felt like an important experience for me to honor. In this book, especially, acknowledging difference matters. Insofar as each chapter also reads as an independent short story, there is no central protagonist who matters most, just many separate characters brushing up against each other whose experiences matter equally.
Each chapter’s seemingly independent narrative also centers on a meaningful convergence between insects and people in a way that ironically hints at the parallels between life in microcosm (insects) and macrocosm (humans) in order to bring out the inextricable affinities that bind humankind daily, socially and environmentally, with other organisms. A widower turns obsessively to beekeeping. Two siblings tiptoe around their mother’s temper just like the lice on the younger boy’s scalp. A precocious teenage girl, bullied and marginalized, finds hope in the communal lifestyle of ants. This is a book that curiously, microscopically examines multiculturalism, familial relationships, biological instincts, and the ways in which our given language might falter at climactic moments.
On a stylistic level, my challenge in translating Kolliakou’s prose lay in its precision and succinctness, as well as the ability of Greek to be abrupt without sounding curt or incomplete. I sometimes had to soften the transitions between sentences—although, here, too, I saw an opportunity to retain, on occasion, the sense of estrangement one feels upon encountering the other.
This is not unrelated to Kolliakou’s intention: the epigraph to Insect Alphabet opens with, “My dear Europe.” This address frames the book as if it were an open letter to Europe and its citizens, but not just any Europe, a version of “Europe which is vulnerable, which is lacking in openness,” as Kolliakou said in an interview with Greek magazineAthens Voice. After completing her studies in classical philology and linguistic theory in Athens and Edinburgh, Kolliakou reveled in the cosmopolitanism of Europe, moving often and self-identifying as a “stranger,” admittedly “a choice which ultimately cannot have been random,” she said. The more familiar one gets with defamiliarizing experiences, the more multiplicity and texture one’s experience attains. The more sensitively we come to perceive the strangeness of our own routines, the eccentricity of our singular lives, the more supple and tolerant we can become of difference and change.
Dimitra Kolliakou (b. 1968) grew up in Athens and she lives and works in Paris. She has been awarded many prizes for her works of fiction, including the Short Story State Literary Award and the Anagnostis literary prize for Insect Alphabet, (Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων, Patakis Publishers, 2018). Her most recent book is the novel Αταραξία (Ataraxia, Patakis Publishers, 2022).
Eleni Theodoropoulos grew up in Athens, Greece. She writes essays and translates from Modern Greek. She is currently translating Insect Alphabet by Dimitra Kolliakou and is a PhD student in Comparative Thought & Literature at Johns Hopkins University.
Those who looked up at him from the ground, behind palms shielding the sun, did not lower his body from the cross today either. hands clasped beneath their chests, they did not reach out to one another but stood apart in a pride justified by their lamentation at bearing witness to the punishment. this before our own caliphs approved of taking sides. beneath the scratchy fabric that cloaked my body, I stitched my eye to my groin, my mind to the quick of my nails, the feeling of my headscarf’s fold, I took in the faces of whoever was there at the cross and brought them to you.
“Here’s the prophet, here’s the camel,” my milk-sibling whispered in my ear—I didn’t like the way he raised his brow.
In this world on which my ass sits or my soles stand, what sense is there in taking blood as if it were a progress payment? because I tore the cloth from my head and used it to soak up all the mottled liquid from those wooden beams. today they did not take Christ down from there, nor did they find the killers of the children shot at the police barricades today. we’d talked about it all that afternoon, twelve women at our gold day, our second meeting after Muhlis Bey’s heart attack and Besime Hanım’s first hysterectomy, “He hung on the cross exactly thirty days, rotted, and the crows ate him,” said Huriye the hostess, slipping another gold coin down her shirt. they ate their mosaic cake and mumbled thank God we never had to name our sons after Jesus I would never forget their faces as they did.
“Here’s the dirt, here’s the people,” my milk-sibling yelled—I never liked the way he’d pinch me.
I was sent to schools and enrolled in courses, calligraphy, ballet, piano and folk dance—hopefully we’ll do something from the Caucuses— but I wish I knew how to talk to a board whenever blood is spilled, I wish I’d told my mother I wanted to be enrolled in a course that helped me know at a single glance the kind of tree that cross had been carved from, “Don’t you dare nail him to a spruce.” it was only after eight funerals, six weddings and thirteen births that I understood it was my classmate Abdullah who’d been crowned with thorns. after three separate beatings he had to stand on one leg in front of the chalkboard, both arms held out, his urine dribbling down his columnar leg because he couldn’t hold it anymore, I’ll clean his shame with a big towel thank God there aren’t many children in our class named Abdullah.
Bargain-counter cologne, unruly beard, the smell of wet feet after his ablution, and right in the middle of our house. we set up a scarecrow to keep the crows away from my father’s homemade sausages, a long board with short arms nailed to it. at the behest of my grandmother, who was reluctant to draw a face on the scarecrow, we tied two long black strips of cloth to its arms. we made a turban out of fabric leftover from Huriye Hanım’s trousseau and hung it on the top of the post—we’d been wiping the floor with it for the past ten years, you could hardly see its flower pattern anymore.
“Here is the woman, here is the field,” they commanded the public, and I resented my milk-sibling for finding me a husband.
Even as we consume every halal thing to the end, we have neighbors deluded enough to believe we can find another country from a fiber of meat in our teeth. there are those who said they never ate pork, and we countenanced their lies so they cut special willows for everyone without delay, free of inertia, nailing chic crosses without exactly measuring their short and long angles. our duty was to listen to the confession of atheism with pleasure and infuse ourselves with the evident power of pure Muslim faith. at the celebration for her grandchild’s fortieth day on earth, Gülsüm Teyze explained all this with elegance and grace, while the smell of bargain-counter cologne wafted upwards from the baby’s neck wrapped in muslin cloth and struck my nose.
Our eighth trip to the same exorcist and the demons won’t come out, the hodja is bushed, he prays, blows air, jumps up and down at regular intervals, “They didn’t take Christ down from there today, they didn’t find the corpses of the women burned on the side of the road today.” after a while, we know how to say destur to our inner demon and begin to extinguish our teacher’s fire with three kuluvallahs and a nas, protecting our national solidarity and unity from the evil eye.
“Here’s the seat, here’s the law,” they said among themselves, and I was so offended by my milk-sibling’s drool.
I wondered what to do with the tax deducted from my salary in this life of mine whose fragrant edges are adorned with roses, on the evening of my milk-sibling’s wedding, which I’d been invited to, all those lessons and courses would finally come in handy— maybe they’ll play a Caucasian tune— but when I saw the gold that Besime, Huriye and Muhsin Bey’s widow pinned to the bride and groom’s chests, I was amazed to see it there for the first time because the relief on the gold coin wasn’t Atatürk’s head.
Those who looked at them from the ground, with eyes they’d closed with both hands, did not collect their dead from the djemevi today. I neatly lined up their faces one by one, male and female, but my milk-sibling didn’t know the Elham and reversed the yem yelid and the yem yelüd.
I caught him one afternoon under our scarecrow greedily chewing sausages shaped like a crow’s beak. instead of getting a turban, my hair was cut and tied because I told everything I saw, opening a new front against crows. this makeshift cross gets so big it falls over, and the scissors cut wounds into my head.
“Here’s the sausage, here’s the crow,” he defended himself, my milk-sibling’s face looked like Petrus’.
The fifty-eighth time we were brought to the same hodja, my bothersome curse still didn’t go away, so I took it and brought it here to you.
This is an excerpt from Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu’s semi-autobiographical novel Elfiye, which we’re hoping will soon find a publisher. The novel tells the story of a Turkish poet and academic who, in the middle of completing a groundbreaking translation of an Ottoman-era sex book, exiles herself to Georgia after being declared a terrorist for signing a petition calling for peace in Southeastern Anatolia. The novel is in prose, but lengthy sections of it are told in highly referential, stream of consciousness, free verse poetry that deal with Elfiye’s sexual orientation and her family’s suppression of it throughout her childhood.
This section takes place just before Elfiye decides to leave Georgia for good. She’s been invited—lured, more like it—by her former professor to join him in New York so they can finish their work on the aforementioned sex book under the patronage of Columbia University. Not only has Elfiye done the translation, but she’s also written the articles and abstracts herself, all without receiving any official credit, and her professor has invited her because he can’t actually finish the job himself. Naturally, Elfiye is reluctant to go. Above the little Georgian town she’s exiled herself to, there looms a large cathedral which looms large in her mind as well. As a child, Elfiye was indoctrinated to believe that a Muslim—even a now nominal one like her—should not enter a non-Muslim house of worship, lest she become possessed by a djinn. But she goes anyway, hoping to find some guidance. While she’s there, she composes the following “hymn.”
Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu is an author and LGBTIQ* activist who has published four story collections and one novel, and co-founded the #MeToo movement in the Turkish publishing industry. Due to political and gender repression in her home country, she now lives in Germany. She also drew attention from the US literary scene with her last novel Elfiye in the field of queer writing. She has been accepted to the Master of Human Rights program at Friedrich Alexander University. She is currently a PEN Writers-in-Exile fellow. nazlikarabiyikoglu.com
Ralph Hubbell is a writer, teacher and translator whose fiction, essays, and translations have appeared in the Sun Magazine, Words Without Borders, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House’s Lost and Found, Asymptote, and elsewhere. In addition to Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu, he has also translated Oğuz Atay’s short story collection Waiting for the Fear, which will be published by NYRB Classics in late 2023.