By Ghada Mourad
In an interview with Prairie Schooner, Golan Haji, a Kurdish Syrian poet, translator, and pathologist residing in France since 2011, states: “Translation is a process of changing places while you are in the same place […] It’s the stranger who comes to your house, is welcomed, is invited, and you know that he will change you in a very secret way, even through silence. And this deep, slow change that translation gives is very important.” As a Kurdish born and raised in Syria, Haji has spent his life in translation. For him, writing is also an act of translation through which something is always lost. Hence, a poem is imperfect, and its beauty stems from this imperfection. But I would add, this imperfection is symptomatic of the imperfection of language itself, and there is nothing like translation to confirm the yearning of language for perfection through translation. In fact, translation substantiates the openness of language to, and embrace of, other languages.
This endless play between the original text and its translation—whether we consider the latter as the afterlife of the former (as Walter Benjamin would have it in his “Task of the Translator”) or as its mirror image—is tangible in Haji’s poetry collection titled A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know. Published in 2017 by Midsummer’s Night Press and co-translated by the author and Stephen Watts, this collection comprises 61 poems revolving around various themes, from loneliness to tedium, loss, and conflicting emotions. After the first reading, one can surmise that the collection’s meditative poems consist of a contemplation on the modern humans’ struggles in their everyday lives. One can even interpret them from the prism of language and translation as a reflection on the relationship between languages. However, this impression is soon superseded by an oppressive and haunting feeling as the reader quickly realizes that death and splintered selves permeate these poems. In fact, the lexicon connected with death, such as “dead, tombstones, grave, coffin, cemetery, widowed, orphaned, grief,” recurs in 23 of the collection’s poems. The word “mirror” appears in 9 of them as well. Furthermore, the pervasive recurrence of body parts, such as “the drowned son’s eye,” “the lip,” “the mouth,” “the hand,” and “the bones,” contribute to the feelings of shattering and disintegration that bring to mind the dispersal of the Kurdish people aggravated by the physical and emotional devastations caused by the Syrian war, which Haji fled to take refuge in France.
Accordingly, I would like to analyze these poems from two distinct optics: as meditation on language(s) and translation on one level, and an illustrative contemplation on the devastation of the war while desperately attempting to recollect one’s thoughts and emotions in the aftermath of this war.
As a metalinguistic venture, the poems embody the poet’s efforts to expand the boundaries of Arabic poetry on both formal and content levels. Composed in free verse, prose poems, aphorisms, the texts vary in length, ranging from six-verse poems to several-pages-long ones. Writing is illustrated as a violent process erupting from the remains of previous generations, as in “A Well in a Distant Cemetery,” where a madman dug a well with a needle, “so that ink gushed forth/The word was” (12). This well is reduced to its “lip” where “there is a ney with which the earth is narrating our days to the stones” (51). It is clear for the poet that the language we speak is not our own: “The river of words is shallow, / the dead were swimming in it before you” (15). Another poem, “The End of Days,” returns to this act as a snake “with honey-coloured eyes” tells the story of its survival: “We fertilized our language with our debris” (52). Language is nurtured by our own remains. Hence, producing language does not come without violence. It is like opening a wound: “Stretch your lip. / Insert the blade. / Let speech bleed” (15). This latter image illustrates perfectly the inherently paradoxical act of producing language. It’s a self-inflicted wound and suffering that is sovereign yet resulting inevitably in sundering of the flesh, la déchirure, to put it in Georges Bataille’s term, or as Adonis has it in his poems.
This reflection on language extends to illustrate its longing for other languages, which can be satisfied through translation. Thus, one can read this verse: “No one leaves any trace/ in the mirror” (7) as the incapability of language to transcend itself through a solely narcissistic gaze into itself in the mirror. Therefore, one can interpret “Party’s End” as the illusory state of sovereignty in which a language dwells, “Be off, I beg you. / Hurry up. Go away” until it realizes its need for the other in a final command in the poem’s last verse: “Come back to me” (16).
I have no access to the poems in the Arabic, but the sense of fragmentation and splintering that pervades these poems is in tension in the English translation with the numerous alliterations, internal rhymes, and slant rhymes. This implicit interaction between the original and the translation is encapsulated in the poem titled “A New Life?” wherein the speaker declares, “Coming back from the night, /…I talked to myself like a madman, /… to begin in silence my day that was splintered by the years” (55). The madman, who has previously started to create “the word” in “A Well in a Distant Cemetery,” as though in anticipation of the translation, brings to the night the light of a day that, although seemingly a consolidated temporality, is “splintered by the years.” The tension at the heart of language is impeccably transposed into the temporality of the day. Hence, in “A Well in a Distant Cemetery,” the alliterations in the stanza starting with “The word was” are repeated in the rest of the stanza in “Swaying inward toward the page/ like a lantern descending a white-washed well” where the reiteration of the sound “w” consolidates a poem that is trying to contain or harmonize the “ink gush[ing] forth” (12).
Even though in his above-mentioned reflection on translation Haji implies that one can travel without spatial movement, he adds, “to translate poetry well, you need to know what’s going on in the world, and that your roots are everywhere, in all continents. Translation is not just moving the words from language to language; it’s also the movement of the shadow of meaning, how you must be precise to capture the sensations, the images.” This is indisputably accurate about translation and the translator, but I would add that a good poem defies national and geographical boundaries, as is the case of Haji’s poetry collection. A reader can relate to the pain, the loneliness, the grief, the conflicted love, and the feeling of isolation that transpire in these poems. Hence, the aphorisms splintered throughout these poems express timeless reality. In “Box of Pain,” the speaker addresses another person who is “weak like me,” and wonders: “If the dead were buried, / how would pain be buried? / What is the point of cursing the curse? / Life is loss.” (32). The alliteration between life and loss, as well as the final punctuation in the last verse make it clear and irrefutable that loss is an integral part of life.
In addition to the poems’ many pithy aphorisms that never fall into platitudes because beautifully composed and translated, these poems in English translation bring new poetic forms and expand the boundaries of poetry in English, as they include narrative poems such as “The Feather and the Mirror” wherein a Kurd and a she-djinn, two extremely unusual characters even in Arabic poetry, are the characters of a fairytale that ends with many mysterious disappearances (56). Another poem, whose title “Were It Not for the Three Pleasures Afforded to Youth…” is excerpted from the Mu’allaqa of Tarafa Ibn al-‘Abd, a pre-Islamic Arab poet known for his biting satire and indulgence in sensual pleasure and the pursuit of glory. This poem is inaugurated with an isolated verse steeped in irony: “The idea that Salvation is catalyzed by malady.” The speaker goes on to advise the reader to “deceive life and live as a convalescent, an insomniac, a drunkard” in an oblique reference to Tarafa Ibn al- ‘Abd. The poem culminates in the paradox that has been recurring in the collection: “Be someone who sleeps a little, then is knocked over by a blade of grass.” (54). This injunction sums up the project upon which Haji and Watts embarked as they rendered this collection in English—to test the limits of poetic practices while (or in order to) remaining vulnerable to the trials of the exterior world, an objective that circles back to the title that leaves it up to the reader to name this “tree.”
Haji, Golan. A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know. Translated by Stephen Watts and Golan Haji. A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2017.