book excerptise:   a book unexamined is not worth having

If only the sea could sleep: love poems

Adonis and Kamal Boullata (tr) and Susan Einbinder (tr) and Mirene Ghossein (tr)

Adonis; Kamal Boullata (tr); Susan Einbinder (tr); Mirene Ghossein (tr);

If only the sea could sleep: love poems

Green Integer Books (77), Los Angeles, 2003, 150 pages

ISBN 1931243298, 9781931243292

topics: |  poetry | arabic

After struggling for several years to get hold of a book of Adonis' poetry, I managed to get this used copy on a visit to Los Angeles. Many of the poems work well for me, especially the "Beginning of ..." series (excerpted below). The translations are straightforward, and work on the content and not the form. In some of the poems, the text has been truncated, e.g. in "Unintended Worship Ritual", the missing first paragraph makes it harder to make sense of the poem. (see different translation at

A small book, and well worth the read, but I am somewhat mystified by the poet's amazing reputation - Adonis has been a Nobel nominee many times over. Personally, I can relate more strongly to the intensity of Mahmoud Darwish.


Love 37

	(from Qasa'id UlaIf, 1963)

The road and the house love me
The living and the dead
The red jug
At home
Its water in love with it
The neighbor loves me
The field and the threshing floor
The fire
The arms that toll
Happy with the world
or unhappy
the tear my brother shed
hidden by the crop
Anemone that mortifies the blood
I have been here as long as the god of love
What would love do if I died.

House of love 38


I love you
as if all hearts were a mirror of mine
as if life were invented for my love
I love you
O how much I deleted from your lips
built my heart into a road and a house
hung it as a cloud over clouds
and how I equated beauty with you and her fantasy sprout
and how and how
I love you
the light in your eyes has withdrawn
it has been flooded
our hair like drifts of snow poured on your shoulders
braided, tied or loose
I feel time has melted in my eyelids
solidified and tumbled
like silence.

Beginning of the name p. 50

My days are her name

The dreams, when the sky is sleepless
    over my sorrow, are her name
The obsession is her name
and the wedding, when slayer and sacrifice embrace
	is her name.

Once I sang: every rose
    as it tires, is her name
    as it journeys, is her name.

Did the road end, has her name changed?

Beginning of the way

Night was paper -- we were

"Did you draw a face, man, or a stone?"
"Did you draw a face, woman, or a stone?"

I did not answer        We loved

Our hush has no way
like our love, it has no way.

Beginning of travel

Encounters come, the sun dips in them
encounters go, the wound opens in them
    I do not know the tree's branch anymore
    nor does the wind remember
    my features         is this my future?
the lover asked a flame.
Yearning for the journey rising in her face
he sailed in her.

Beginning of love

Lovers read the wound          We wrote the wounds
     into another time      We painted
     our time:
     my face was evening
     your eyelashes the morning.

Our footsteps are blood and longing.

Every time they rose they plucked us,
hurling their love, hurling us,
a rose to the winds.

Beginning of Sex-I

Room      balconies        darkness
     tracing of wounds
     a body breaks

between wandering and loss

our blood revolves in question and answer
    speech is the maze.

Beginning of Sex-II

Rooms bending in arms, and sex uplifting its towers-
    into a gulf of sorrow
    within a gulf of waists- and sex opening its gates-
    we entered.

Fire was growing and night huddled its lanterns
    we fashioned
a mound, filled a pit
and whispered to the far-reaching space
to offer up its hands.

The light of bitterness was like a river
its banks lost, we made
its water ours, we made
our own banks a garment
for the whims of the river's banks...

Beginning of words

Our two bodies thunder
you say, I listen
I say, you listen, words mingle.

Our two bodies an offering
you fall, I fall
fantasies and flares around us
you fall, I fall.

Between you and me
words gather
and blaze.

Beginning of wind

"Body of night" she said, and continued "home
for the open wounds and their days..."

We began as dawn begins, we enter the shadow
our dreams interlaced
and the sun loosens its buttons:"foam veiled by the sea
shall come." We were
reading to ourselves our own distance.

We rose and saw the wind erase our traces
we whispered
we will resume our secret meetings
and parted...

Beginning to spell

Now we may wonder how we met
now we may decipher the road of return
and say: seashores are abandoned
and masts are
news of a wreck.

Now we can bow and say
we came to an end.

Beginning of madness

When your winds swept over his boundless forests
he said: death has the shape of a butterfly
and sex the face of madness.

There he is now, wearing what the sacrificial victim wears
his tomorrow
his yesterday
his horizon
a blade, and dust of words
before his eyes.

A mirror for Khalida

	(from al-Masrah wal-Maraya, 1968)

1. The wave p.40

A branch for twigs to leaf around

A journey which drowns the day
In the water of eyes
A wave which taught me

That the light of stars
The face of clouds
The moaning of dust
Are all one flower...

2. Beneath the water p.41

We slept in a cloth woven
From the crimson of night -- a night of nebula and guts
A cheering of blood, a beat of cymbals
A lighting of suns beneath the water.

The night was pregnant.

3. Lost p.42

I got lost in your hands, my lips were
A fortress
Longing for outlandish conquests
In love with siege
You came forth
Your waist a sultan,
Your hands the vanguard of armies,
You eyes, a hiding place and a friend.
We clung together, drifted, entered
The forest of fire—I outline the first step
You open the road.

4. Fatigue p.43

The old fatigue my love
is blooming by the house
it has a drawer by now,
and a window.
It sleeps in its huts, and disappears.

O how we worried about its wandering, we ran
roaming the place
asking, prying
we sight it and scream: how, and where?
each wind
has come
each branch

but you did not...

5. Death p.44

Then the little hours come
Steps and roads recur
Then the houses decay
The bed puts out the fire of its days and dies
as does the pillow.

(end A mirror for Khalida)

I give myself to the abyss of sex


You were the desert and I jailed snow in you
like you I split into sand and mist
You were a god to whose face I cried to erase the semblance
    between us, I said I merged your body with mine
    You were the crack filled with my waves
    I was the barefoot night when I admitted you
      	 through my navel
    You multiplied my footsteps into a road, you entered
    into my innocent water.
Expand.  Strike roots into my loss.

On my pleasure's ice I walk
between riddle and miracle
within a rose.

I slipped into your basin
an earth revolving around me, your limbs a flowing Nile
we floated we sank
you crossed into my blood my wves crossed over your bosom
You broke.  Let us begin: love has forgotten the edge of night
should I shout, flood will come?

Let us begin: a scream mounts from the city, people are
    walking mirrors.
If salt goes by, we meet, will you?
My love is a wound
my body a rose upon the wound to be plucked by death,
   a branch       surrendered of its leaves and settled.

I entered your basin holding a city beneath my grief
    what transforms the green branch into a snake
    the sun into a dark lover.

		We were fused into each other
		   I heard your heartbeat
   within my skin (are you an orchard?)
the barrier fell (were you a barrier?)
the seagull asked the thread woven by the sailor
   the traveler's snow sang an invisible sun (are you my sun?)
the lost man heard a voice (were you my voice?)
my voice my lifeline your lustful pulse your breasts were
my darkness and every night was my whiteness.
A cloud rolled I surrendered my face to the flood
    and stayed among my own remains.

       In my passion you melted
No borders bound my senses no sword sweeps asunder...
We were both one face.  My shirt is no apple nor you
a paradise.  We are field and harvest guarded by
the sun.  I made you ripen.  Come forth from the
green edge.  This is our plenty: our bodies are the sower and
     the reaper.
Only you are one with my limbs and organs
Come forth from that edge
I bespeak my own death.

You define your own skin
loosen your lips fuse them between my teeth
I am night and day a lull in time
in our fusion
strike roots into my loss.


One of the greatest poets of Arab literature, Adonis's work often centers on
the process of poetic creation, but his work has somehow remained highly
appealing to Arab readers, and his has had, perhaps, more influence in terms
of innovation and modernity than any other contemporary Arab poet. Twice he
has been a finalist for the Nobel Prize. For Adonis, poetry is a vision
(ru'ya") a "leap outside of established concepts, a change in the order of
things and in the way we look at them."

Selected from Al-A'mul al Shi'riyya, 1-3 (The Complete Works, 3 volumes) the
current book explores the great Syrian poet's oeuvre more than any other
previous collection in English.

Autobiographical fragments

	  (from Yawmiyyat al-hozn al-'aadi)
I was born in a poor and simple village called Kassabeen, in the area of
Ladhkia, in the year 1930. A village that belonged to the beginnings of
creation; huts made of stone and mud that we called our houses. The mud
cracked every season, and we had to fix the roof with new mud and thatch to
make it withstand rain and wind and time. Nevertheless, the rain kept seeping
through invisible cracks and its drops fell on our heads – father and mother
and kids – as we sat to rest, or eat, or sleep. The house was so narrow that
my father built a big wooden bed and raised it on high stilts where we all
slept: it was like a smaller house inside the house, and we used the space
beneath it for many purposes. In winter, when it was cold, our only cow, and
her companion ox, slept under it.

Every day I went barefoot to the ‘Kuttab’, which means the village teacher’s
abode, where the old man taught me how to read and write. I sat near him and
he hooked his cane’s pointed tip between my toes, to keep me there, in case I
thought of running away to roam in the fields, as I usually did whenever I
had the chance.

I’d never known, till I was 12, what you could call a regular school. There
was no such thing in the area where we lived. The nearest school to the
village was so far away that a kid my age couldn’t possibly make it there,
and back, twice a day – on foot. And till that age, I’d never seen a car, or
heard a radio, or knew what electricity was. And of course, never saw a city.

At this age also, I began to discover my own body, when I had my first lesson
in how a male and female get together. It happened at night, in a small
valley outside the village, where she took me. After that, I used to press my
body to the earth, and roll in the grass as if I was fondling a woman’s body.

Memories of the village: climbbing a mountain of wind

[I remember] the mud oven: I can’t forget the flames, the bread that emerged
from it with its fresh heavenly smell.

But where is this village now? When I went back, after fifty years, I felt as
if I was returning to something dead. As though I was climbing a mountain of
wind. Perhaps I went back to visit my father who’d died, to whose funeral I
was unable to go. Or maybe to examine, like many others, reality’s share in
life, and memory’s, and imagination’s. Maybe to measure, in my mind, time as
it flows and separates me from my birthplace – but then why do I feel that
the place where I was born is not merely geographical? Why do I feel that I
can create my birthplace as I do my poem? And a poem is never complete. Nor
the place where one is born. Yes, one is born more than once, in more places
than one.

Meeting the president: getting to a real school

I don’t know how it occurred to me – in a waking dream, I suppose – to find a
way that would allow me to attend a real school. The first president of
Syria, after its independence from the French Mandate, was supposed to visit
the Ladhkia region soon. I thought I’d write a poem of welcome which I’d
recite in front of him. Maybe he would like it, and want to see me. He might
ask me what I want. And I’ll answer him: “I want to learn.” He might grant me
my wish. And this is literally what happened.

It was a rainy day and I was shivering like a sparrow which had lost its
nest. The chief of our tribe was against my father and he was also
responsible for the welcoming of the president. I told my father I was going
to read a poem to the president but he didn’t reply; he just refused to
come. When I arrived there, thousands of people were crowding round the
president, and when the chieftain found out what I wanted to do, his men came
and took me away. I started to cry, telling myself: ‘I am not going back to
the village without reading my poem.” I quickly walked to Jibla, the next
stop on the President’s visit and there, when I explained to the Mayor, Yasin
Ali Adeeb, he promised to help me, saying to the President: “Mr President!
There is a child who has walked a long way to read a poem to you!” and so I
was allowed to read my poem. It was my first dream come true. I was thirteen
years old. And since then, I love number 13.

Adonis and exile

Poet paints Arab world, laments fall of poetry in West
Stephan Delbos, June 17, 2009

Exile is a key creative force in Adonis' poems, a force that has allowed him
to see his homeland from both sides of the border. But he is quick to point
out that his situation is not unique.

"Political exile is very superficial; it's only a change of place. The real
exile is interior," he said while in town for the Prague Writers'
Festival. "A poet who doesn't feel exiled is only part of the superficial
world. In this sense, exile is hell because it means anxiety, the perpetual
searching for new things. But it's also paradise because it opens new

Audience as a concept

Many of his poems - written in Arabic - make reference to Arab culture and
politics, but his poetry is not written for any singular audience, Adonis

" 'Audience' is a concept that only exists in politics and ideology," he
says. "A reader of poetry is always a creator, so poets have creative
readers, but no audience."

The multifaceted nature of Adonis' biography is mirrored by his involvement
in both poetry and politics. His writing, teaching and involvement with
organizations such as UNESCO allow him to fulfill what he calls human

"We are all responsible to work for a better society, and there are two ways
[to do this]: theoretically and practically. Poetry cannot work in practical
ways, but it can give new images to the world and new relationships between
words and things. This is its responsibility," he said.

The relatively limited readership of poetry is a thorn in every poet's
side. Adonis is critical of the West's indifference to poetry, and resignedly
mourns the ongoing divorce between poetry and society. At the same time, he
is less than optimistic about poetry's ability to establish itself in the
national consciousness.

"We tried in the Western world. We invented political and ideologically
engaged poetry, but this engagement killed both the concepts and the poetry,"
he said. "There will always be great poets, but we can say that poetry
doesn't have a real presence in the West."

Poems and worldview

Whatever the size of poetry's readership, it remains crucial to Adonis' life
and worldview. "'''Poetry is a way of seeing the world, so human beings are by
definition poets. The poet's vision is the same as everyone's. It's not a
difference of nature, but of practice.'''"

No matter how diverse and numerous Adonis' projects, poetry remains central
as a way of communing with the past and present.

"Poets are all living in the same forest: Homer, Dante, Hölderlin and Celan,
each a different world, but all living together, where contradictions
dissolve. This is the secret of poetry," he said.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] 2009 Aug 03