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929 Project: Genesis 8 – two poems

July 24, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

For today’s post, I present two poems related to Genesis 8.  The first is by the person many consider to be the greatest living Arabic poet; the second is by a celebrated Cuban-American poet.


The New Noah (with translator’s notes)

By Adonis (see also here and here and especially here)

Translated by Shawkat M. Toorama


We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.   
We live — and the rest of Humanity dies.
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.

“Why, Lord, have you saved us alone
From among all the people and creatures?
And where are you casting us now?
To your other Land, to our First Home?
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life?
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun.
We despair of the Light,
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow
In which to start Life anew.

“If only we were not that seedling of Creation,
Of Earth and its generations,
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember,
Or something in between,
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”


If time started anew,
and waters submerged the face of life,
and the earth convulsed, and that god
rushed to me, beseeching, “Noah, save the living!”
I would not concern myself with his request.
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead.
I would open the depths of their being to the flood,
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,
that we have emerged from the cave,
that we have changed the sky of years,
that we sail without giving in to our fears—
that we do not heed the word of that god.
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair,
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred,
heedless of that god and his word,
longing for a different, a new, lord.

Translator’s note

“The New Noah” is a poem I first encountered in my twenties, a poem Adonis wrote in his twenties. The poem’s content is simple enough. In the first part, Noah is saved from the flood and wonders why he and his people alone have been saved; despairing, he asks the Lord what He has in store for them. In the second part, Noah describes what he would do if he could turn back time, describes how he and his people would ignore God and sail to a different kind of salvation. Meditation on the relationship between the poetic persona and the prophet I leave to the reader.

In Adonis’s long poems, with which I have more experience, the language can at times be opaque, dense with allusion, and grammatically complex, what some admirers term al-sahl al-mumtani‘, the (apparently) easy (but effectively sublimely) elusive. “The New Noah” is in a straightforward Arabic, plaintive and mournful in the first part, aggrieved and assertive in the second, but translating proved difficult indeed. To begin with, there is the irregular but insistent rhyme at the ends of quite short lines (most are only five or six words long), something I have tried to convey. There is the playful and daunting use of classical Arabic meters, which I have brazenly ignored. And there is the careful deployment – I cannot think of another way of describing this – of the words allâh (“God,” line 2), rabb (“Lord,” lines 8, I5, 22, 42), and ilâh ("god," lines 25, 36, 41). Unlike English, Arabic does not have uppercase and lowercase letters: the distinction between “God” and “god” is, consequently, made by using two different, though admittedly related, words: allâh and ilâh . I have paid special attention to this. Overall, I am at peace with the translation, though rhyming the final four lines was difficult: “undeterred,” however implied, is my own intervention; and I still waver between “A New Noah” and “The New Noah.” There are certainly small successes: “fastening” and “opening” in lines four and six happily rhyme; the resonance of “porthole” in line seven; the possibility in English of using uppercase in the first part of the poem to underscore the difference in tenor between it and the second part; and that rarest of creatures, a cognate, in “gelid” in line 39. – S.M.T.


A Dove Is Not a Bird

By Dionisio D. Martínez (see also here)

For Lynda Hull (1954-1994)

A dove is not a bird. You can make the argument in reverse, but it’s not
as convincing because it lacks those tangible elements by which we

measure the veracity of anything. An argument is not a dove, but you
can make a case for it – as if you were building a cage with gaps much

wider than the birds you intend to catch and keep. Even if you can argue
the large bones of night into submission, the city will follow you every-

where: the city is a loop of darkness. Even at dawn – the throat parched
and the repetition of the last few thoughts dulled – city streets are the halls

of the great indoors: this island-as-idea shining inside you. That’s what
you’ve come for. That’s why the myth became a theory dovetailing into

fact. You can say a bird will not fly without air, all the conviction in your
breath leaving you the way the soul might leave those who still believe

in the possibility of a soul. Like a muddy fact. I make my way to the place
where you’re no longer necessary, but the matchbook of memory strikes

another one and you’re still holding your essential smile. If you trust my
reconstruction of the scene, I can prove that you looked away each time

you smiled – as if something in your mouth had taken flight. If you trust
your eyes, you know we never look away: our gaze is always fixed on

a target; it’s the night of this anonymous city that shifts incessantly. This
new bandit making tracks with one foot, covering them with the other.

(NB this blog entry was posted on August 1, 2018, and backdated to July 24 for reasons explained here.)

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