In the Beginning… and Later

by Naseer Hassan

The fever called “living”!
–Edgar Allan Poe

An ancient lightning… a small courtyard… a green spot in a child’s memory… summers, hot summers… a ghetto that knew rain and mud… and looking forward to mysterious days.

When I was a child, I used to watch remote stars from poor rooftops–where families would sleep during summer’s unmerciful nights–and I drew whole virtual worlds there. I kept watching through glass, and I streamed away inside tiny bubbles when the sky poured… Maybe I’ve been in love with life since the beginning?

But “history” doesn’t care about individuals, or societies, or peoples, as I recognized later. And beginnings are no more than innocent, neutral initial scenes.

Gradually, life revealed a grim face, with a rough tribal color and military mien. A regime, a dictatorship, a person, that grew like a poisonous parasitic plant, and started to target life in all its shapes, insinuating itself even into its most private and final shelters.

When the Iraqi-Iranian war started, I was 18 years old. What a paradox! The year that is supposed to be the year of a person’s deep bloom towards life was the year I came to know what war was, what loss was, coffins, screams, orphans, widows, and fear. So, April, evidently, can be the cruelest month…

We were expecting that it would all take a few weeks or a few months, but years dragged years behind them like military vehicles dragging their ugly muddy ammunition in the mud, and the war continued for a full eight years. We grew up, meanwhile, but something had already died, or faded, inside us. Like the many dear ones we lost and the many dreams that we had to bid farewell, even before recognizing them. Iraqi society became a deconstructed one: hatred spread, fears, secret reports, and the news of prisons, executions, and torture that can chill a man to the bone.

Should I say more about the second gulf war and the later embargo? I don’t think so. But I can say that the red color of the war days turned to the black dusty ones of the embargo: huge, vast mourning and deep silence.

And right in the middle of the embargo decade, when I had almost reached my mid-thirties, something happened inside me, something curious, a moment of enlightenment, a shift, although a tragic one. I suddenly felt that we had already lost a large portion of our lives and souls, and what was left, with all the scars that it already carried, was going to be lost, too.

Yes, “history” can be that cruel. Whole generations might not only live under dictatorship and fear, but die, too, under that same dictatorship and fear.

I can say, about those days, that the deepest cry of my life was born then. A cry that rose from an unknown place to become a hurricane sweeping away the “simple furniture” of my previous existence. And I had nothing, at that time, but pen and paper; in other words, the Word…

Actually, I had always felt a serious need to write, since my adolescence maybe, and I had always written poems and tried forms here and there with just my small ring of friends, since I did not take the idea of publishing or being a poet seriously. Maybe because I didn’t recognize my “deepest identity” yet? Maybe because I didn’t dig deeper inside my soul, or maybe because I became aware, subconsciously, that what I was going to write could not be published in those days of the dictatorship. Unless, of course, I was ready for more political pressure, of which I had already had enough.

So … I wrote about almost everything: ancient childhood, the lost life, time, meaning, world, and existence.

I wrote about hope, too. But what kind of hope?

It was that kind which can only grow in ignorance and forgetting, like unnoticed weeds among tiles, when silent years flow again after big wars and fires. It is that hope which only the basic fabric of life can preserve.

However cruel the things a poet, or a writer, passes through, the result will be failed literature if he doesn’t have enough spiritual power to exceed his painful experience and reconstruct it in his literary aesthetic consciousness. Something of that was in what Archibald MacLeish said about Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which was great poetry, he said, in spite of its melancholic atmosphere, because she didn’t write in a merely broken tone.

Indeed, I didn’t pay serious attention to literary form until later. Only then could I recognize some elements in my writing, like the inclination to write short or very short pieces, and to charge the word, the sentence, or the whole poem with the maximum possible energy—to open the poem to multiple interpretations.

Some critics and readers said that my studying architecture influenced my inclination to avoid unnecessary elaboration; some said that my partiality to philosophy made my writing include both the daily and the eternal, the transitory and the essential, the very local and the universal, but in an allusive, implicit language.

My first poetry collection, The Circle of Sundial (1998), was a metrical one. So was the second. But the third was a mixture of metrical and prose poems. My last, Dayplaces, was all prose poems, though a rhythmic prose.

If the one basic requirement of any important literature is “modernity,” as I believe, then it is essential to define what I mean by this highly controversial term. I mean by being modern the ability to be in contact with the heartbeat of the present moment. This demands continuous innovation and experimentation with form, not only to avoid the boredom and monotony which the reader might suffer, but because formal innovation is the necessary container for the most contemporary visions of an incredibly complicated and increasingly fast-moving world.

One of the totally new features in some of my poems, as far as I know, is the suggested footnote title: whether there is or there is not a title, there is a footnote followed by a question mark. The modern reader should have some ability to speculate, especially since we live in a world where there is no definite meaning or truth; with the footnote title, I invite such a reader to participate in formulating the meaning right away, before the poem has begun.

The poems may sometimes appear “difficult,” but, in fact, I detest pedantic ambiguity, when there is no real depth, or even what some might call the “intellectual” poem, which I can barely understand. I think poetry, and writing in general, are much more than games or arrangements of words, although they are, technically, no more than this–another paradox of our familiar labyrinth.

The reader might notice that I revisited, in my latest collection, Dayplaces, some ancient texts and myths, like Dante’s Inferno, Ithaca, and The Arabian Nights. Here I do not deal with the ancient text or myth as a ready-made thing but make it dissolve into what might seem the transitory and the “usual.” So it is no surprise when Noah’s flood becomes a drop of rain or sweat on someone’s forehead, or Odysseus’ trip becomes a few minutes’ transport in a vehicle, or even when Dante’s Inferno becomes the slow rhythm of a life that persistently rejects its children and their dreams.

After all, a lot has happened since those days when I wrote earthquake, and now, as I, and a whole generation, approach the threshold of our fifties, I can only say that the bleeding has continued, in so many different ways, and so has the struggle to formulate and re-formulate the word.

 

 

 

Translated from the Arabic by Jon Davis and Naseer Hassan