Nostalgia, My Enemy

A great way to explore another culture is through poetry. This book, by one of the best living writers in Arabic, Saadi Youssef, does just that. It also provides beautiful poetry.

Youssef writes about all the traditional topics: love, nature, the changing seasons, and daily activities but he also describes his pain and anger at seeing the damage to his home country. In "A Difficult Variation" he describes his wishes for his native country, "Peace be upon Iraq's hills, its two rivers, the bank and the bend, / upon the palm trees / and the English hamlet gently dragging its clouds."

He writes deeply poignant poems about Iraq. In one he asks, “Is it your fault that once you were born in that country? / Three quarters of a century / and you still pay from your ebbing blood / its tax.”

But even more than the split he feels between Iraq’s history and future and his own separation from his homeland, Youssef pays close attention to the world he participates in moment by moment. As a translator of Whitman and Cavafy, he manages to convey the joy of daily living. In “Observing” the author says, “On the door / the spider weaves / what has disappeared / it weaves the meaning of the garment.” In a poem about swimming in a lake near his British home, he reports bringing “my face closer / to the surface of the water, / to watch how the sky’s waters go home, / how this evening is born.”

One poem, “Hamlet’s Balcony” explores Shakespeare’s great character experiencing nightfall, “I am in the watchtower now: / the wind enters the sea, / the sea enters the wind, / the horizon is salt.” 

A curious wide-ranging poet, Youssef even writes about a homeless man and a squirrel in New York City and about the damage after Katrina flooded New Orleans, “Swamps are calling us with names that had been forgotten…/ The stars are our gravestones in the water. / The engulfing silence is our prayer.” 

Despite all the sorrows of his life, the brutality and tragedies his country has experienced, Youssef manages to exude hope. In “A Spring Downpour” he says, “This moment is enough. / This white moment / white.”

   
Diversity    Poetry