Updated: Apr 22, 2022
I had a magical 24 hours in London this week. Seeing friends, criss-crossing the great city on HumanForest bicycles, enjoying the spring weather.
After a particularly entertaining coffee and cake with Zoltan in the Great Courtyard of the British museum, I popped into the LRB bookshop and browsed their excellent poetry selection. As well as the compulsory J.H. Prynne purchase, I also came across a beautiful edition of selected poems by the Arab poet Adonis.
Born in Syria in 1930, Adonis is one of the preeminent poets – modernist poets to boot – of the Arab world. And yet, I’ve never read a single poem by him.
What a strange quirk of birth, language and geography, that we know so little about the great literatures all around us. What do I know about contemporary Chinese poetry? Who are the great names of North African or Burmese poetry in the 20th century?
I suppose it’s inevitable that we come to know poetry in our own language, poetry from our neighbourhood, poetry that relates to our milieu.
(One of the people I visited in London was Lama Zangmo at the London Samye Dzong in Spa Road. We sat in the spring sunshine, there in the centre’s courtyard, with cherry blossom drifting down onto our plates of food. And she showed – predictably – much more solicitude and kindness to those people who seem to value the plight of Ukrainian refugees, over the refugees from Yemen or Tigray. I called that out as lazy racism. But she kindly labelled it as solicitude for those who we see and who are neighbours. She avoided my unlikeable trait of casual condemnation.)
Similarly, I shouldn’t feel bad for not having read Adonis until I was 52. It’s rather exciting to discover the Arabic T.S. Eliot, hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered.
I had a similar experience discovering all the great musicians of the Brazilian 1960s and 70s, who had band invisible to me. Again, separated by a quirk of geography and language.
So, I‘ve taken to reading Adonis’ poems out loud, slowly, feeling them in my mouth and in the room.
I was wounded early
and early I learned
that wounds made me.
I still follow the child
who still walks inside me.
Now he stands at a staircase made of light
searching for a corner to rest in
and to read the face of night again.
“Celebrating Childhood” trans. Khalid Mattawa
Please share your thoughts about Adonis. Perhaps you know his work? Perhaps in the original? I would love to know more...