Two Poems by Abdellatif Laâbi

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Poems Fallen from the Train

Tears flood
the eyes of the sphinx
for the riddle has killed so many

 

The bird
let us say the turtle-dove
cares not a jot
about disorder
his song 
is not a response
to worry about the ephemeral

 

This light
is not for describing
it is drunk
or eaten

 

A leaf trembles
or does not live

 

The poem is concerned
by the threat of extermination
it gathers stones
just in case…

 

Yellow is waiting for blue
who is dallying with green
white smiles
at this ordinary scene
of amorous resentment

 

Wine is permitted
drink, comrade
you have nothing to forget
by drinking you remember

 

Inhabiting your body
is not easy
it is a haunted house
a minefield
One ought to be able to rent it
just for the holidays

 

What is beautiful
is beautiful immediately
universally

 

Is it an injustice
if women are more beautiful
than men?

 

Ugliness
in any case
is unjust

 

The almond-tree in flower
is not subject to criticism

 

If I write
it is so as not to despise myself

 

Every woman sleeping
is making love

 

Majesty of the tree
he reigns but does not rule
does not take harsh measures
does not raise taxes
does not draft the young
does not possess a virgin
every night
does not need to lie
He is the perfectly just
monarch

 

I am quite willing
to shoulder your woes
but why should mine
not concern you?

 

If I threw myself
under the wheels of a train
I would truly pity you

 

Asking for the moon
should be
the lowest common denominator

 

Reading sometimes means
being humiliated for not writing

 

The dew
is just water
but it is water in love

 

Today
words stretch luxuriously
and yawn
they are peach-hued

 

It is defeats 
that teach us
generosity

 

I don’t deny it
writing is a luxury
but it is the only luxury
whereby man
exploits only himself

 

The prophet destroys idols
the tyrant
erects statues

 

I have suffered from
a few diseases
and empathize with sufferers 
from all others
but I have never understood 
the money and power disease
Should I empathize
in this case too?

 

Privileges depreciate

 

I deserve nothing
Nothing deserves me
I am done
with gratitude
and ingratitude

 

Let History judge, they say
Another trial!

 

Waiting
is my bête noire

 

I open the window
to my secret garden
The predators have pillaged everything
they have even taken
the secret of my garden

 

Many a time
I feel diminished
even guilty in a way
when people congratulate me

 

I read much into the smiles of others
but I don’t know what my own
is made of

 

I have condemned my children
to the burden I carry
Should I put it down
to free them of it?

 

I get anxious
when I no longer dream

 

There should be
a dream bank
after the fashion of blood banks

 

The smile
cannot be learnt
it is a gift

 

I expect nothing of life
I go
to meet it

 

The bite of the days. Fallow love. The quartered horse. Wild ink. The contagious rose. Isle of marble. Blind man’s vomit. The name of mud. The absent-minded god. Wise bullets. Crippled sheets. The cage of the heavens. White coffee. The sobbing of things. Northern leprosy. The mouth’s little lakes. Potter’s field of crowned heads. The nomad flame. Ashes of words.

 

You can fall head over heels in love
with a word
A word comes to meet you
and gives you
the key to the whole work

Talisman’s Eye

everything dies
patched-up brain down in crypts
                                                           dies
dies
           logos of cities
reason dies
                      crushed by wrinkles
with no help from hands
brain with its gray cells 
                                          dies
night approaches with so much telling
                                                             of rosaries
for the break of a new day
as the sphinxes say
                                     when none is possible
they themselves having grown old
weary of their alliance
                                     with the wind

 

 

now
I seek a language 
                                      for my tribe
that is not a hybrid
let cyclones of argan trees
                                             come join my legions

 

 

halter of wasps
                             around my throat of clay
my awful lucidity
like a mirror
                              rusty with memories
that are the butt of History

 

now I know what power inhabits me 
peoples run through my language
while flaming night
                                      constructs silence
with hammer blows 
                          I compose lullabies

 

my awful lucidity
that ruffles my voice
                                        to the caravans’ cadence
my awful lucidity
that carves me out an era
                                 as wide as the desert

 

now
                  I need to vomit up
                                                    layers of narcotics
and steaming manure
                                        words of reason pale as herb tea
and throw away books that taught me pride

 

 

here I am
                    present
night-hairy
                     bristling with wasps
with that perfume of the muscles
that camel’s boniness 
ready to bound down the road
                                              yelping

 

look and see if my breasts
                                            are not bursting with maledictions
leave me only a few blood vessels
just a few nerves
                                nothing but a finger
and I shall outline on my parchment
a new cosmogony
                                  its elements in perfect harmony

 

hear the clash of languages
                                              in my mouth
the thirst for new births
hear the swish of sweat 
                                          at my underarms
the ripple of my biceps
driven by my inner fauna
                                              springing from caves 
pen bloodied
                         my head on every wall 
my breath at the gallop
spewing planets
                               in its eruptions

 

here I am
                   torrential in full flood
working my crannies
craters overlooked in my incandescence
I Atlas
             striped by the sun
                                            of diurnal tribes
gathering up in my descents and ravines
the impatient foam of a future
ask the vultures what my venom tastes like
ruggedness of my grip
                                          iron grid of my maledictions
proclaimer I am
                                  building a kingdom
                                                                        of insubordination

 

 

do not seek me in your archives
fearful of my censure
                                        writing is not in my nature
look for me rather in your innards
when a host of worms 
                                         distorts your gut
look for me in the urine of fever
in the malaria of the backstreets
and there
                   in the mud of cataracts
erase my taboo names
                                          stamp out the spells that I cast
but at my call
break jars of honey
slit the throats of black bulls at mosque doors
feed beggars by the thousands
then I shall come
                                to spit in your mouth
destroy your tumors
                                       rid you of your ancient ills
I still prefer you
                                      in the straightness of your plowshares
my brothers with your rough hands
my brothers who sleep like roots

 

 

come
             tossed down
                                    overboard
stranger to the trajectory of planets
between sky and void
sprung forth
                       in the blink of an eye
                                                                at the birth of speech
I know nothing of weight
                                                   or the mathematics of revolution
Arab
         Berber
                       above all human
but with this indestructible voice
                                                           this mark

 

come from your tomorrows
                                                gravedigger of ruins
not to take upon myself
                                               the errors of the night
but unrestrainedly 
                                  to hammer with doorknockers
until every doorway
                                       offers up its logarithms

 

yes
        I slumber
in mountain salt mines
an ear hearkening to the wheel of time
I let new arms grow
                                    to enhance an awakening
I laugh yes I laugh in my dream
look at my eyelids
seeded by caravaneers 
and my terrifying eye
                                      accurate 
                                                     as a sandglass


Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and political activist, Abdellatif Laâbi was born in Fez, Morocco in 1942. He was also the founder of Souffles, an important literary review that was banned in Morocco in 1972. Laâbi received the Prix Robert Ganzo de Poésie in 2008, the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie for his Oeuvres complètes in 2009, and the Académie Française’s Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 2011. A volume of selected poems, In Praise of Defeat, in which the poems above appear, is forthcoming in English from Archipelago Books in fall 2016.

Donald Nicholson-Smith is a translator and freelance editor living in New York City. His translations include Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three to Kill, Thierry Jonquet’s Mygale, and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books).

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