Ali Ahmad Said Esber, alias Adonis, is currently the biggest exponent of contemporary Arabian poetry, considered an indispensable link between Western and Eastern cultures, an intellectual who doesn’t fear questioning the dogmas and axioms ingrained in the Arabian culture, as well as the present Occident’s social-political reality. The Syrian-Lebanese poet is little known in Brazil. In many countries he’s not as popular as Palestinian Mahmud Darwisch (1941-2008), Algerian cinema director Assia Djebar (1936), or Egyptian Nahgib Mahfuss, the first Arabian awarded the Nobel Prize of literature. Born in 1930 in Kassabin, a north-western village in Syria, Adonis witnessed this country’s independence. He was still a student of philosophy in Damascus when he organized marches and manifestations against the French army. He was arrested for eleven months on account of the risky political activities with the Syrian popular Party. He married the literary critic Khalida Said and, in 1956, headed for Beirut, a liberal city, where he worked as university teacher and journalist. In 1957, together with poet Youssef El-Khal, de founded the vanguard magazine Shi’r (stands for Poetry), aiming to renew the Arabian lyrics through translations of worldwide poetry, mainly Western, such as the poems of Hörderlin, Rilke, Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Paz, among others.
Federico Arbós Ayuso, translator of Adonis to Spanish, wrote in his essay Tres calas em la producción poética de Adonis, that, soon after World War II, poets like Nazik al-Mala-ika and Badr Sakir al-Sayyab published poems in free verses. The consolidation of this movement triggered in Baghdad immediately echoed in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Arabian literature historian Luwis Áwady Muhammad Mandur in turn, had published in the magazine al-Katib al-Misri, in 1945, in Cairo, various articles about vanguard British writers, especially an essay about T. S. Eliot, which considerably influenced the epoch’s poetic production.
Back to Shi’r magazine, the strictly western orientation and the nationalist radicalism of Youssef El-Khal caused the magazine to cease being published in 1964. Three years later Adonis founded Mawaqif (Positions) magazine, together with poet Kamal Abu Deeb. Between 1960 and 61, Adonis studied in Paris supported by a scholarship. While some of his friends exiled in Germany (like Lebanese Fuad Rifka), or fled to English-speaking countries (like Iraqi Badr Shakir As-Sayyad and Abdul Wahhab al-Bayyati), Adonis sought refuge in Paris, where he lives since 1986, without abandoning Beirut, where he constantly travels to.
The name Adonis, mostly known as a Greek mythology deity, was a handsome youngster who was disputed by Aphrodite and Persefoni. While hunting Adonis was fatally hurt by a boar. Some versions tell it was god Ares, Aphrodite’s lover, who, jealous, transformed himself into a boar and fatally hit Adonis. After his death the underworld goddess, Persefoni, and the goddess of love, Aphrodite, disputed the handsome youngster. Zeus interposed himself and allowed Adonis to stay with Aphrodite for four months, and another four with Persefoni, and then he would be free. The myth symbolizes the seed’s cycle, of the vegetation that dies in winter and revives in spring. The myth’s origin is not Greece, but Syria, where Adonis was worshipped under the Semite name Tamuz. He was a young god, linked to life, death and resurrection, being associated to the agricultural calendar. The name Adonis comes also from the Semite world – originate from Semite Adonai, which stands for “my Lord”. It is, in short, a god who congregates elements from various origins.
The poet’s fame is due to his first book Chants of Mihyar, The Damascene (Aghâni Mihiâr al-Dimashqî, Beirut, 1961), considered a watershed of the Arabian literature. Influenced by Greek mythology, this book’s poetics focuses the modern universalism, although its basis, the reception and many metaphors reside in the Arabian world and cause a certain unfamiliarity to this culture’s non-natives. Reading profoundly we encounter, though, modern man’s philosophical questions. Adonis is an assiduous reader of Nietzsche and Heidegger. In this book there are many poems dedicated to Ulysses, alluding to the voyage not as a destination, but to the voyage itself emphasizing the meaning of the adventure, of the exploring of the unknown and of the eternal seek for oneself. The construction of the poems is like a collage, imbued with metaphors which touch expressionism and surrealism. According to Stefan Weidner, translator of Adonis into German: “opposite from classical Arabian poetry, in which the most important things are clearness and formulating ability and, above all, aiming to please, the difficult understanding of the dense language produced and propagated by Adonis is considered productive at each reader’s interpretation moment”. To Weidner, Mihyar is a spiritual relative of Zarathustra. Weidner sees the book as an important testimony of Nietzsche’s reception in the Arabian world. Chants of Mihyar, The Damascene is split into seven parts constituted of poems in prose. Mihyar of Adonis possesses several facets, one of which maybe that of the rebel and heretic Mihyar al-Daylami, Arabian poet of Persian origin. Only in the first part does Mihyar appear in third person, like an introduction to the reader, in the further parts Mihyar speaks in first person. It is not here the case of the poet’s first person, as it is characteristic of Arabian poetry which ignores the separation between the lyric self and the author. In Arabian poetry when a poem is written in first person, the latter is exclusively the author’s. However, Mihyar is not Adonis, it is the case here of the lyric self, independent from the author. A revolution for the Arabian reader.
Adonis writes in Arabian. The translation into Roman language of Chants of Mihyar, the Damascene emerged in Spain, in 1968, two years after the original was published. The first series published in English is from 1971, in the United States, titled The Blood of Adonis. The work Libro de las huidas y mudanzas por climas del día y de la noche (Kitâb al-Tahawwulât wal-Hijra fî Aqâlîm al-Nahâr wal-Layl, Beirut, 1965), or in short, Book of the metamorphosis and migration through the regions of day and night, translated into Spanish in 1993, continues the introduction of myths extracted from the Greek mythology, of modern elements merging them with the traditional Arabian form, making use of free verses and poems in prose. To speak about this book, Federico Arbós Ayso mentions the work Metamorphosis, of Latin poet Ovidio, and the transformation of Daphne in a sacred tree, when she ran away from pursuit by Apolo. In the Book of metamorphosis and migration through the regions of day and night the protagonist is the Umayyad Abderrahmán, the Immigrant (Abd al-Rahmān al-Dājil), founder of Cordoba in the early VIII century. The tree is the central motive of this work, symbolizing the man, and his reflections, and nature. Image which appears in “árbol de adentro” by Octavio Paz, and Goethe’s “The tree of life”. The roots and the branches, the transformations of time, the leaves, flowers and the fruits, and the transformations caused by time illustrate the changes in man’s body, the physical change, and spiritual. The tree is one of richest and most broadcasted symbolic themes, it represents fertility, abundance and immortality, and life. It is united to the subterranean world, to deepness, by the roots. The trunk is linked to earth’s surface and the leaves reach the heights, meaning the relationship with the heavenly, divine world. Also in the poem A grave for New York, the tree appears as a symbol which translates Adonis’ poetics: “I say and repeat:/ my poetics is a tree, and amongst branches and branches and leaves and leaves/ it is only the trunk’s maternity./ I say and repeat:/ poetry is the windrose./ Not the wind, but its direction,/ not the rotation, but the circular./ Thus I undo the rules and for each moment I remake a new one./ Thus I approach and do not distance./ I leave and do not come back./ I emigrate to the waves and September.”
The collection The Theatre and the Mirrors (al-Masrah wa-l-Maraya), released in 1968, contents long poems, full of symbols, associations and mentions of poets, philosophers and medieval characters. This is my name is considered by Weidner Adonis’ most radical work, in which, right in the beginning, in the first verses, he completely breaks up with the standards of Arabian poetry, creating verses without verb, interrupted, detached:
To extirpate all the truth here is my fire
No sign remains my blood is the sign
This is my beginning
I occupy your bed your members spin around me Earth
flow of the Nile we move away and deposit ourselves you infused yourself in my blood
This is my name it pictures The Six Day War through an abstract image of faces and masks, corpses, desert and e soldiers. But not only destruction and war are reproduced here, but also passion, love and life acquire voice. Such is the case of the poem A lover’s metamorphosis:
Líber, Liberate, Phallus
(In the sea of love, in the sea the sailing the of wind, and
In the book of bodies the whole world is one letter.
I shall be harvested beneath your breast, dry
And you are myrrh and my water
Each fruit is a wound and a way towards you
I cross you – you are my dwelling
I inhabit you – you are my waves
Your body is a sea, each wave a sail
Your body is a spring, each wrinkle a dove that spells my name
In your body all of my members gather
In a labyrinth, heady follows my way.
Another poem in this book to be highlighted is the yet mentioned A grave for New York (1965-1971), the most famous and translated. The thematic here is the city’s cosmopolitan daily, a criticism of capitalism, of the US foreign policy, of consumerism, of the North American imperialism, mainly the imperialism exerted on Eastern countries. The poem evokes Johnson and Nixon, as well as the Arabian poets and characters of One thousand and one nights. It is a flood of impressions, following the modernists’ tradition, written in long, free verses, divided in ten chapters, that merge disparate and surreal associations to describe a journey to hell.
Like Virgil’s in the Divine Comedy, hell here is the city of New York. Adonis employs intertextuality, the palimpsest and approaches language to orality. In this poem he develops a new style in which he creates a transitory cultural time. The multiple cultures are the propellant of creativity and innovation and do not prevent the repetition of customs and continuity. A grave for New York was written by the occasion of a trip of the poet to this city, by the time of The Six Day War, in 1967, when Khadaffi commanded the coup d’état against King Idris I, in 1969, and eliminated the North American and British bases in the country –, Kadafi withheld capitalism and Marxism –, epoch of the defeat of the movement for the liberation of Palestine, ending in the killing of Palestine refugees in Jordan, in September 1970, and epoch of the North American anti-imperialism movement which had emerged in Latin America, headed by revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. To follow some parts of the long poem:
A civilization with four paws. Each direction is a crime
Or a way to crime. And in distance:
the lament of the drowned.
Nova York – Wall Street – 125. Street – 5. Avenue
A head of medusa raises between the shoulders. A slave market of all people. Men, who live like plants in yards of glass.
Miserable, invisible, dissipated like dust in the skin of emptiness – victims,
that are consumed in spirals.
The Sun is a funeral march.
And the day is a black drum.
A woman – the statue of a woman
In one hand she grabs the rags called liberty
The pieces of paper we call History
And with the other she strangles a child, named Earth
A woman’s body the colour of tarmac.
a woman of hay and a bed that rocks among emptiness and emptiness. (…)
And I confess: New York, in my country it belongs to you the hut and the bed
the throne and the skull. And everything is on sale: day and night
Mecca’s black stone and the water of the Tiger. (…)
And I say: since John The Baptist each one carries one’s beheaded head
on a plate and waits for a second birth. (…)
I unveil you, oh fire, my capital,
I unveil you, poem.
And I seduce Beirut. Wear me like a garment and I wear you like a garment (…)
Your snow carries the night, your night carries the men
As if they were moribund bats. Each wall in you is a cemetery,
Each day is a new grave that bears a black loaf of bread and a black plate, with which
She outlines the History of The White House:
Harlem: the garbage is a banquet for the children
The children are a banquet for the voles.(…)
Time fades and you are the hours
I hear the tears, like the volcano’s rumble
I see the hours that eat men like bread
You are the stain that will erase the image of New York
You are the storm that will pass like a leaf
New York = IBM + metro
From mud and crime you originated
In mud and crime you will come to an end
New York = a pit in Earth’s mantle
Where the flow of insanity runs through
Harlem, New York dies and you are the hours.
Between the Harlem and Lincoln Center
I walk like a number at random in the deserts stranded between the teeth of dawn
Of a black day. (…)
As seen through an Arabian poet’s prism New York is an impetuous woman. Not only does the poem depict the city’s mess and cruelty, but also its vitality and attracting dynamics.
Chapter nine is dedicated to Walt Whitman, a poet who lived in New York and influenced a great deal of modernist poets: “I see the letters flying towards you in the air over the streets of Manhattan. Each letter is a scale full of cats and dogs. Century XXI is for the cats and dogs,/ for men is extinction:/ It’s the North American century!. And the names of classical Arabian poets, like Urwa Ibn al-Ward, Abu al-Ala, appear beside revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Castro, Lenin, Max, Mao Tse Tung.
In analysing A grave for New York scholars don’t keep from referring to Garcia Lorca’s poem, Poet in New York, written between 1929 and 1930, translated into many languages, which in turn also mentions the Harlem district, as well as poet Whitman and the Cuban Revolution: “¡Ay, Harlem! ¡Ay, Harlem! ¡Ay, Harlem!/ No hay angustia/ comparable a tus rojos oprimidos,/ a tu sangre estremecida dentro del eclipse oscuro,/ a tu/ violencia granate sordomuda en la penumbra,/ a tu gran rey prisionero, con un traje de conserje.” To the Brazilian reader Mario de Andrade’s work, Pauliceia Desvairada, published in 1922, containing the same modern principles of collage, is, in the same way, a point of reference. Here the protagonist is Sao Paulo, the cosmopolitan, consumerist city, stage of a cynical and hypocrite bourgeoisie. “Pauliceia – the big mouth of a thousand teeth;/ and the gushes amongst the trifid tongue / of pus and of more pus of distinction.”
For Adonis, the geographic space “is one territory of culture and creativity, independently of political region, in which we live”. To those who consider poetry not only a genre of a kind of art, nut also a manner of thinking, almost a mystical revelation, to Adonis politics and literature have always been straightly united, in their statements, ideas, criticism and vision of the world. According to him: “poetry cannot be done in such a way as to adequate oneself to religion or some ideology, it provides a knowledge that is explosive and surprising.” Advocate of laicism, he rejects intolerant and occluded traditions, and he is against the dogmas which propagate monotheism. In an article published in the German newspaper Die Zeit, he declared: “always when religion imposes nothing, the Arabian culture is magnificent. Everything exempt from religion in the Arabian culture is extraordinary”. And to newspaper O Globo: “If you want to create really new poetry, it’s necessary to fight the ideas inherited from religion, because creating is being free from all ideology and from all a priori thought.” The religiosity in the poetry of this Syrian Lebanese poet involves the mystical sphere, it’s the search of man to resolve the immanent questions that involves life, such as death, love, search for identity, “like a permanent creation, in a continuous movement until reaching the other’s identity”. Contemporary with the late Edward Said, he not always agreed to the friend: “What Said correctly emphasized is a stereotype of the Orient that exists in the Occident, but in my view this is related to a political view, and not to a cultural view. Many Western intellectuals fought these stereotypes. Some of them know the Arabian culture and history much better than most Arabian do and left monumental works.”
Take a rose
Deposit it like a pillow
Take the bomb
In your possession
Take a rose
Call it aside
And sing it to the world
(The face of the sea)
Thou grow all over
Thou grow in the deepness
Thou is to me like a fountain
Surrender like tree
Suspended from the towers of the dream
Around me my images
I yearned for secrets and filled the day’s lacunas with them
I engraved on your body the cinder of my body
I wrote you on my lips and fingers
I outlined you on my forehead, transformed the alphabet and the pronounce and propagated the different forms of reading
Liber, Libera, Phallus
a fillet of morning light, bitter in the eyes, awakens us
dismantles the ties of the eyelashes
the light flies in our body a hill and a flag
and the flame jumps on the pillows
the day announces the night – Wake up!
Towards you I set sail with my body’s boat
I explore the land hidden in the map of the sexes
I recover my passage with talismans and signs
I exhale smoke with my dense babble
With fire and tattoo
I am a wave and I believe, you are the beach:
Your back is a continent’s half
My four cardinal points are below your breast
I am around you like a tree
(A lover’s metamorphosis)
The anthology Árbol del Oriente, released in Madrid, in 2010, gathers poems from 1957 to 2007. In 2011, it appears in Germany the anthology a lover’s metamorphosis (Verwandlungen eines Liebenden), containing poems from 1958 to 1971. In this same year, Adonis is awarded the Goethe Prize of the city of Frankfurt am Main. In the jurors’ opinion this is the case of “a truly universal poet”.
Viviane de Santana Paulo (Brazil, 1966). Poet and essayist, lives in Germany. She published Passeio ao longo do Reno (2002), Estrangeiro de mim (2005), and Depois do canto do gurinhatã (2010). Essay translated by Luiz Leitão da Cunha. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Page illustrated with works of Floriano Martins (Brazil), guest artist to this edition of ARC.