Book review: Kingdoms of insubordination

Abdellatif Laâbi, In Praise of Defeat, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Archipelago, £16.99, ISBN 9780914671596
Vénus Khoury-Ghata, A Handful of Blue Earth, trans. Marilyn Hacker, Liverpool University Press, £9.99, ISBN 9781786940117
Reviewed by Khalid Lyamlahy

Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi and Lebanese writer Vénus Khoury-Ghata are eminent figures, celebrated not only in their countries of birth but also in France where both have received the prestigious Goncourt Prize for poetry (in 2009 and 2011 respectively). They have in common a prolific and multifaceted oeuvre that includes novels, translations of Arabic poetry into French, and even children’s fiction. Their poetry spans a period of more than forty years during which they have created two original and vibrant poetic worlds. Khoury-Ghata is best known for her narrative poetry that mobilises lyric and often surrealist imagery to rewrite individual and collective experiences in war-torn and post-war Lebanon and beyond. Laâbi’s poems have been at the forefront of the North African poetic avant-garde with the leading Moroccan journal of culture and politics Souffles (1966–1972). They have been also praised for their ability to elegantly combine discourses of love and revolt, and confronting the pain of exile and separation in their relentless investigation into what it means to be alive.

These two collections offer distinct approaches. In In Praise of Defeat, translator Donald Nicholson-Smith delivers a massive 824-page bilingual volume featuring poems selected by Laâbi himself from seventeen collections, written between 1965 and 2014. The volume reconstructs Laâbi’s poetic trajectory, from his early experimental and explosive poetry to his most recent lyrical compositions, through to his moving prison volumes, written during and after his detention from 1972 to 1980 for political activism in the Moroccan Left. In his foreword, Pierre Joris praises Laâbi as “the major Francophone voice in Moroccan poetry today […] producing a continuous and courageous witnessing to his and this society’s fate”. Each poem testifies to Laâbi’s revolt against silencing, oppression, and exclusion, promoting an alternative world based on resistance, love, and commitment.

A Handful of Blue Earth is a brief 56-page volume, including translations of three sequences: La Dame de Syros (2012) and two sections from Khoury-Gata’s most recent collection, Le Livre des Suppliques (2015). Marilyn Hacker offers English readers a sequel to her previous translations of Khoury-Ghata’s work, observing in a preface that Khoury-Ghata’s poems are “exploded narratives, re-assembled in a mosaic or labyrinth in which the reader, like Ariadne, finds a connecting thread”. This connecting thread is woven through in recurrent themes such as nature, resistance to time and death, and the triumph of language over silence. Although in different ways, both Laâbi and Khoury-Ghata remind the reader that poetry is a gruelling and demanding journey from the darkness of pain and separation to the always resurgent power of language and creation.

The best starting point in this dialogic journey is probably Laâbi’s early poems from his collections The Reign of Barbarism (1965–1967) and Beneath the Gag, the Poem (1972–1980). In ‘Talisman’s Eye’, he writes against a world in decay and disorder, proposing an alternative “kingdom of insubordination” to the authoritarian regime of King Hassan II during the “Years of Lead”. The poet’s subversive voice is as much concerned with resisting tyranny and oppression as it is driven by “the thirst for new births”. In these explosive verses written from the “citadel of exile” that is prison, poetry becomes the nodal point of resistance and self-reconstruction. Whether addressing his son Yacine from behind bars or paying tribute to Évelyne – sister of Laâbi’s friend Abraham Serfaty, who died in 1974 from the effects of torture – Laâbi rekindles the sense of being and belonging:

No, no Évelyne
I cannot abandon you
to a chill pedestal
where I could caress
only the petrified statue of your heroism
because I feel you walking beside me
[…]
you are
             alive

This rejection of death alongside a joyful reunion resonates with Khoury-Ghata’s opening poem ‘The Lady of Syros’, which gives voice to a Cycladic statue unearthed by an archaeologist. “Dead yet desired by the man”, the personified statue describes what could be a metaphor for a dialogue with creation: “Why does he ask me my name when / my ears are sealed / why does he wait on my answer when / I have no mouth”. The poet, the archaeologist, and the statue’s sculptor are all obsessed creators; the statue – a woman reclaiming freedom and agency – embodies the liberating and empowering ability of creation: “Closed between two layers of earth / I could draw the world without moving my hand”.

This powerful desire for creation and freedom drives the work Laâbi published after his release from prison in 1980. His poems from the 1990s, mostly written from exile in France, are pervaded by melancholy and helplessness. He no longer aims to change the world but merely “to support it / by putting a sprig / of dignity / in the corner of its mouth”. In the title poem, the poet unleashes his despair at a dehumanised world where “the fear of living / has replaced / the fear of dying”.

The boundary between life and death is another recurrent theme in Khoury-Ghata’s collection. In the second section, an elegy for the poet’s life partner opens the way for a form of resurrection: “Let’s admit that your disappearance was a pretence / staged in complicity with the eclipse of a comic sun”. In Hacker’s words, death “becomes a kind of departure into exile” as the poet addresses her lost partner in a disconcerting landscape where sparrows attack a fig tree and stones “speak louder than the people / passing by”. Here, writing is nothing but “the invention of a deaf-mute alphabet” that strives to resist loss and reconstruct the wounded self.

Exile and self-transformation are nowhere more poignant than in Laâbi’s Casablanca Spleen (1996), a collection whose Baudelairean title refers to the melancholy of homecoming as the poet struggles to learn “the tough job of returning” and find his way in an unrecognisable native land. The subsequent collections all stem from this inner split, acknowledged in the title My Dear Double (2007). Laâbi becomes a nomad poet who writes “perishable poems” and gathers the scattered pieces of his fragmented identity. In an untitled poem in Fall Holds Promise (2003), he writes:

Oh man of betwixt and between
do you know that you were born
on the continent that you discovered
That love made you grow up
before poetry
gave you back your childhood

In both his erotic The Fruits of the Body (2003) and transnational Write Life (2005), Laâbi reaffirms the ability of poetry to transcend borders, celebrate human desires, and denounce atrocities and terror, from Madrid to Baghdad.

In Khoury-Ghata’s collection, the final section, ‘The Mothers and the Mediterranean’, is also about survival and regeneration. Aside from the evident echoes of the Lebanese civil war, the poem figures a surrealist urban warfare in which tanks cross the sea, trees are “decapitated”, mothers stand helpless on their balconies, and children “learn addition from the corpses piled on the / sidewalks”. In this tragic and chaotic scenery, the surreal retreat of the Mediterranean hints at the vanishing world of peace and freedom, as the sea becomes “a heap of carcasses and fish-bones”. With wars ongoing in the region, Khoury-Ghata’s poetry is here to remind us that any sniper “would trade his Kalashnikov for a pinch of love and cumin”. Poetry is also a form of hope. For both these poets, the poem is a moving and far-reaching cry that bursts out of conflict, death, and silence, spreading to the universal territories of love, creation, and what it is to be alive. As Laâbi reminds himself in the closing text from his collection: “For you writing is a sort of prayer begging life to keep visiting you”.

The Poetry Review 1073 shadowKhalid Lyamlahy is a doctoral researcher in French and Francophone literature at the University of Oxford.. This review was published in The Poetry Review, 107:3, Autumn 2017. © The Poetry Review and the author.