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Al-Sayyab: Two Poems

[Al-Sayyab's Statue in Basrah. Image from Wikipedia] [Al-Sayyab's Statue in Basrah. Image from Wikipedia]

[Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964), one of Iraq’s most important modern poets and a pioneer of modern Arabic poetry, died fifty years ago today.]

Two Poems

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

Tr. Sinan Antoon

The River and Death

Buwayb
Buwayb
Bells of a tower lost deep in the sea
Water in jars, sunset in trees
Jars dripping bells of rain
whose crystals melt in wailing
Buwayb, Buwayb
A longing darkens in my blood
for you, my river
Buwayb
Sad as rain
I wish I could run in the dark
my hands holding a year of yearning
in every finger
As if carrying votive offerings
wheat and flowers
I wish I could rise from the hillbeds
to glimpse the moon
swimming between your banks
planting shadows
filling baskets
with water, fish, and flowers
I wish I could plunge into you
to follow the moon
to listen to pebbles on your bed
clattering like thousands of sparrows on trees
Are you a thicket of tears or a river?
These fish staying up
Do they sleep before dawn?
Do these stars keep waiting
feeding thousands of needles with silk?
And you, Buwayb
I wish I could pick up shells
to build a home
what trickles from the moon and stars
would illuminate its waters and trees
I wish I could ebb away
in the morning to the sea
Death is a strange world
Infatuating to the young
Its secret door was in you, Buwayb

Buwayb, Buwayb
Twenty years, each an epoch, have passed
and today when darkness falls
I settle in my bed, but never sleep
extending my thoughts till twilight like a tree
with delicate branches, birds, and fruit
I feel blood and tears like rain
dripping from this sad world
The bells of the dead resound in my veins
A longing darkens in my blood
for a bullet to suddenly pierce my chest
to light up my bones like hell
I wish I could run to aid those fighting
tighten my grip and slap fate
I wish I could drown in my blood to the bottom
To carry the burden with humans
and resurrect life
For my death is a triumph

Buwayb: A rivulet in Jaykur, the poet's village in southern Iraq.

The Book of Job (1)

Praise be to you
no matter how long the ordeal
or how overwhelming the pain
Praise be to you
Calamities are gifts
Catastrophes are but generosity
Did you not give me this darkness
and you gave me this twilight?
Would earth praise raindrops
but be furious if clouds don’t find her?
For months these wounds
knife my sides
The ailment does not rest at morning
Nor does night does erase its pains with death
But when Job cries, he cries:
“Praise be to you
calamities are dewdrops
and wounds are the lover’s gifts
bundles I press to my bosom
Your gifts are lodged in my heart
They never disappear
Your gifts are welcome
Bring them!
I draw my wounds
cry out to those returning:
“Look on and envy me
These are my lover’s gifts
If fire touches the forehead
I take it to be flames of a kiss from you
Sleeplessness is striking
I shepherd your heaven with my eyes
until the stars disappear
and your lightning touches my window
Night is striking:
The echo of an owl’s hoot
distant car horns
The wailing of the sick
A mother repeating
her ancestors’ myths to a newborn
The thickets of sleepless nights
Clouds hide the sky’s face
Reveal it under the moon
If Job cries out, his call is:
“Praise be to you who casts lots
and decrees healing thereafter.”

London, December 26, 1962


[Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon. "Sifr Ayyub" (The Book of Job) was a series of poems the poet wrote while hospitalized in London. You can read the Arabic original here. You can read "al-Nahr wal-Mawt" (Death and the River) in Arabic here]
 

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