[Sargon Boulus died on October 22, 2007 in a hospital in Berlin]
"What words can do / these days / Is almost nothing" wrote the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus in “The Secret of Words,” published just weeks after he died in a Berlin hospital on October 22, 2007. Boulus always modestly undersold the power his work had in Iraqi and Arab cultural circles. One wishes he could have seen the elegies and testimonials that quickly flowed in from Iraq, from Morocco, from across the Arab diaspora. In As Safir, the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef bemoaned the loss of "the only Iraqi poet." Some critics attacked Youssef for what they considered hyperbole, but they missed his point. Among the Iraqi poets of his generation, Boulus was indeed a rare bird: the formal innovator who immersed himself in western poetry but remained anchored in the Arab tradition, the politically engaged poet who resisted political classification. He was not a communist, not a Ba`thist, but no matter where he lived, an Iraqi.
Boulus was born in 1944 to an Assyrian family in al Habbaniyah, a town on the edge of a shallow lake of the same name in western Iraq. Today, the town is the site of a major United States military base; back then it hosted a British military base and airfield. After the nascent Iraqi state`s massacre of Assyrians in 1936, some were brought to live near the base. Boulus`s father worked for the British, and Sargon would sometimes catch a glimpse of their posh houses, so different from the tin huts where the Assyrians lived.
Boulus grew up bilingual: his father spoke Assyrian, and his mother, who was from Mosul, spoke Arabic. In 1956, the family moved to Kirkuk, a large, diverse city of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians and Arabs. Boulus grew up memorizing the songs sung at night by drunken workers and shop owners in Kurdish, Persian and Assyrian. He later described the city as a "divine sponge" soaked with different languages, ethnicities and culture. Its rich, pluralistic, hybrid-producing cultural jumble produced a number of important poets and writers, most prominently Boulus himself and the novelist and poet Fadhil al-Azzawi, who eventually came to be known as the Kirkuk Group. The presence of the British Iraqi Petroleum Company in Kirkuk gave Boulus easy access to the English language and English-language publications. So, in addition to Arabic literature, he read William Merwin, Henry Miller, Franz Kafka, and Sherwood Anderson. He read Poetry and The New Yorker. There were, he later wrote, "magical ponds waiting for me to jump into them... a whole network of words was waiting." He bought what he could when he had money, and stole when he was broke.
As a teenager, Boulus published poems and short stories in various Iraqi journals and magazines, and started to translate American and British poetry into Arabic. In 1967, when he was twenty-three, an Armenian friend took some of his poems with him to Beirut, where they were published in the influential avant-garde publication Shi`r, at that point the primary platform of the Arabic prose poem, and therefore the front line of a cultural revolt that had been brewing since the early 1900s. Boulus`s poems fit in perfectly. "Clouds in the Body" was one of the first they published:
The sea negates itself
and ends slowly
the night does not save
but it never bends;
festive moments in bed
death is easy:
a door, and then an eye
whose sea is calm
the sea begins
to end slowly.
Already, the style that would mark Boulus`s entire career was on display. The poet`s voice is soft, his diction relatively simple, but the imagery that results is surprisingly dense. Meticulous line breaks define the rhythm, not traditional metre or rhyme.
Boulus`s family had moved to Baghdad in 1964. In 1967, Yousuf al Khal, the founder of Shi`r, visited him there and encouraged him to move to Beirut and join the cultural renaissance. Boulus went to a friend`s hometown on the border and, having no passport and very little money, had himself smuggled by night into Syria. He spent three weeks in Damascus before making his way to Beirut, where he worked at Shi`r, enjoyed al Khan`s mentorship, translated more poetry from English, and continued to write. He edited a special issue of Shi`r on the Beatniks, who had long fascinated him. Indeed, as lively and exciting as Beirut was, Boulus fantasized constantly about living with his idols in San Francisco. In 1969, some well-connected friends landed him an interview with the American ambassador, who granted him a laissez-passer to the United States. He left in August and, after three weeks at a hotel on New York`s 42nd street, headed to Berkeley and then to nearby San Francisco, where he would be based for the rest of his life. There he finally visited all the places he had read about, and met all the great poets he had translated: Ginsberg, Snyder, Ferlinghetti and others. California was a reservoir of new cultural treasures, vast libraries and experiences waiting to be tackled. Boulus studied literature at Berkeley, sculpture at Skyline College. He even trekked down to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting, but only landed one part, as a corpse.
Poetry, however, always remained his true calling. "Poetry," he once proclaimed, "is a creed, and a genuine poet must decide whether he is willing to dedicate his existence to that creed." Nonetheless, he did not publish for many years after arriving in San Francisco. He could have easily used his contacts in the poetry world to publish and market himself in English, but Boulus was never in a rush, and certainly never concerned with fame or publishing as an end in itself. Plus, despite his diverse cultural genealogy, Arabic remained his natural milieu, and he was still furiously searching for a different mode of writing Arabic poetry. The challenge remained to free poetic discourse from both the politics and aesthetics of the past without descending into freewheeling nihilism or cultural masochism, as so many Arab prose poets were doing. For Boulus, engaging the Arabic tradition was essential: prose poets could not move past tradition without studying and respecting it. In San Francisco, he immersed himself even further in poetry from around the world and across history. Abu Tammam, a 7th century poet known for his stunning imagery and careful craftsmanship, was his best friend. Many of the poems he worked on during these years and afterwards were highly intertextual, building on or engaging in dialogue with poets from throughout the Arab tradition. In the mid 1970s, the Syrian poet Adonis wrote to Boulus encouraging him to send any new poems to Beirut for publication. But even with that encouragement, he did not publish his first collection, Arriving at the City of Where, until 1985.
Boulus returned to Iraq only once in the 1980s, to see his dying father for a few days. He visited Europe often and especially loved Berlin, but San Francisco remained his base. The first Gulf War, however, marked the beginning of a bitter disenchantment with America. "Everything was exposed in the Gulf War," he said. "It was a bloodied mirror. America had nothing more to offer, as far as I was concerned." He was so upset that he abandoned a massive project of translating 20th-century American poetry into Arabic that he`d been working on for years. He started to visit Europe more frequently, especially Germany. The political aftermath of September 11 in America left him further alienated. In “A Conversation with a Painter in New York After the Towers Fell,” he wrote: "I see Rodin`s fingers in all this / I see him standing at the gates of hell / pointing to an abyss / From which the beasts of the future will charge / There / where two towers fell / and America went mad." For Boulus, freedom from political parties and ideologies never meant being depoliticized or divorcing poetry from the world. He corrected the proofs of his fifth and last collection, Another Bone for the Tribe`s Dogs, on the hospital bed where he died in Berlin. His disappointment with the America he was enamored with in the 1960s and 1970s is evident in its pages:
Where is it?
Where is the America I, the dreamer
crossed the sea for
Will Whitman`s America remain ink on paper?
When he turns his eye to Iraq, he focuses on the devastating effects of the last few decades, especially the embargo. In "I Came to You from There," a deceased friend`s ghost visits the poet in San Francisco to tell him what has become of Iraq:
Your family is fine
They send their best from cemeteries
Baghdad is a spike of grain
to which grasshoppers cling
I came from there
It is annihilation
Then he walked away and disappeared
Then in “Tracks,” he shifts focus to the despair of any metropolis anywhere:
The screeching of wheels on the tracks
the appearance of the next station at the turn of the howl-filled tunnel
A few vagabonds on the platform
gulping alcohol from bottles hidden in paper bags
It is the same void emerging
At the end of the night in any city
Full of the living and the dead: Paris, Berlin, London, New York
The farthest point West
The end of the line
The end of the track.
"The end of the line" is a recurring image in this collection; it repeatedly suggests both the end of "progress" and the beginning of some sort of nightmare. Boulus`s poetic discourse was always populated by alienated humans searching for a niche of meaning in an aggressive universe punctuated at times by beauty and calm. The heart of an ailing world is at once pierced and sutured on many a page. In his late work, however, there is more puncturing and less suturing, more darkness and horror. History`s ghosts crowd the background, haunting the poet, who seems endlessly perplexed by the purpose of existence. Lines interrupt each other, and questions posed go unanswered.
Boulus wanted the Berlin he loved in his later years to be his end of the line, and he asked his friends to bury him there, but his family insisted that he return to their plot in Turlock, California. No matter: his wandering spirit cannot be contained, and is everywhere. "Surrounded by the tribe`s cries / The poet roams the ruins / Elegizing his fellow city men."