“He started roaming at the age of twenty/and never found a place to settle until the end.”
Where is Sargon Boulus?
The answer is not simple at all.
His body has been lying for almost a decade now in a cemetery in Turlock, CA. It is said that he had wanted to be buried in Berlin, the city he loved and where he often escaped, but his wish was unfulfilled. Perhaps there is poetic irony here. The poet’s body migrates (or is forced to migrate) one last time, after his death, to his last (non)resting place. The farthest of the there(s).
“I came to you from there.”
Some will say that he lived in the United Stares for four decades. Yes, but it never became a home/land. Sargon said in an interview:
“America for me is a place to live, a home, but not a homeland- you can’t have that twice. And at the same time you cannot go back to your country again . . . The Arabic language, which is the umbilical cord that ties me to my people and my history, is the only true home I have.”1
Those who oversaw the last migration of Sargon’s body decided that that there be no space for his true home, Arabic, on his tombstone. All one can see is a text in Assyrian and English. Is it an attempt (failed of course) to sever the umbilical cord? Or to reduce the poet’s life and his complex and rich identity and monopolize both by one community? One last exile for the master of exile.
I will not visit Sargon’s grave, because he isn’t there.
But where is Sargon Boulus?
A poet dies in one place and only once. But he lives in language. That greater house. The true homeland. Womb. Language gives birth anew to the poet every time we read her/him.
I will visit Sargon. . . in his poems and my soul will kiss his words. As always, he will take me to all those places he built inside language. A poem, after all, is a place. A place from which we perceive the self, the universe, and all those effaced places and times. In Sargon’s poetry we look at Iraq, his homeland, and poetry’s first homeland.
I will visit Sargon and will “see him here or there” alive over the walls of Uruk, next to his grandfather’s chair. “Below, the river passes and the dead and the living toss and turn.” I will watch him turning the pages of his notebooks where he traps the souls of the dead as “they flicker on its pages.” I will see that man suddenly falling, as he does every reading, in the middle of the square. “Like a horse whose knees were harvested with a sickle.” I will see, and believe what I say: The waves of the Tigris chained. I will dig, with Sargon, a grave for the future. I will gaze at “the figures of thieves who looted history/as though it were a bank.”
I will visit Sargon and see the specters of children in the remains of my city, and his, in his dream “like birds in desert, singing for no one.” I will smell Baghdadi bread and almost touch it. I will listen to his voice on Soundcloud reciting his poems with the awe of one praying for the gods of poetry. His voice comes from a place “beyond sadness “at the end of the year/the year of endings.” The specter of Yusif al-Haydari is embodied and he tells Sargon, and us:
“The refugees are on the roads/The children are in coffins/The women are wailing in the squares/Your family is fine/They send you their best from cemeteries/Baghdad is a spike of grain covered with locusts/I came to you from there/ It is obliteration.”
Then he goes away and disappears.
Where is Sargon Boulus?
I ask the widow sitting with her grandchild “on a wooden bench in the rain/waiting for the last train to hell” about his whereabouts and her destination. She remains silent. I hear a soft murmur. My eyes walk to another spot/text and I see “a million refugees in his footsteps” and Sargon listening to each one of them “telling and telling and telling/Because he arrived without savoring the meaning of arrival.”
I visit Sargon Boulus and see thousands of butterflies flying in and out of his poems. As if tied by a secret thread to heaven.” I then see him with the Apache “roaming the ruins/mourning the sons of his city, dreaming at times/of soaring like any eagle, over the heads of the murderers and the murdered.” I say to him: Yes, Sargon, you are soaring over the walls of Uruk and the ruins, old and new.
I love you. And I curse you, too, you because you said everything.
I thank you because you said everything.
Sargon! You, sir, are the master of exile.
[This text was published in Arabic in Kalimat, the cultural supplement of al-Akhbar for a special issue commemorating the tenth anniversary of Sargon Boulus’s death. It is translated by the author. You can read the Arabic original here.]
1 ”An Interview with Sargon Boulus” Parnassus, vol. 29, 1/2 (2006), p. 54.