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Let Me Tell You What I Saw

Adnan Al-Sayegh
Jenny Lewis
Ruba Abughaida
ISBN-13: 
9781781726020
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 26, 2020
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£12.99

“One of the most important Iraqi poets alive today.” – Dr. Abbas Khadim

“Epic in scope, lyrical and deeply moving, this is a fascinating and powerful work, and a welcome addition to the canon of translated poetry.” – Poetry Book Society

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is the first ever publication as a dual-language (English/Arabic) text of substantial extracts from Adnan Al-Sayegh’s ground-breaking epic poem, Uruk’s Anthem, one of the longest poems ever written in Arabic literature, which gives voice to the profound despair of the Iraqi experience. This superb translation brings the eloquent original Arabic epic to a new readership.

Uruk’s Anthem has been described as beautiful, powerful and courageous and at the same time apocalyptic and terrifying in its unwavering scrutiny of, and opposition to, oppression and dictatorship wherever it occurs in the world. Fusing ancient Arabic and Sumerian poetic traditions with many innovative and experimental features of both Arabic and Western literature, Uruk’s Anthem might best be described as a modernist dream poem that frequently strays into nightmare; yet it is also imbued with a unique blend of history, mythology, tenderness, lyricism, humour and surrealism.

It took twelve years to write (1984-1996). During eight years of that time Adnan was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Many of his friends were killed and he spent eighteen months in an army detention centre, a disused stable and dynamite store, dangerously close to the border with Iran.

Parts of Uruk’s Anthem were adapted for the stage and performed in 1989 at the Academy of Fine Arts and in 1993 at the Rasheed Theatre in Baghdad where the play received wide acclaim but angered the government. Adnan fled the country with his family and sought asylum first in Amman, then Beirut and then Sweden, where extracts of Uruk’s Anthem, together with the poems of Adnan’s friend, the Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer, formed a play which was performed in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2014 as well as in Egypt 2007 and 2008. It was also performed in Morocco 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2014.

A smaller selection of extracts from Uruk’s Anthem (translated by Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida) was published in English for the first time in Singing for Inanna (Mulfran Press, 2014) a first step towards Let Me Tell You What I Saw. This important, more comprehensive translation includes notes to the text and an introduction by Jenny Lewis, and translation notes by Jenny and by Ruba Abughaida.

 

“To see such a significant selection from this major work of world literature in this thrilling translation gives me great pleasure. This fine poet of terror and tenderness has found the translators he deserves.” – Leona Medlin

“The clarity and integrity of Adnan Al-Sayegh’s poems (in translation), combine unforgettably with the music of his native voice. Now his world-class poetry is at last reaching a wider audience in the English-speaking world. That Jenny Lewis’s own work is integral to that process is testimony to a rich and rewarding collaboration.”  – Lucy Hamilton

“It’s Iraq’s collective catastrophe poem. It’s a choir poem, a linguistic flux, a continuous surging of language between words and images...that flows out with the force of a thousand horsepower!” – Sherko Bekas (1940–2013) Kurdish poet and freedom fighter

“An epic phantasmagoria, Uruk’s Anthem is, nevertheless, often terrifyingly real, with the speaker both a witness to shattering events and also an active participant in trying to make sense of a world in chaos where the poem is the only place where the exile can be at home. At the heart of the book are ordinary people who love, lust, laugh and despair, but are in the grip of vast political, historical, and cosmic forces. Yet despite it all, Al-Sayegh’s monumental work refuses to submit, holding fervently to a belief in the power of poetry to reckon and redeem.” – Niall Munro, Director, Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre

"In Jenny Lewis' compelling rendering of related extracts from Adnam Al-Sayegh's Uruk's Anthem readers are taken on a journey, often harrowing to the emotions yet uplifting to spirit and imagination, from the uncertainties of our war-polluted present back through centuries of painful flux to Uruk (a city still extent), so central to the Epic of Gilgamesh - a work which more and more I believe essential to our understanding of our complex heritage. Jenny Lewis speaks in her Introduction of 'our' David Jones, and very fittingly - since the Iraqi poem, like In Parenthesis, conveys the agonies, the bewilderments of the poet's and his fellows' grim personal experiences (in the Iraq-Iran War) alongside recognition of the fuller richer truths of their whole human selves, capable of enjoying the challenges of sensuality, the beauty and terror of Nature and of the long, ultimately ineradicable past. A formidable achievement." – Paul Binding

REVIEWS

Review from Publishers Weekly

Friday, October 15, 2021

Iraqi poet Al-Sayegh is expertly contextualized and introduced to English-speaking audiences by Lewis in this first dual-language volume. 'Uruk’s Anthem,' excerpted here, has the scope of an epic, exploring themes of violence, political unrest, and apocalypse with a momentum and music that is entirely Al-Sayegh’s own. Lewis aptly states the work “might best be described as a modernist dream-poem that frequently strays into nightmare, yet is also imbued with a unique blend of history, mythology, tenderness, lyricism, humor and surrealism.” Between vivid and brutal war scenes (Al-Sayegh was forced to fight for eight years in the Iran-Iraq war) blossom moments of tender lyricism: “I crawl between the graves and our mines.... my clothes wet with clouds/ and my heart a haven for finches.” Throughout, political unrest is rendered urgent and visceral: “scatter the earth as an epitaph/ between the grave of the Minister/ and the masses.... I see the girls/ go down to the spring/ to gather stars’ eggs.... My heart searches between drawers and airports/ for her hair.” Readers new to the poet will find the momentum and energy of Al-Sayegh’s writing vital and unforgettable. 

Review by Jude Rosen, Long Poem Magazine

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Denise Levertov referred to ‘translations which truly appear to have ferried poetry safely across from language to language’[1] but the more distant the languages and cultures are from each other, the more the translator needs to be steeped in the original and a poet able sympathetically to reimagine the poem in its new element. In this case, the poet, Adnan Al-Sayegh has reached across cultural and literary traditions combining classical Arabic poetry and textual references with modernist forms to translate his own experience of fighting for eight years in the Iran-Iran War and a year and a half detention in Abu Ghraib in his own country into a kind of international, intercultural anti-epic of epic proportions. In Jenny Lewis and Ruba Abughaida he has found culturally erudite and gifted poet translators.

Set in the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, renowned as Gilgamesh, the original poem is called Uruk’s Anthem. Published here in part, under the title Let me tell you what I saw, it bears witness to the cruelty of the war and the dictator in power – ‘the Governor’ and his underlings – and mourns the physical, psychological and moral damage to the survivors and to the country. By juxtaposing high, low, official and vernacular registers, educated and crude voices from different centuries and places, the poem carries historical echoes of the inescapable burden of the country’s past – and links it to the litany of dictators from ancient Roman and Chinese emperors to Ghengis Khan to Hitler, whilst also retrieving words of resistance from Iraqi history.

As the title indicates, this is based on Adnan Al Sayegh’s first-hand testimony. Unlike dry documentary, it takes the form of vivid nightmare and surreal dream, invoking the terror of war and imprisonment: ‘…the sniper hiding under my eyelashes does not let me dream…’ (p.97) in counterpoint to childhood memory, lyrical landscapes and erotic encounters. Yet these do not escape the ravages of the war and terror, as it impacts on the inner life of mind and emotions, as well as outer world of nation and history, through a panoply of  figures the poet encounters, invokes or recalls – fellow soldiers Al-Halaj, Kadhim Abed, and imprisoned Aboud, the torturer, the sniper, the General, the Governor, fleeting women, contemporary poets in the cafés, figures of myth like Orpheus and Cassandra, poets and sages from ancient Kurdish, Persian and Arab culture, and historical figures who defied those in power: a heretic, a water carrier, a serving maid.

The translators had to choose which elements of the language and poetic forms they could carry over from Arabic to English – as Jenny Lewis explains (p.187) direct address, bathos and anaphora are characteristic of Arabic poetry. They are also familiar enough to an English poetry audience from biblical, classical and modernist references.

The direct address is to God, torturer, world famous poets, country and sometimes it feels, to the wilderness.  It works at different levels – putting the poet on intimate footing with the landscape, the nation and poets to register lament: ‘O my country… O my forbidden poems’; or sexual desire: ‘O girl blossoming under your student’s blouse’; or memory of childhood and the fields:

O river of our youth winding

       between the mulberry orchards

                          and the secret police station.

 (p.95)

The bathetic leaps in register from elevated or lyrical language to the common, profane or scatological often have crudely humorous and disquieting effects, as in this comic grotesque comparison of the treatment of troops now and then under the 9th C caliph:

If Al-Musta’in in Baghdad forgot

to give his troops their wages

they would have eaten him up

and shitted him out

on the roads.

             (pp.99-100)

The anaphora reiterate the poet as witness, as sufferer, as dreamer of a different place glimpsed and violated in the present. Through the variations, the poet stitches together contemporary and ancient, reportage and lyric, imagined and real:

I saw bugging devices

slipped into the cleavage of girls

[. . .]

I saw gardens made empty

by your absence

[. . .]

I saw time fall

from the high-rises.

I saw Khayyam

– In Shiraz’s bar–

sipping cups of existence

              [. . .]  

I saw my father sleeping

on his plough

and government thieves looting his stalks and songs.

(p.35)

In breaking the censor’s taboos, erotic moments are conjured up of sexual pleasure snatched from the jaws of war but the war also scars these moments leaving ‘decayed human beings’. The male gaze in dream and recall draws on a narrow range of images of women as youthful innocents – shy, giggling, blossoming, ‘with a chest like a full moon’, (p.71) as luring temptresses in transparent chiffon or ‘with lust hissing in her black eyes’(p.113) or, as hardened and heartless – e.g. in the historic invocation of the eighth century slave girl, Al-Khaizaran, whose marriage to the caliph made power go to her head (p.105). Wives or partners are largely and tellingly absent – not only owing to physical separation due to the war, but also in the imagined forms of desire. However, here is a poignant invoking of the figure of dead wife and child in a moment of moral reflection on what the sniper and he, himself, as a soldier have in common:

. . . each is carrying the death of the other in his

palms… do you hear me you doltish sniper: each carries between his  

gripping fingers and the gun trigger, a widow and an orphan.

(pp.117-9)

Endless questioning and lament run through the whole poem sometimes to the point of despair – ‘O night, when will morning come?’ (p.87) – returning the poem to ancient expressions of grief and the contemporary ever-present terror and fear: ‘Who guarantees – in this world – a life caught in the cross-hairs / of a sniper?’ (p.111) However, mental defiance alternates with despair in surreal juxtapositions of the violence with small acts of everyday life: ‘From the flour of bombs / we make the delicious bread of life/and we milk the mirage …’ (p.121) and touches of lucidity and dark humour co-exist with but also counter the horror: ‘The war smokes you like a cigarette lit from / dog-ends in the colonels’ mouths… And are the years that fall out before our teeth do – mistakes?’(p.125).

 

The poem also carries a self-reflective commentary on poetry and the status of poets:

 – of the ambition of his poem:

  to ripen

this

                    whimper

into an anthem to Uruk

that is the sum

           of the earth

                           [. . .]

It’s for me to turn the millstone of words

to grind my soul for a girl drinking coffee in the morning,

to see other than the blue of this sky, a sky for your shining eyes

behind the iron of prisons and melancholy songs.

We suffer because poems last forever.

(p.49)

 

– of his treatment as a poet:

                     I shall be cursed by the critics for this bitter babbling.

The doors of publishers will slap my face.

        I’ll be stoned by poets.

 

– and turning the joke onto the ‘official poets’:

the wipers

of the General’s shoes, whose heads are filled with cow-muck.

(p.91)

 

– of his alienation from his homeland that has turned poetry into his sole refuge:  

                                         (there’s no home for me

   except the shade of a poem,

which I throw to the ground like a mat to sleep on)

(pp.167-9)

As it is published as a bilingual translation in free verse, Jenny Lewis chose to mirror the line lengths and layout of the original. Some indentations and line breaks are spaced like a stairway down, in what is primarily finely phrased, prose lineation that gives the poem a wonderfully relaxed English diction. Some lines are italicised – quotations from ancient poets, caliphs or sages, contemporary snatches of dialogue with fellow soldiers, men and women on the street, lines of poetry the poet shouts out to others – or voices recalled inside his own head, reminiscent of David Jones’ extraordinary interchange between the external and internal worlds capturing the horror and mental fragmentation of the First World War in the divergent voices, snatches of  conversation and song and intrusions of myth and history in In Parenthesis (not a direct influence though, as the poet did not know Jones’ work at the time the poem was being written). You have to work quite hard as a reader, if not versed in Arab history and culture, to take in the cultural references on initial reading. Yet looking up footnotes is a familiar modernist enhancement of the text, that enables the reader, at least partially, to bridge the gap between cultural worlds and deepen understanding of the work, if so wished. Here it is a necessity.

Just as the translators chose to carry over certain features that give the poem a classical Arabic feel in English yet make it familiar, through strong visual images, as a modernist dream-cum-nightmare… inevitably other features of the Arabic poem have been lost. At the online book launch by Seren, the publisher, Adnan Al -Sayegh read from the original and it became clear that meter and rhythm play an equally vital role as the surreal flow of images in the poem in Arabic. Indeed there is an ironic reference to one of the meters in the text: ‘She pressed a button and the elevator/moved to the rhythm of Mutadarik. / It was the most beautiful poem in the history of poetry.’(p.91) 

The original poem as the poet and translator have explained, has an interplay of mutaqarib and mutadarik in the text –the one with short unstressed syllables either side of a stressed one (similar to the amphibrach in English) with a slow, even pace, deployed in the dreamy, reflective and philosophical sections of the poem, the other more insistent, swifter, percussive rhythm with the two unstressed syllables either side of a faster stressed beat with the following unstressed syllable shorter, giving it an earthier, more urgent and embodied feel, used in sections of the poem more actively engaged with the violence and its effects.

Yet though the specific Arabic meters and music are lost, Let me tell you what I saw, is a wonderfully achieved translation, reimagining a great anti-war epic, or more accurately an anti-epic in a vivid, haunting English with a diction, pitch and music of its own that conveys a wide range of questions, hopes, ironies, griefs and other emotions in their full historical breadth and tragi-comic absurdity.

[1] Some Affinities of Content, (1991) in New & Selected Essays, New Directions, 1992 p.12.

Review by Ruth Valentine, London Grip

Monday, December 28, 2020

Let Me Tell You What I Saw is a bilingual selection from Adnan al-Sayegh’s 550-page poem Uruk’s Anthem, written over twelve years, between 1984 and 1996. During those years the poet was variously conscripted into the Iraqi army for the devastating Iran-Iraq war, imprisoned in a military detention centre, and living in exile, first in Sweden and now in London. The range of those personal experiences would be enough to fill more than one collection of poems, but this is a more ambitious project:

I saw the blood of slaves
        on a Sumerian stone altar
                  the flies of ages buzzing around it
I saw time fall from the high-rises.
I saw Khayyam
        in Shiraz's bar
sipping cups of existence... 

We are in ancient Uruk, the Sumerian city on the Euphrates; but equally in any modern city, and in medieval Persia with another poet, Omar Khayyam. This is an epic, but not in any narrative or chronological sense. The structure is subtle, moving from visions of historic and modern events, through exile, to an impassioned questioning of the country’s destiny. It is an intuitive account of the poet’s existence in the context of history: the history of his country of origin, of world culture, of its own moment. The narrator tells us ‘I saw’, ‘I heard’, ‘I dreamed,’ and these act as repeated jump-cuts between one era and another, one place and another, between cultures. We meet Tiresias, Lorca, Hikmet; we visit, in passing, Karbala and Sarajevo; we face the interrogator across a table.

In an afterword, we are told that Jenny Lewis worked with both Al-Sayegh and the Palestinian-Lebanese poet Ruba Abughaida, to create a musicality equivalent to the original. Line-lengths vary, at times terse, at times into prose-poem. Layout on the page creates pauses, silences, delayed shocks:

I shouted sadly: O my country
so the walls of the cell shook: Oh!!
And the guards shared the scraps of letters
and hidden tobacco in the blanket of
                       one of the prisoners
                               before she was executed.

It’s the detail that assures us that this is more than a rhetorical device: the tobacco hidden in the blanket, the callous greed of the guards.

One repeated motif is the General, the autocratic ruler of any era.

What have you done to us, O General who is passionate about mazes?
What did you do to this country?
        It can find no trees to lean on, other than your sword,
               and nothing to water it
                             but
                             your piss

The narrator is never simply a victim, whatever pains he undergoes. He and his compatriots, perhaps all of us, are made complicit. Here he conjures a sniper, and his own reciprocal gun:

        ...each is carrying the death of the other in his palms... do you hear me you doltish sniper:
        each carries between his gripping fingers and the gun trigger, a widow and an orphan.
 

Life, nevertheless, is more than war and oppression; it is also what can be salvaged from war and oppression. There is love and desire; there is the fact of writing:

It's for me to turn the millstone of words
to grind my soul for a girl drinking coffee in the morning,
to see other than the blue of this sky, a sky for your shining eyes
      behind the iron of prisons and melancholy songs

This is a book to dwell on, to deepen one’s understanding reading by reading. The introduction, by Jenny Lewis, and the copious footnotes, help the non-Iraqi reader to gather knowledge of the poem’s context and the poet’s wide-ranging cultural references, absorb them and return to the text itself. I don’t know Arabic and can’t judge the translation in terms of accuracy or faithfulness of tone; but my concentration was very rarely broken by an awkward phrasing. The imagery, the sensory detail, will in any case speak beyond the limits of translation: the war ‘smokes you like a cigarette;’ ‘we carry our mats like a country/and fold them quickly/whenever the security forces raid us.’

Hearing Adnan Al-Sayegh read his work in its original language is a pleasure to be sought out, whether or not you know Arabic. In the absence of live readings, his own website is a starting-point: www.adnanalsayegh.com   Meanwhile, this monumental work of collaborative translation is an exciting, disturbing, enlightening introduction.

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