from Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile

by Donald Nicholson-Smith, translating Abdellatif Laabi

copyright ©English language copyright © Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2016

Write, write, never stop. Tonight and all the nights to come. When I am at last face to face with myself. And must take stock. No more uniform. No longer distractedly pacing a measured area for the regulation exercise period. No more obeying wretched orders. My number still on the other side of the door. When I am done with drinking, eating, urinating, defecating. Done with talking, with calling things by their worn-out names. I light endless cigarettes whose smoke emerges from my lungs in broken chains, bitter swirls of rejection. Prison night has gobbled up the artificial light of the day. Ragged stars populate the vault of my visions.

Write.
When I stop, my voice begins to sound very peculiar. As though unknown notes were clinging to its cords, driven by strange storms from all those zones where life and death watch and spy on one another, two oddly hued wild animals, each crouched ready to spring, ready to slash and destroy the other’s essential nature.

Write.
I can live now only by wrenching myself away from myself, by wrenching away from myself my points of rupture and suture, those places where I most acutely feel splits and junctures, where I cut myself into pieces so as to return to life in unfathomable elsewheres: earth, roots, trees of intensity, granular effervescene under the sun.

Notes on the Poem

Our Poem of the Week choices for the next several weeks will be taken from the freshly announced 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This week's selection comes from In Praise of Defeat, a collection of the work in French of poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and political activist Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Laâbi founded Souffles, a left-leaning literary review banned by the Moroccan government in 1972. An outspoken critic of the authoritarian and theocratic regimes of the Maghreb, Laâbi was imprisoned in Morocco for eight years and later exiled to France. How he endured his imprisonment is woven like a cohesive and brilliant thread throughout his work. "Write, write, write is Laabi’s message from prison even though that is exactly what put him in there," observes reviewer Evilcyclist in his sensitive review of In Praise of Defeat. The excerpt we're featuring as Poem of the Week is just the first of the poem's more than 20 pages, but "Write" appears as a determined mantra several times on every page. And on every page, he writes with resolve through the many adversities he faces in prison, not least of which seems to be the challenge of his own mental solitude. Early on, his exhortation to himself to "Write, write, never stop" collides with: "When I am at last face to face with myself." The line seems both confrontational and as if, pragmatically, he is savouring a luxury that few get to enjoy and that he will do his best to appreciate, even under such harsh circumstances. Yet, as he continues to write ... "I can live now only by wrenching myself away from myself." Still, as he struggles and uses writing to try to ameliorate and resolve that struggle, he recognizes beautifully and defiantly: "Ragged stars populate the vault of my visions." This excerpt is representative, in the complete poem and throughout the collection, of the startling insights into a mind and a spirit resolved to withstand, as well as another mind applied to accurately and stirringly translating that indomitable determination from one language to another. "Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile" concludes with: "The years pass / at a gallop." The line seems to be both a lament for time stolen and a tribute to time determinedly survived ... by writing.

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