Man’s Song / Woman’s Song

by Khaled Mattawa, translated from the Arabic written by Adonis

copyright ©2010 by Yale University

Man’s Song

Sideways,
I glimpsed your face drawn on the trunk of a palm
and saw the sun, black in your hands.
I tied my longing to that tree and carried night in a basket
                                                                carried the whole city
and scattered myself before your eyes.
                                                Then I saw your face hungry like a child’s.
I circled it with invocations
and above it I sprinked jasmine buds.

Woman’s Song

Sideways,
I caught sight of his old man’s face
robbed by days and sorrows.
he came to me holding his green jars to his chest
rushing to the last supper.
Each jar was a bay
and a wedding held for a harbor and a boat
where days and shores drown
where seagulls probe their past and sailors divine the future.
He came to me hungry and I stretched my love toward him,
a loaf of bread, a glass cup, and a bed.
I opened the doors to wind and sun
and shared with him the last supper.

Notes on the Poem

According to the Griffin Poetry Prize rules, translated works submitted for the prize "are assessed for their quality as poetry in English; the focus is on the achievement of the translator." Translator Khaled Mattawa has forged some intriguing poems that spring as unique entities from the source of Adonis' works in Arabic. Even if you do not know Arabic to make the comparison, it's clear that unto themselves, Mattawa's translated poems can captivate all on their own. This is illustrated well in the juxtaposition of two poems that might or might not be describing the same encounter from two different perspectives. Adonis is noted for a range of work that in style and subject matter swoops from the mystical and metaphysical to the intimate and meditative. In twinned poems told from a man's and a woman's point of view, Mattawa seems to have captured everything from the earthly to the universal in subtly suggested themes, arrived at through echoes and contrasts. Both poems start with the word "Sideways". Does that negate or skew both narrators' observations, since everything that follows is not faced head on? Alternatively, do the man and the woman just see each other from different angles that reveal things they or we might not see straight on? The man "scattered myself before your eyes", one phrase which illustrates his figurative method of describing his encounter with the woman. By contrast, the woman waits to be approached - "he came to me" - and she focuses somewhat more than the man on the concrete, from the green jars he is carrying to the things they share later. That said, she strays into metaphor to describe those objects. The man uses the first ("I glimpsed") and second ("your face") person in his song. The woman uses first ("I caught sight") and third ("he came to me") person in her song, creating a seeming distance between herself and the man. Those contrasts and differences aside, they both see and notice unspecified tolls taken in each other's faces. Echoed words and phrases such as "hungry", "he came to me" and "the last supper" culminate in sharing and coming together. As a translator and a poet, Mattawa crafts this pair of poems to converge in a most satisfying fashion.

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