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Friday, May 3, 2019

Review: Modern Sudanese Poetry, by Translated and edited by Adil Babikir

Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology
by Translated and edited by Adil Babikir
University of Nebraska Press
Multicultural Interest, Poetry


It is difficult to bring one's own cultural bearings upon another. It is one thing to pay lip service to it and another to experience it through living in a culture foreign to one's own. Not everyone can afford to travel, so books are the next best thing.

Of course, it is almost as hard to view one's own culture with objectivity. This what we attempt to do when reading another culture's work: to see those who are not us. That is part of a translator's job: to bring to bear both the difference and similarity so we can examine it, feel its texture, turn it over in our hands.

The anthology Modern Sudanese Poetry comes to us translated from the Arabic, so we are peering through a glass darkly, peering through another man's eyes at what these other poets experienced. Is it accurately translated? Sometimes the words for a thing in one language aren't there in another. Sometimes we can circumlocute toward a common understanding; sometimes it can only be at best an approximation.

There is an additional hurdle for the translator: Does it read like poetry in the translated language? Does it retain the music, the sound and rhythm of the originals? It's a near impossible task to get both the meaning and the feel of the original.

A reviewer, then, (unless he is proficient in that other language, which I am not) cannot pinpoint if a display of literary genius or infelicity is due to the original or the translation, so consider this review a comment on neither.

With all of these inherent, problematic issues, why read poems in another language? For the same reason why we travel to other countries: to get a feel for other cultures, to see inside other minds, to observe and study other ways and other arts.

The introduction is generous and provides some general context for the poems. Much time is spent discussing the Muslim aspect of the Sudanese, which is fine, especially since Sudan is overwhelmingly Muslim (South Sudan has Christian majority), but in an era where we speak of the marginalized and give them voice, we might expect more discussion of the Christian minority. After all, much of the introduction is focused on the politics of the poetry, which also slants the anthology in a particular direction. In fact, if the anthology does set out to concern itself with political coverage, it would seem a proper focus of the introduction would be to describe the political stage of the modern Sudanese, so that we get a feel for what the poets are concerned with. But this is not the case. Perhaps in a later edition.

On the other hand, maybe the issue is the language. Maybe the translator could only do poems in Arabic. If that's the case, a different title might be necessary to cover the seeming oversight.

The poems span six decades. A number, especially the early ones, are often cast outside the mind of the poet, at a remove:

a palm-frond crescent braided on my forehead.
Your chaste charm is a blessing on my heart
the flames of your love are healing my wounds
your conceit is innocent playfulness
my tears as sweet as pure water;
I grow in awe of you... 
--"My Beloved Aazza" by Khalil Farah

The strong image, as we find in the first line, is uncommon and seems little more than a stone in the poetic stream. While flames that heal is a curious if unresolved paradox, much of the poem bogs down in abstractions that distance us from the poet's persona.

This does not mean that poems lack inspiring passages (from "Dig No Grave for Me" by Mohammad elFayturi, a kind of political battle cry of impotent strength):

When silence takes you far from us,
and you flicker in the distance,
like a caravan flag drowned in the sand--"

Politics don't necessarily sour poems, but here the love poems take wing. One of my favorites is "A Farm on the Hill" by Mohammed el-Makki Ibrahim--a comparison of a love to a farm. It's an old metaphor for which you can probably come up with a half-dozen associations, but I found it effective:

Before you were born,
and became a farm on the hill
you used to be a sanctuary for foxes,
taking shelter from the foothill dogs....
That was before we met
before you became a mother and a field.
Before summer departed
I combed your hair,
rolled rocks off your shoulders,
built a perimeter  fence
and an embankment.
I dug a well....
the birds are roaming every corner, gathering fabrics for your wedding dress,
painting flower and spike,

Abdel Raheem Abu Zikka's "The Night Girl" poses a magical snapshot that is both humorous and inspired. It begins with a woman who appears outside a cafe, coinciding with the rain and cafe chatter and nearly all motion in the cafe stopping simultaneously. A glass is dropped and explodes on the tile.

The waiter turned his head but his eyes got stuck in transit:
A girl!
O my Lord!
Your protection
for the blooming eyes
for the flowing braids
What a beauty! What a vigor!
Blessed is the Creator!

She leaves and all motion, rain and chatter begin again. Lovely.

The political poems are not necessarily failures. Kamal Elgizouli's "Monologue," while no translated lines are inspired, scorches in our minds a poignant situation where a prisoner wonders how he and the guard became enemies.

The best political poems deploy a Whitmanian / Biblical chorus / refrain / sentence rhythm to produce their effects. Here's one example from "Uncle Abdur Raheem" by Mohammed El-Hassan Sallim Himmaid:

ruling us in the Prophet's name.
Sometimes you bristle,
sometimes you give in, make no fuss,
sometimes you join
the drumbeaters
and sycophantic entourage.

This is a great anthology for scholars, the curious, and those interested in exploring African poetry. Should a second edition occur, perhaps a wider net could be cast into various Sudanese languages, and these could distilled to their essentials. 

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