Two poems by Tunisian poet and translator Ines Abassi explore language, selfhood, and emotional intimacy.
Song of Clay
Night unfolds around my image in the mirror
while I gather up corpses of letters
that have died from excessive speech.
I choose a few letters
and greet them with spectrums of color
and the heavy breath of desire
until language’s gate opens before me.
And I see
the aleph full of pride:
the dance of a sacrificial gazelle.
The nūn with its wailing:
a crimson mouth, spellbound
by the names of love.
Then the aleph again, this time
Thus, the word anā—I—is drawn in the air
with a swarm of words around it.
the gluttonous paths that devour my footsteps,
the December air that plays with the faces and trees
while the rain washes red-brick houses.
It creates, from my childlike language,
a blue ladder that stretches to the sky.
the bread of the hungry kneaded with sweat,
the night of a lover tossing and turning
in a bed of bewilderment
the meowing of a cat on a February night,
a ballad lost in a field of song,
the music of an oud with wounded strings,
and the beat of ancient drums
in the forests of Africa.
the sound of a spear
splitting the air
as it flies toward its prey,
and the eyes of the prey turning
to meet death head-on.
am a mare the color of hazel
that went down to the river
without the compass of the wind and trees.
am the jealousy of the lover,
am stolen splendor on a darkened street:
afflicted by color, sun, shadows,
and what I cannot see.
am a field of grain hungry for sun,
and the wailing of an olive tree
a hundred years old
cut down by a blind ax,
and the hissing of the fire
kindled by the last Native American
who clung to the land beneath his tent
as he died,
and the rush of the water at the river’s end
in cascades of light . . . anā.
I am the child’s lisp as it says “Papa”
for the very first time.
am the daughter of clay, and its mother.
But whenever I stand there, in your hands,
I am nothing more than your child . . .
Exercises in Loneliness
A wall of frail desire:
I leaned against it
and lapped up the blood flowing
from the wound of the rose
that was scratched by the air,
a she-wolf of your love.
The smell of your blood guides me
toward the light.
The fear that hovered over our encounters
with its feathered wings:
you slung it over your shoulders
but never took flight.
Fear is your face.
Fear is your trembling voice
when you ask me: Where are you now?
Fear: your smile,
the way you walk,
your very body
in the narrow spaces of farewell.
You’ll cross five forests on your own, after Havana.
Five forests and then I’ll die,
you say to yourself,
before I see the freckles that will cover your face
after all the suns
you’ll lie beneath.
And with a single fearful keystroke
you delete all the emails,
which had been chiseling the crystal of our mornings
like thirsty birds pecking
at the water of words:
You deleted all the letters that grew
on the edge of the desert—rasping, desirous.
Fear: the way your voice
quivers with doubt
when you hear the bracelets of my joy
ring through the hallway
that separates one encounter
when you stand before my mirror,
when you lie down lazily
beneath the sun of your tedious life,
years I cross
breathing in deeply
my own scent,
years I cross with tepid fear.
as I pass through you
in a boat with two oars
that devour the salt of the life you lived before me.
the words “my life, my everything,”
words you spoke to draw me in,
a heavy lid of love
that I would later turn into a carpet:
I lie down on it
on those weekend nights
becomes a long torment for the self.
“أغنية الطين” and “تمارين الوحدة” © Ines Abassi. Translations © 2017 by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. All rights reserved.