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from the March 2016 issue

From “The Dove-Text”

The Arabophone poet Abdallah Zrika composed a volume of French prose poems, La Colombe du texte (The Dove-Text), during his three-month residency at the Centre International de la Poésie Marseille in 2002. The following is an extract.

The highest degree of solitude is not reached when you cannot open the door for more than two days, but when no fly enters through the window. I do not know the degree of solitude of the trees around me, or if they haven’t known the coming of a single bird or flying insect. But they do not change. They are like a picture hung behind the window. I look at the white wall to see if a mote of dust has stuck to it. In the end there is no fly, no bird on a tree, no mote of dust, only a few words on the leaf trembling from the cold inside me (despite the heat of the room). I gaze at these words like a dead man gazes at the earth that moves around him, and who can neither say nor do anything.

 

Yet a few days later you just don’t know how a little fly did get in. That is to say, the first living being—after the days I’ve told you about—to enter a dead place. This is how solitude appeared to me. I felt my eyes move in an unusual way in each direction that the fly took, while the place itself moved “in a weird way,” and the heat of the house was but a warm coldness. I have closed the window so that the fly may not get out, thereby returning the place to its state of deadness. I opened my eyes wide so that the fly wouldn’t get lost among all the things because of its smallness. I was unable to think of anything else. But after a short time I could no longer see the fly. I told myself that it would certainly come back into my “field of vision.” I waited for a long time. I felt that time had stopped completely, and that everything inside me had returned to its death. I walked around the room so that some movement would be returned to the place. But at the very moment I looked at the floor, I saw the same fly, motionless in a corner, its legs pointing up. I tried to make it move with the tip of a pencil, but it was in vain. I sat down next to it as if trying to give it a little of my energy. I felt a vast pain overtake me. Finally I stood up to go to bed, telling myself that despite what had happened, at least there was a being—even if it was dead—staying in the room.

The next day, without thinking, I buried it in a little dirt near the door to the room (so that it not be far from me).

Today, when I saw the trees, all that solitude had disappeared. I didn’t even think about that fly. All the clouds of solitude had dispersed. But the world that had disappeared around me has returned.

 

Each day I try to visit the text that I see written more or less outside of town and precisely in that flat forest of railway lines, as if those lines filled a certain page. Lines that serve to travel out and to return, that are permanently on a journey, and that start neither on the right nor on the left. I do not know where they start or where they finish. I do not find a text like that in the house. It may be that when I arrived the two doves that had a nest on the sill of the half-closed window took flight, and I couldn’t open the window, not wanting to disperse the leaves of the nest which they go to only after I lay down on the bed. But as soon as I get up, I hear the rustle of their wings. I told myself: “Maybe the text I am looking for in this house also has wings and takes flight as soon as I get up. The page on the table remains white like this nest which the dove-text has left.” I also told myself that I took up the place of the other “living beings,” and that the text lost in the house could be found between the railway lines and that it was on a permanent journey. That’s why I came to feel obliged—with unequaled joy—to get out of the house, not only to do the shopping, but before all to frequent this continually changing text. I read it as it pleases me. I laughed, thinking about the people who expect a certain text from me, and who ask me each time if I have written something while living in that house. I asked myself what they can read into this text that doesn’t want to leave the circle of reading, and that just wants to be a text that I alone read? I asked myself why this text read by me alone and not read by anybody else took flight from this house and from everything around it, like these gigantic sequoias, these nineteenth-century maple trees, these little lakes where a few swans and ducks live. Didn’t it find a place to stay or does it not want to take the place of the others as I did when I lived in that house, whose windowsill served as nesting ground for two doves, and where now I only see a nest left empty by its owners and a white page, it too “empty,” on a table. I didn’t feel any sadness in relation to the loss of my text in the house, but I rejoiced because that way I knew writing from another angle. I find myself in a place, while the text I write—or that writes itself through me—finds itself in another place of its own “choosing.” I have not known this state up until now. That is to say, I have not known such “detachment.” Where the text refuses to be in a white page and refuses to share the place I reside in. I told myself that in that situation I was not a “writer,” but the witness of a text that constructed itself on a page under the form of iron lines, and that people were passing by without really seeing it, rather recognizing it as a text. But I also felt great joy when I said that I was the only one who felt it as a text and maybe it is happy about this. That is to say, about the existence of another being that sees it “as it is.”

 

On another day, while visiting my text spread out on the floor of the “railway forest,” I noticed someone in the process of making bodily movements in front of the door to a café that has no name and that I recognized only by its chairs. He had the face of someone who goes outside for the first time and sees the sun. I noticed that he was laughing uncontrollably while executing his movements. I was about to pass by him when he waved to me and said: “You can go into this café without paying.” I carefully scrutinized his face at the moment he turned toward the door of the café. It was a round face full of wrinkles around the eyes and the mouth, maybe caused by the laughter that never ceased. Inside the café I noticed that there was no one there besides me. As if he had read it on my face, he said to me: “This café has no clients. Only a few people from outside town come here from time to time. Generally the café remains empty. This doesn’t bother me. I’ve gotten used to the fact that it is empty.” Then he went into an endless fit of laughter. He asked me what I wanted to drink. Without thinking I said: “Water.” I noticed that the word “water” I had just pronounced fit well with the emptiness of the café. I held back laughter that nearly erupted from my mouth. Then he went on: “If you really are from outside of town, the first thing you’ll notice is that it is empty of people. In that it perfectly resembles my café.” I wanted to tell him that I had noticed some dust on the glass of the windows, some black stains on the walls, and many dead tree leaves filling the roadsides, dating, it seemed to me, from last fall, but he broke out in laughter while wiping one of the tables near me with a cloth, and said: “You won’t even find a single door open, except my door, this one.” And he asked: “Do you know why I make these bodily movements each time in front of the door of my café?” But as he didn’t receive an answer to his question as I was caught up reflecting on what he had just said while gazing at the glass of water that I had not yet touched, he continued: “Because very basically I feel that I am the proprietor of the whole of this town and not only of this café. The emptiness of the town, which can terrorize some people, fills me with unequaled joy. I express this joy with my bodily movements. Movements that don’t end at time. But they change each time. I do not exercise sportive movements as I have no interest in such, but movements that try to communicate this joy, which fills my whole body, to other spaces.” He looked at my glass, which I had not touched as yet, and asked me through gestures if I didn’t want something else, as if he didn’t want to add another word to what he had already said. I did not want to disturb his great joy in this great emptiness. He disappeared behind the counter. I brought the glass of water to my mouth. At that very moment there appeared in front of my eyes the white page that litters my house, and I saw the movements of the café owner as a text writing itself in “thin air.” I said to myself: “Maybe that’s what drives him to keep opening the café? He writes with his movements and experiences an unimaginable joy.” But I don’t know why I also told myself that this text was also my text, which another person was writing in my stead. I didn’t understand what I had just said. My head was fixated on what I had seen and heard. I came back home saying: “It is another text that I will visit from time to time.”

One of my friends came into my house, walked over to the window where the nest is, opened it while saying: “Why didn’t you open it?” I didn’t answer but displayed a certain nonchalance. He came over to the table and asked me: “Have you written something these days?” And given that I nearly never give an answer to that question, I asked: “Would you like to drink something?” As his eyes were fixed on the table, he didn’t answer. He expected an answer to his question. He said: “You know, the first person I met today asked about you.” I said: “Is that why you bore me with that question?” He answered: “You do not want to know what his question was.” I told him: “It doesn’t concern me. He asked the question of you.” He said: “But I, I don’t write.” I said: “This question concerns even those who do not write.” He answered: “I don’t understand.” I said: “I can ask all of those I meet if they have written something these days.” He said: “But that’s crazy. Those others don’t write.” I said to him: “But the question ‘did you write anything these days’ concerns everyone.” He said: “I don’t get it.” I told him: “I am telling you this because these days I am living another kind of writing that has nothing to do with the empty page.” He said: “You seem weird to me today.” I said to him as if talking to myself: “The text I ‘saw’ yesterday, I did nothing to find it over there, and the empty page awaiting something, it too didn’t choose that situation.” And I asked him: “Would you like to drink something?” As he didn’t answer, I said to him: “I’m going out now. I have an appointment.” He looked at me, somewhat surprised. We said good-bye behind the door. He went off in his usual direction and I went back to the railway text.

My surprise was great when I saw a group of young girls standing before the extraordinary place where dozens of railroad tracks gather in the shape of a circle, a kind of iron snail. Laughing, I told myself: “Maybe this text has ‘hit’ them, too.” I lingered for a moment, watching them watching that iron railroad. One of them came up to me and said: “Are you not the professor from the art school?” Surprised, I looked at her. She said with a little stammer: “We are waiting for a professor who is supervising our work in this place.” I said as my heart started to beat very loudly: “And what exactly is that work?” She said: “We will color these rails” and she pointed to the place that by text I call the railroads. I thought: “All is lost.” A wave of anger swept over me, I wondered why nobody had thought of this place before. As if they had waited until I had become attached to it before thinking to change it. Maybe it is I who provoked all this.

From La Colombe du texte. © Abdallah Zrika. Translation © 2016 by Pierre Joris. All rights reserved.

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