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First Read: From “Incomprehensible Lesson”

By Fawzi Karim
Translated By Anthony Howell

The poems below are excerpted from Fawzi Karim’s Incomprehensible Lesson. Translated by Anthony Howell (working from the author’s own versions) and forthcoming with Carcanet Press, the collection explores the experience of exile and the possibilities of home.


Incomprehensible Lesson

At the hour of sunset, autumn clouds
     are scattered sheep drifting toward the distance.
The six stalks of our feet dangle over the lip
     of the clay oven.
We hang around like that, eat warm bread,
     while counting the sheep of the days we have left:
Happy days that remain before we’re packed off to school.

My mother comes to shepherd us from time to time.
I listen to the birds,
     and to what they want me to report to her
     as they pass in their migratory convoys.
The message is for anybody waiting,
     waiting like her, while the birds are here
     for a little while, and then they’re off on their way again.
It is as if this is teaching me some incomprehensible lesson.
Already I’m a poet in my prime.

It is thus that a hidden sigh
     lifts me above my brothers,
Higher than the palm tree,
And then I’m back, cold from the heights,
Back within their captivating warmth.

All too soon, the sharp-clawed hawk will snatch me,
The hawk that hovers over my life,
A life, which in its vigilance
     resembles a city under siege.
And only in the negligence of time
     can the hawk stoop, drop onto me
The present moment, heavy as a millstone.

And here I am, ground round and round as it turns,
     grinding no flour whatsoever.
I can’t help counting the days that are left
And what the days have in store
Before I have to revise that incomprehensible lesson.


The Absent

Our grandchildren, then. It’s up to them.
They will inherit our features. And they will tell
Our stories, share each exploit,
Fertilize thus our rank remains perhaps.
We each may earn a tombstone, and poets get a call
To etch what we inspired on it. Or perhaps
The mirrors that have recorded what we did
Will simply be interred. The Kalifa brigade
Will see to it the site has no visitors.
The body of our work will be flayed,
Or enslaved to some justified ruler perhaps.

Will we engender pilots in the seas of night
Or muggers in urban jungles?
Perhaps we’ll leave no trace at all
Beyond that of a rat
Glued inside the damp trap of nothingness.


Excerpted from Incomprehensible Lesson by Fawzi Karim, published by Carcanet Press. Copyright © 2019 by Fawzi Karim and Anthony Howell. By arrangement with the publisher.


Read more poetry by Fawzi Karim in WWB

Published Jan 23, 2019   Copyright 2019 Fawzi Karim

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