For Kader El-Janabi: The French Connection

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 9:14 AM

The following short essay and poem were commissioned in 2002 for publication in Kader El-Janabi’s short-lived magazine,
Arapoetica de la Poésie Internationale, but with that magazine’s demise or suspension, was never actually published. The issue for which it was intended was to focus on the connection between American and French poetry over the preceding century. In its original English version the concluding poem (“Three Paris Elegies”) had appeared earlier in A Paradise of Poets (New Directions, 1999). Baghdad-born and long exiled in Paris, El-Janabi remains for me an exemplary fighter against all forms of political and religious despotism – concerns at the center of his poetry and art.

For myself, writing and living in late-twentieth-century America, there was a sense that all of us, as poets, shared a past and future with forerunners and contemporaries across a startling range of times and places. This came at a time when we were discovering ourselves also as American poets with a new language in which to write and a new perspective – a series of new perspectives – that we could write from. If the thrill of the moment led some into an easy jingoism or a more interesting localism, for others it opened the possibility of an experience of poetry and life that could truly push against the boundaries of languages and cultures.

For those of us who meant to proceed by new means, modern means – to be “absolutely modern” in Rimbaud’s phrase – the memory and presence of Paris and France loomed large. Never mind that at the same time we were discovering America or that we were determined dwellers in our own cities (New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago). Paris as city and vortex (Pound’s word) was with us in our imagination as poets – even for those of us who had never set foot there. There were exceptions of course – poets who felt themselves to be more exclusively American or were themselves distanced from the great cities of America and Europe; Snyder and Olson, say, among the really good ones. But for myself again, Paris, once I had found it, was a place I could inhabit, not the physical city so much as the the world of experimental and radical modernism that the city had once come to represent. Post-modernism, for myself and my companions, was no more than the transfer – often contentious – of the older modernist impulse into a new terrain and time.

I have lived almost my whole life on the two coasts of North America – New York first and California later. From both of these Europe was less than a single day’s travel, and because that travel became increasingly possible (starting for me in the late 1960s), I came to think of myself as inhabiting two continents. In 1997 I spent four months in Paris, and there have been several other extended visits since then. At the time of the 1997 trip I had initiated, with Pierre Joris, a translation project that would extend over the next few years. What we had chosen to do was to translate the collected poetry of Picasso into English, Pierre to focus on the French and I on the Spanish. So I brought Picasso with me to Paris, or in another sense, I found him there: Picasso and other ghosts in a Paris that had long since dissolved into history and myth, leaving their names on houses and streets or, for some, etched onto tombstones in the city’s great cemeteries.

I began in fact to think of Paris as a cemetery city, a city filled with ghosts – both its ghosts and ours. The presence of the dead was then particularly strong for me, because of the number of friends who had died over the preceding year. These mingled with the ghosts of that early avant-garde whose place had been here and whose work we had been determined – some of us – to reach and to surpass. But more than that of course, there was the actual city as it existed in the summer and autumn of 1997 – an evidently threatened economy that made for an increased number of beggars, some curiously well-dressed I thought, in the streets where we were living. That was in a space between La République and the Canal, where in the square itself one afternoon we saw what seemed to be a large soup kitchen for the unemployed. And whatever I saw there fused quite naturally with Picasso’s words as we had brought them over into English:

the blockhead who stretching out his hand asks them for a little alms sitting alone on the ground in the middle of the plaza

and again:

over the beggar’s hand
only adorned with blossoms
alms collected through those worlds
he pulls along


All this to form another continuity.

The poem that follows, translated here by Jean Portante, is not only a lament for the dead and the living, but a celebration of my own French connection as it appeared to me in 1997. The first of the three elegies is derived from Picasso’s favored form, a block of prose absent all punctuation, and the second is the account of an event, a minor existential crisis, in the Pyrenees. It is in the third, however, that the fusion takes place – of past and present, dream and waking life – and leads me to the realization of a world in which time loses its meaning in a simultaneous present which isn’t time at all. If this can travel from my own place and language into yours, then it’s likely that another connection will have taken place.

Jerome Rothenberg
Paris/Encinitas
November 2002

*

Trois élégies parisiennes

1

dans mon sombre dimanche à moi la lumière s’approche comme la lune à travers des plumes ce qui à peine vue sombre coulée par l’aveuglement & la pensée que tout le monde est mort autour d’une ville sur le point de disparaître tout comme elle l’a fait auparavant engloutie dans une poche vide et démesurée & avec une odeur de terre les lumineux aventuriers de 1910 dont c’étaient les rues partageaient une tombe commune avec ceux qui ont suivi atteignant même l’endroit où toi et moi attendons en compagnie des amis partis un à un comme des cybersinges s’envolant dans l’espace insouciant

2

au-dessus d’une gorge nous pendions
& oscillions
les montagnes étaient vivantes de chaque côté
témoins de pierre
l’air était immobile rien qu’un lointain souffle de vent
nous étions assis suspendus par un câble d’acier
sans voix
personne à qui parler dans le monde
sauf toi et moi
cette révélation
je crois que c’est son vide que je prise le plus
et même maintenant arrivé à paris
je suis assis seul
& je le sens éclater de ma poitrine
électrique
final
ruée de pas dévalant une rue vide

3

pourquoi un homme bien habillé s’approche-t-il de moi & me demande-t-il l’aumône?

(c’est un rêve, me dis-je, cela ne peut pas être vrai)

pourquoi une mère souriante habillée pour la messe tend-elle une main pour me toucher des nuages tout autour d’elle assise par terre

pourquoi demande-t-elle de l’aide

& pourquoi est-ce que je continue de marcher la laissant derrière moi

où il n’y a ni rue ni soleil

même à paris en ce jour le plus chaud de l’été

quel est le bruit qui vient vers nous du coin de la rue bruit d’une vague suspendue dans l’air de ruches d’abeilles de mains qui applaudissent dans le noir

qui est l’homme qui porte une fleur dans son oreille une chemise avec beaucoup de plis un gilet une barbe les boutons qui brillent comme des étincelles électriques

à mesure que je scrute ses traits je peux voir que ses lèvres sont parties sa langue est lourde & pend d’un côté & forme des mots qui ne m’atteignent jamais que l’obscurité couvre

tous les gens de cette rue sont assis contre un mur les uns les yeux ouverts d’autres enfoncés dans un sommeil profond

tous sont bien habillés

les hommes portent des costumes d’affaires & des blazers un gilet un veston croisé un smoking & queue-de-pie mais n’ont ni manteaux ni chapeaux

leurs chaussures sont simples toujours d’un brun obscur ou noires avec des traces de sable de promenades dans les jardins parisiens lacets défaits parfois sans chaussettes

& les femmes bien habillées aussi même si la chevelure de l’une est avachie alors qu’une autre l’a clairsemée et laisse entrevoir son crâne une troisième porte les traces d’une barbe une grande tache humide sous une aisselle

on n’a qu’à les regarder & déjà ils se mettent à parler

comme parlent les oiseaux

plumes que le vent fait tourbilloner à travers le square

nous sommes assis au paradis & nous nous repassons un ballon

bouts de papiers à nos pieds

puis c’est l’heure de partir & nous tournons à l’angle de la rue montons par le petit escalier & les entendons suivre

une bouffée de musique d’un temps lointain une voix de femme devenant régulière les mots qui émergent bas & hauts implacables ouvertures processions

& c’est picasso en tête un petit homme aux épaules poilues il s’est mis en short de course comme frank o’hara tous les deux maintenant des étoiles du collège mineola tous les deux déclarant maintenant leur amour du mal

et apollinaire qui est également là sa tête pas plus grande que l’ongle d’un pouce flanqué de gertrude stein yeux comme ceux d’une poupée folle & quelqu’un qui ressemble à mon père max jacob enveloppé dans un habit brun de moine dans lequel son corps disparaît

ici dans un monde où il n’y a que des petites gens des fantômes où le ciel n’est pas un ciel la terre rétrécit quotidiennement sous du plastique argenté disparait glisse entre mes mains comme des billes dans un salle de pachinko les yeux tourbillonnant comme des lumières rouges

pour finir ici à la république avec tous les autres morts les fantômes affamés sous nos fenêtres soupe populaire pour les morts ceux qui courent ceux qui s’accroupissent maintenant dans l’herbe

ils disent notre faiblesse la déchéance incorporée à la vie décomposition chaos anarchie confusion d’autant plus confondue saleté pêle mêle

hors coup & hors usage hors gonds hors argent hors temps hors jeu hors haleine hors boulot hors espoir hors pouvoir

parce que les hommes qui viennent vers nous bien que morts sont exactement comme nous & nous fixent comme des princes déchus

soyez les bienvenus dans la mort disent-ils leurs regards nous divisent en deux

les nombres dansent à nouveau derrière nos yeux

les cercles se brisent

l’homme portant une horloge à son oreille comptera le silence

chaque jour est été

ce qui était naguère vivant est parti

& ce qui n’a pas encore été vivant


Paris
août/septembre 1997

Traduit par Jean Portante

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