Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: The Rising of the Ashes

The Rising of the Ashes
by Tahar Ben Jelloun
translation by Cullen Goldblatt

Published by City Lights

Reviewed by Colin Herd

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Rising of the Ashes, out this year from City Lights, presents the original French text alongside an English translation by Cullen Goldblatt. The book consists of two long poems and an author’s preface. The first poem, from which the volume takes its title, concerns the first Gulf War and is dated 1991. The second poem is titled ‘Unidentified’ and is a response to the treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories in the 1980s.
As Goldblatt notes in his introduction, The Rising of the Ashes first appeared in 1991 as a bilingual volume with an accompanying Arabic translation. Reading it then must have felt like a very timely, responsive, urgent experience and it is telling (and not-a-little depressing) that the poems feel no less urgent and timely nearly ten years later, in an atmosphere just as sticky with complex violence.

The preface is relatively short but definitely punchy, its stark sentences bristling with political and poetic engagement. Ben Jelloun reveals the urgency with which he felt these poems rise: ‘So poetry rises. Out of necessity. Amidst the disorder where human dignity is trampled, poetry becomes urgent language.’ Ben Jelloun articulates the profound necessity of speaking in the face of violence, when ‘silence could be akin to an offence’. But urgency, of course, is one thing, while agency is a completely different other. Running counter to (but alongside) that feeling of urgency is a strong sensation of the inadequacy and impotence of words and poetry, what Ben Jelloun calls ‘the powerlessness of language in the face of history’s extreme brutality’. Yes, ‘poetry rises’, but it rises like ashes and Ben Jelloun’s urgency is always tempered by the searching, and very healthy question: what can poetry actually do?

‘Why is our history littered with defeats?
Is it a failure of language?’

I found it interesting to think of the title-poem alongside a contemporary French text, Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, in which the French philosopher claimed that factors such as television coverage and the war’s gross one-sidedness undermined and unraveled the reality of the violence and suffering that took place. Ben Jelloun’s verse is something like a special T.V. camera, a camera that is able to overcome the symptoms of simulation that Baudrillard describes and present the suffering of war’s aftermath in a manner that is dignified and genuine. One of the most potent indications of the wreckage of war’s aftermath is in the following lines, where even the metaphors Ben Jelloun turns to are rooted in the remnants of destruction:

‘This body that was a dream is a wrecked house.
There is neither door nor window
just a lacerated mattress, a cooking pot, a stale loaf
of bread, a coat on a hook, gutted walls, grey dust
and the previous year’s calendar.’

Ben Jelloun is more famous as a novelist, and where he really hits his stride is when he makes use of novelistic techniques in his poetry, techniques like observed detail, deft characterization and even ‘speech’:

‘Guests arrived saying: “War is not an excuse!”
But the house is no longer a dwelling
it is absence and silence.
On a section of wall
the portrait of the dictator is intact
flies deposit their droppings upon it.’

I know I just said that’s novelistic and I stick by it, but the use of ‘upon’ instead of ‘on’ in that line, (making ‘deposit’ half-rhyme with ‘upon it’) shows what perfect ‘poet’s ears’ both Ben Jelloun and Goldblatt have.

The long poem ‘Unidentified’ makes up the second half of the book. It reads like a catalogue of dates and names, breathing dignity into the victims of intolerable, unbearable but not Ben Jelloun insists unutterable cruelty. It makes at times very hard-going, harrowing reading. The following quotation is from a section called Fatima Abou Mayyala:

‘They came in through the roof
they closed the doors and windows
they stuffed a fistful of sand into her mouth and
nostrils, Fatima.
Their hands ripped her stomach
blood pooled
they urinated on her face.’

He doesn’t allow us to blink or turn away from the horror, but his next breath reveals Fatima’s dignity:

Fatima took the statue’s hand
and walked lightly between the trees and the sleeping children.
She reached the sea
her body raised above death.

In a paper at the Long Poem Conference at Sussex University last year the poet Rachel Blau du Plessis spoke of the long poem in terms of temporality and scale, claiming that long poems ‘concern things that are too large in relation to things that are too small… By too large I mean the universe, the earth, our history and politics, our sense of the past and our more febrile sense of the future’. Her thoughts seem particularly applicable to these two long poems, which address large-scale political history, while drawing attention to its constituent individual tragedies, in a medium that does feel much too small but at the same time the only one available, poetry. The febrile sense of the future suggested in these poems is of course our present, and of that, The Rising of the Ashes is eerily, engagingly and urgently penetrating. Always an interesting writer, this book proves Ben Jelloun to be an exciting, accomplished poet too.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).



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