I Remember al-Sayyab
translated by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis
I remember al-Sayyab,[*] his futile cries across the Gulf:
‘Iraq, Iraq, nothing but Iraq,’
And nothing answers but an echo.
I remember al-Sayyab under these same Sumerian skies
Where a woman surmounted the void
To make us heirs to earth and exile.
I remember al-Sayyab . . . Poetry is born in Iraq,
So belong to Iraq – become a poet, my friend!
I remember al-Sayyab did not find the life
He’d imagined between the Tigris and Euphrates,
And he did not think like Gilgamesh of the leaves of immortality,
And he did not think of resurrection and beyond . . .
I remember al-Sayyab lifted from Hamurabi
A legal code to hold against his shame.
I remember al-Sayyab when I’m feverish
Or worse: My brothers are making dinner
For General Hulagu’s army – no other servants but my brothers!
I remember al-Sayyab, how neither one of us ever imagined
Nectar the bees might not merit,
Or that it would take more than two small hands
To reach our absence.
I remember al-Sayyab. Dead ironsmiths rise up
From the ground to fashion us shackles.
I remember al-Sayyab. Poetry is desire and exile,
Twins. We wanted no more
Than a life and death to call our own.
Nothing but Iraq . . .’
[*] The Iraqi poet Badr Shaker al-Sayyab, who died in Kuwait in 1964, was a pioneer of the free verse movement in modern Arabic literature.