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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Khaled Mattawa

I was fortunate to be able to spend most of yesterday with poet Khaled Mattawa who was in Knoxville visiting the University of Tennessee to give a reading of his poems and a lecture on Arabic prosody and his translations.

Khaled is one of the most generous poets I've met, and he gave a hell of a reading last night. He read a few poems from each of his books, as well as some new work from his forthcoming collection Tocqueville (New Issues, Spring 2010).

Prediction: this forthcoming book is going to be huge. Derek Walcott Sea Grapes huge.

Here are two of Khaled's poems. The first is one of my favorites from last night's selection from Zodiac of Echoes. It's also the one that most impressed my students who attended. (Congrats to them on going to their first poetry reading!) The second is from his latest book Amorisco.

Echo & Elixir 2

Cairo’s taxi drivers speak to me in English.
I answer, and they say your Arabic is good.
How long have you been with us? All my life
I tell them, but I’m never believed.
They speak to me in Farsi, speak to me in Greek,
and I answer with mountains of gold and silver,
ghost ships sailing the weed-choked seas.
And when they speak to me in Spanish,
I say Moriscos and Alhambra
I say Jews rescued by Ottoman boats.
And when they speak to me in Portuguese,
all my life I tell them, coffee, cocoa,
Indians and poisoned spears.
I say Afonsso king of Bikongo writing
Manuel to free his enslaved sons.
And Cairo’s taxi drivers tell me
your Arabic is surprisingly good.
Then they speak to me in Italian,
and I tell them how I lay swaddled
a month’s walk from here. I tell them
camps in the desert, barbed wire, wives
and daughters dying, camels frothing disease,
the sand stretching an endless pool
And they say so good so good.
How long have you been with us?
All my life, but I’m never believed.
Then they speak to me in French,
and I answer Jamila, Leopold, Stanley,
baskets of severed hands and feet.
I say the horror, battles of Algiers.
And they speak to me in English
and I say Lucknow, Arbenz. I say indigo,
Hiroshima, continents soaked in tea.
I play the drum beat of stamps. I invoke
Mrs. Cummings, U.S. consul in Athens,
I say Ishi, Custer, Wounded Knee.
And Cairo’s taxi drivers tell me
your Arabic is unbelievably good.
Tell the truth now, tell the truth,
how long have you been with us?
I say my first name is little lion,
my last name is broken branch.
I sing “Happiness uncontainable”
and “fields greening in March”
until I’m sad and tired of truth,
and as usual I’m never believed.
Then they lead me through congestion,
gritty air, narrow streets crowded with
Pepsi and Daewoo and the sunken faces
of the poor. And when we arrive, Cairo’s
taxi drivers and I speak all the languages
of the world, and we argue and argue about
corruption, disillusionment, the missed chances,
the wicked binds, the cataclysmic fares.

Khaled Mattawa
from Zodiac of Echoes

Support a poet and poetry!
Click here to purchase Zodiac of Echoes from Ausable Press.

Corpus Christi

Your head buzzing with Lorca, flashbacks
of Almodovar drowning scenes—still,
I don’t know why you sent to Spain.
An archeological dig or business school?
Someone sent white roses, no note. In the yard,
I aimed the shotgun, then a drizzle of petals,
snow, cocaine. Your cat eats in the same corner; now
catches her own squirrels. There’s a book about you,
all the little scandals you bragged about at parties—
the Polaroids of you and the mayor and his wife
sprawled nude on the traffic court bench.
Or your two trained pigs squealing the National Anthem
while you romped in a playground sand box.
I told them nothing about the baby iguanas
your father stole from the zoo, greased and baked,
nothing about the tufts of hair we yanked off
old ladies we abducted for ransom, or the peanut butter
jars filled with gnashed teeth. The last time
you called, the line was static and your voice
felt like hydrogen peroxide in my ear.
I sent 22 telegrams and you didn’t answer. Now,
I drive to Lubbock on weekends. I think of you
among beat-up cars and broken glass, among
sawed-off guitars and hollow drums.
I think of the burlap jacket you made me,
the cheese cloth dresses you wore,
your mother’s ashes, how you fed some
to your violets then poured the rest inside
a peppershaker in Houston’s Hard Rock CafĂ©.
And the live wire across the street!
Birds dipped it for landing, the shock jerking them
back up, their screams short shrill gargles, then
on the sidewalk—two charred halves, the pile
of them you collected in the rear porch,
how stray dogs came barking at night,
how I clubbed two raccoons that broke the screen
and one left a scar on my calf. Love,
why can’t we lie again on the sand,
chunks of cauliflower between our toes,
sunbathers gawking at us like they’ve always done,
and we weeping or their sake, because no one else would,
not the sky that’s been clear for two years,
or the puny mist rising from the river, or the sea
doddering like a sloth? Let’s leave now
and drive to the shady side of a plaza, watch
Mexican children run between gray and bronze,
fade in and out of a sun-scorched dream.

Khaled Mattawa
from Amorisco

Support a poet and poetry!
Click here to purchase Amorisco by Khaled Mattawa from Ausable Press.

1 comment:

Imen Bennani said...

The first poem is also a favorite of mine. Am preparing a Phd dissertation on identity in Three Arab American Poets, and Khaled Mattawa is one of the three. Am fond of literature and poetry and like writing; though am doing it mainly for pleasure now. I've Ismailia Eclipse and Zodiac of Echoes nad am already working on the poems; analysing them. Great writing indeed. Am still waiting to get a copy of Amorisco and don't know whether it also includes ethnic themes? Would love to share ideas with you.