Where do words come from?
from what rubbing of sounds are they born
on what flint do they light their wicks
what winds brought them into our mouths
Their past is the rustling of stifled silences
the trumpeting of molten elements
the grunting of stagnant waters
– from “Words”
My first encounter with Vénus Khoury-Ghata was with her novella, The Last Days of Mandelstam, a spare, poignant portrait of the Russian poet’s life and lonely death that I read several months ago. It left me keen to explore her poetry and prose further. I soon discovered that American poet and translator Marilyn Hacker has released translations of several collections of her poetry and one novella, so, uncertain where to begin, I opted for the evocatively titled Alphabets of Sand (2009) from UK publisher, Carcanet. A wise choice it turns out, because this collection draws on material from three of Hacker’s earlier US translations along with an insightful introduction.
If poets dwell in language, Khoury-Ghata exists in a world threaded with letters of alphabets scattered like sand in the wind or like stars cast against the blackness of the sky. Born in Beruit in 1937, into a French-speaking Maronite Christian family, the dual French and Arabic cultural and linguistic influences of her childhood animate her poetry and colour the world that she imagines—a place filled with magic and marred by misery. Although she has lived in Paris since 1972, much of her writing looks back to the country of her birth and its tragic history.
Alphabets of Sand gathers five poems or sequences and selections from a sixth. The title of this collection comes from the wonderful piece “Words” which plays with and celebrates language as a primal life form, born and nurtured in the soils of the continents of the earth, taking shape, searching for and finding tongues, mouths and speakers to breathe words into being. As such, language is a collaborative magic between nature and humankind:
Language at that time was a straight line reserved for birds
the letter ‘i’ was the cleft of a hummingbird
‘h’ a ladder with one rung necessary to replace a charred sun before nightfall
‘o’ a hole in the sole of the universe
Unlike the consonants with their rough garments
the vowels were naked
all the weaver’s art consisted of humouring them
in the evening they counted each other to make sure no one was missing
in the rocky countries men slept without dreaming
Khoury-Ghatta’s native Arabic and French speak to one another in the course of this sequence, their respective alphabets moving from left to right and right to left, but the Word she evokes, belongs to neither language but to all languages living and lost.
As translator Marilyn Hacker describes it: “Khoury-Ghatta’s work bridges the anti-lyrical surrealist tradition which has informed modern French poetry since Baudelaire, and the parabolic and communal narrative with its (we might say Homeric) repetitions of metaphors and semi-mythic tropes of poetry in Arabic.” She writes, as she herself puts it, “in Arabic through the French language.” The confluence of these traditions is especially evident in the poetry collected here. “The Darkened Ones,” for example, written during the 2006 war in Lebanon, adopts a communal voice of unfathomable depth—a chorus of women speaking to generations of the dead, displaced and disrupted—echoing the unanswered questions that accompany the sorrow and pain of senseless conflict.
An idiosyncratic personal mythology permeates the most powerful works here, a magical sense of place that pays tribute to a world where ghosts mingle with a shifting present. “The Seven Honeysuckle Sprigs of Wisdom” paints a portrait—by turns affectionate, coarse and funny—of the eccentric cast of characters who people a village where time is “in a hurry,” but the river “turns back toward its source.” The hairdresser, cemetery caretaker, beggar, shepherdess, prostitute, schoolmasters and others appear, alongside saints and spirits and a host of struggles and dreams.
However, it is the sequence of poems from “Early Childhood” that carry, for me, the most weight and shimmering energy. Central to these pieces, most of which are dedicated to individuals including the author’s sister, the writer May Ménassa, is an enigmatic mother figure:
I write Mother
and an old woman arises in the uncertainty of evening
slips into a wedding dress
stands on tiptoe on her windowsill
calls out to the hostile city
addresses the haughty tribe of streetlights
bares her chest to the clocks
shows them the precise site of her sorrow
disrobes gently for fear of creasing her wrinkles
and unsettling the air
My mother had her own way of undressing
as one would strip the medals from a disgraced general
The poems that comprise this sequence move from a familial to a wider universal sense of mother as teacher, keeper of wisdoms and memory. Language again features prominently, not simply as a alphabets deciphered in books, but as read in nature:
The books we browsed in came from the forest that watched us read
from the peeled bark’s shriek which continued under the pages’ skin
We read in the darkness of August
when the galaxy disposed of its excess stars
when, without margins, night stretched itself out until night.
As presented, the lasting sensation that this collection leaves me with is one of the kindling of a connection with the roots of Khoury-Gatta’s poetic sensibility. Her love of language and her comfort with repeated metaphor—dead leaves, pebbles, wind, streetlights, stars, trees, alphabets—make sense within the context of her dual language, culturally rich upbringing. Again, I am left wanting to read more and know more. Now in her 80s, she has many honours and an extensive body of work to her name, most of which is yet to be translated into English. Nonetheless, I plan to explore more of what is out there in the new year.
Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta is translated by Marilyn Hacker and published by Carcanet Press.