Words are rocky tears: Alphabets of Sand by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta

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.

The living dead man: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

The premise is very simple. It is December 1938. As the year draws to a close, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam lies on the very edge of death in a transit camp near Vladivostok. There he will die, far from his beloved Moscow, away from the friends who have either abandoned him or confronted their own tragic circumstances, and separated from his devoted wife Nadezhda. His body will be tossed into a mass grave. Yet, the final days of this man who stood by the power of the word and the primacy of poetry remain unrecorded, lost to time. This slender volume, The Last Days of Mandelstam, sets out to address this silence, to bear poetic witness.

Such a project is, by its nature, a delicate task. It calls for the right touch—the appropriate sense of drama—for it is probable that the waning conscious hours of a man as desperately diminished by typhoid fever as Mandelstam would have been occupied by memories, dreams, hallucinations and brief moments of awareness. At least that is the way that French-Lebanese poet Vénus Khoury-Ghata imagines them in this haunting novella, originally published in French in 2016 and now available in English, in a sensitive translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan.

Lying for months—how many?—on a wooden plank, his mattress, Mandelstam wonders if he is dead or still alive.

After the first month he stopped counting.

Less ill than he, his neighbours might let him know if he is still alive.

But typhus is decimating the camp.

Three out of four deportees are stricken.

The opening passages offer a clear, unsentimental portrait of a man who knows his end is near. Unable to speak, beyond hunger, he listens to his struggling heart. His conscious thoughts are vaguely aware of the present, but more often tangled in the past. His nightmares and hallucinations are dominated by the figure of Joseph Stalin who stalks, taunts, and berates him, echoing, in the process, some of the regrets and doubts that may have plagued the dying poet himself. In our dreams, the monsters we face reflect our own fears. Two lines from (the original version of) Mandelstam’s infamous satirical poem known as the “Stalin Epigram”—All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer / The murderer and the peasant slayer—form a kind of subconscious refrain that surfaces throughout the book.

The poet on his meagre deathbed serves as the fulcrum around which the narrative turns, reaching back into his earlier life and, on occasion looking ahead, years beyond his death. As expected, the story that emerges is a sombre one, a tale of exile, poverty and disgrace into which threads drawn from the lives of Mandelstam’s fellow poets and his fellow transit camp prisoners are woven. Carefully chosen vignettes, repeated images—worn-out coat, moth-eaten blanket, boots made from old luggage—together with the choice of present tense and a strong poetic sensibility combine to create a moving tribute to a man who held to poetry and his principles in the face of unspeakable cruelty.

As the narrative moves between the dying poet’s thoughts and delusions and moments from his past, Khoury-Ghata sketches scenes punctuated by strong images. The years Mandelstam and his wife spent in Voronezh after he was banned from Moscow in 1934, are especially poignant. There they share a noisy communal apartment with several families; to find creative space Mandelstam takes to the icy streets:

The sound of the poem composed in the dark the same as that of his shoes crunching in the snow. A suctioning sound, the cold and the words are sucking his energy.

He returns exhausted from his wanderings, and joins Nadezhda under their moth-eaten blanket, reciting the poem written in his head. Nadezhda collects the words like breadcrumbs from a feast, transcribes them, waits for daylight to distribute them among the trustworthy.

Poetry is, of course, the crime that sentences Mandelstam to his fate. Poetry is his weapon against Stalin. As such, fragments from his poems and from Nadezhda’s memoir are incorporated into the text. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and, as a later admirer, Paul Celan also make poetic contributions. Countless artists and intellectuals faced similar persecution under the regime, but this is a story about the power of the poem.

The Last Days of Mandelstam is, for its difficult material, a finely rendered work. Neither morbid nor maudlin, it holds to a tight emotional course as the narrative repeatedly laps at the shore of Mandelstam’s death—imagined, dreamed and finally realized—a quiet passing likely unnoticed for a time. The dramatic energy is sustained, the sparseness of the account gives the sorrow breathing room, and, in the end, Mandelstam’s troubled life is granted the dignity it deserves. A sad, but beautiful book. One that makes you want to return to his poetry, to allow him to continue to live for you again and again.

The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghata is translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published by Seagull Books.