(Unspoken, Fatiha Morchid, poems translated by Norddine Zouitni, Arab Cultural Center, 2010, 72pp)
The nexus of science, medicine and mathematics with poetry in the Arab world is more pronounced and less remarkable than in the West.The Arabs conveyed Aristotle and the other Greeks to the West but they did not contract an Aristotelian fever for categorization. Medieval Andalusian and Middle Eastern poets were often scientists, doctors and mathematicians. They were inclined to the mystical marriage of the arts and sciences.And they were astonishingly "American" in their modernist sensibility, anticipating Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and H.D. Indeed they are Western poets, having inspired the troubadours and offered Williams the impulse towards specificity. For example, an Arab poet of the 11th Century writes of the Guadalquiver as a white hand parting a green robe, as arresting an image as H.D. could want. Fatiha Morchid is a pediatrician. She has published five collections of poetry and two novels and hosts a popular televised poetry program in Morocco. Like Algeria and Tunisia, Morocco is inextricably bound up in Andalusian poetry. The Arabs invaded Spain from North Africa and receded to North Africa after the 1492 expulsion edict. Morchid's poetry exhibits this priceless heritage.But she also suggests one of those exquisitely lacy Arab bridges over Spanish chasms. Her poems are often a bridge between modernist specificity and an old predilection for grand abstractions. This comes naturally to Arab poets and is perhaps embodied in the fact that Arabs never drew much of a distinction between chemistry, which they pioneered, and alchemy, which also captured their imaginations. Our word for chemistry comes from their word Al (the article) Khemya, and from Al Khemya one easily sees how we come by the word alchemy. The prepossessing idea in the Arab mind, if one presumes to stereotype a people's mind, is that of oneness. It may come from Islam's fierce iconoclasm-a notion that logically should counteract the simpleminded fundamentalism of today-but my guess is that its derivation is older, coming from Bedouin roots, the oneness of the Bedouin with vast spaces and starry nights.I said Morchid is a bridge builder. Consider this untitled poem-all the poems here are untitled-in light of the Arab, Jewish and Berber poets of Al Andalus being Western, not Eastern, poets:Quenching our thirst from the spring of timeLike the children of a new dawnWe caressed the laughter of the windWith lips hardenedFrom intense kissing.Williams, like Morchid a doctor, would have winced at that first couplet. Much too conceptual for him. How exactly, the doctor might have asked, does one caress the laughter of the wind? I happen to find the line wonderfully felicitous and playful. But I think he could hardly have quibbled with the specificity of lips hardened from too much kissing.Here is an example of Morchid's refined whimsicality:I love the reflectionOf my memoryOn the face of the water She is not the one with the face, her memory is. But how does memory reflect on the water's face? I hear the good doctor from Rutherford asking the question. This is the improbability Arab poetry is more willing to entertain than Western poetry, and it hints at why the Arabs made such breathless strides in art and science while the West enjoyed the Dark Ages. But the West was not entirely engulfed in darkness. Arab Spain burned brightly throughout the Dark Ages and should not be characterized as Eastern merely because the Saracens, the people of the dawn, occupied it.So here is the bridge from the Arabs' passion for the grand idea-witness their maturation of the Hindu zero-to Andalusian song to American precisionism in poetry. It is as if Morchid has strung a prosodic bridge from Al Andalus across France and its troubadours to England and thence to North America and our time.Very little of the Arab poetry I read in translation-I do not speak or read Arabic-sounds antique. It sounds astonishingly modern, American even. But it usually does not indulge the nostalgia kick American publishers have been nurturing, which stems, I think, from a misreading of Williams, H.D., Pound and others. I don't think what we're seeing too much of today is what they were calling for. In fact, I think many of the modern Arabs are closer to it.I’ve read what Williams has to say, and I've read his poems almost microscopically. As a fourteen-year-old I sat next to him at a brunch in my aunt's apartment and heard him speak about each object, whether a rotting timber or a bright instrument or a tumor, having within it the whole of the cosmos. The Andalusian poets, Morchid and many of her Arab contemporaries are not at odds with his objectivism, but they approach the object both as an astronomer would a celestial object within the cosmos and then the cosmos itself, and they retain a characteristically Arab fearlessness towards infinity. For this reason, even if we should put aside our great literary debt to them, we should study modern Arab poetry. To be sure, there are more mundane reasons, but understanding each other at literary and artistic levels would surely impact our ephemeral relations with them, just as knowing that the powerful influence of Islamic mysticism is a far more deadly enemy to Islamic fundamentalism than is the West.I think in many ways Arab poetry, modern, medieval and ancient, illuminates Arab mathematics. It reveals how they understood the potential of the zero. I have often thought their exquisite script reflects their experience on the desert and the sea, the experience of their eyes roving the stars, and I have wondered if their commitment to the synthesis and synergy of things and ideas is somehow connected to a language that is read from right to left. Scientists in the future may see a left brain-right brain discourse in this.Unspoken is a surgically deft title. Morchid's poems are as much about silence and white space as they are about words and sound. There are no instances here of shuffling an anecdote or an incisive remark into a poetic shape. None. These poems are as much about what is unsaid as what is said. They are about the interplay of said and unsaid, and they are about the idea of unsaid as a transitive verb. Very often in Morchid's poetry the transition to another stanza is in fact an unsaying, and this injects a kind of elegant remorse into the poems. A seagull I hold memories of shipsAnd like a shell I carry the mystery of salt,Harbors keep tossing me aboutWhenever the glimmer from a lighthouseLeaks through the arteryThe single comma in this otherwise unpunctuated poem raises a question in my mind that I can't answer. Or several questions. The poems are only occasionally punctuated. Arabic, of course, does not employ our conventions. But I wonder why the translator bothered to capitalize each line, having otherwise eschewed anything that might impede the eye. I know that Arabic is as hospitable to modern ideas of placement as English, perhaps even more so. I did not find the translator's decision troublesome, but I would have liked to know the considerations that prompted this compromise. I should have thought that a culture that grasped the elegance of the zero would have understood the inspiration of e e Cummings and others to de-punctuate the language.We are from the sea, this poem reminds us, bearing the mysteries of salt to our affairs. Glimmers of light flash through our beings. Arab poetry often flashes like this, a Toledo blade in the moonlight, and Morchid is as much an heir to this Andalusian poetry as were the troubadours and, hence, the rest of us.Arabic does not detain the eye the way the Roman alphabet does, in much the same way Arabic numerals are visibly more agile than Roman numerals. This is the challenge to which Cummings responded when he dispensed with punctuation and capitalization to accelerate the prosodic pace. It was very much in line with the impulses of Gerard Manley Hopkins and even Charles Algernon Swinburne, both of whom are great fun to read quickly. I suspect that the act of setting Arabic down on paper is quite unlike the act of setting down English or any of the Romance languages on paper. I can imagine the medieval Arab mathematicians of Toledo and Cordoba tinkering with Roman numerals and thanking God they didn't have to make their calculations with them-indeed they couldn't have. And I think there may be something of this in the differences between writing poetry in English and Arabic. But I leave it to the blessed translators like Norddine Zouitni to tell me.If we could shut the mouths of the preachers and the pundits, of the hate-mongers, and listen to Arabic poetry we wouldn't need suits and briefcases and guns to bridge our cultures. If Fatiha Morchid were reading poetry in America today we would recognize one of our own, a Western poet with much the same concerns and the same longing to sing. And we would know that our songs have common roots.-
CELAAN (Review of the Center for the Studies of the Literatures and Arts of North Africa), Vol. 9, N° 2 and 3, Fall 2011. New York.