11 poems by Ahmed Shafie
Eleven poems from Ahmed Shafie’s collection وقصائد أخرى (Dar Al Nahda, 2012) [And Other Poems]. Youssef Rakha has written about this collection here with many fine translations woven into the text.
Down this road, a flock of poets passed, not seeing what I saw when I fell behind a pace which just at my halting became two paces then three then more and I saw
The poets passing on their way
And then—just a world
She thought me King of the Earth when she saw the ocean come in to wash my shoes for me and back to see it was the best of washings then in to wash them then back to see.
She said: The wind is changing your hairstyle and fixing your clothes. And the very small birds, those black ones, are caressing your face and arms and what they can reach of your body as though they’re princesses, transformed. For sure you must be very terrible inside for the air to leave you as though pursued by devils, and for sure you must be very beautiful inside for the air to fight its fear and enter you once more. And is that your voice?
I’d made no sound. But I’d indicated, Yes. She threw herself at my feet. Dawn rose and her, bowing low. I slept on and awoke and she continued to prostrate herself. I was sleeping when she decided to retrace her steps. She left me a letter; each day its charming contents change. Naturally, I have many other mirrors, but this one in particular has a special place in my heart.
I did not find Poetry where I left it. It did not take me by surprise—a cloud in my room or poems on my desk. But the room was, when I returned, very much awaiting me, and when it saw me, it opened lids weighed down by drink, opened arms weighed down by drink, and said: Imagine me… Imagine me, please
In the collection I dream of, every poem is a world unto itself, until the next one comes along and something like a light rain falls across the first, that elicits from it a short-grown grass, that washes walls, at which the eyes delight, and likewise with the poem after that, and so on until the last poem which is not the end but is like Ahmed after Saleh and Shafie or after Basho and Pessoa and them all
Beside a small city is a great sea. There is a fort there which, when all is said and done, is a vast balcony over the sea. And there are squares, and streets full of twists and turns for the sake of the greatest possible number of surprises and chance encounters. A small city by the sea. We built it, getting to know one another, while our fathers swam, leaving our mothers behind to remind them where the umbrellas stood.
At the critical moment, I seemed massive to him so my enemy retreated and I retreated and he continued retreating not understanding why I, massive, should pull back before him, and when he was far away, very far away, I appeared to him so very insubstantial and he loved himself because he had not crushed me beneath his shoe and in this state, too, the salt-cellar fell.
I raised my right hand and the flock of seagulls went right. I raised my right hand once more and the sun set, though at its appointed time. My right hand also opened the door that was bolted shut. It pushed up the glasses that slipped. Lit the room. Set free words that had almost despaired of their freedom; indeed, granted them the ability to travel to another continent. It grasped the knife as if to kill me then held off at the last moment. Said to me, the last work I did for you was to stop working. Sighed because it had to do all the work even the work of stopping working. It went on feeling the wall beside the bed until I couldn’t sleep, first because it was at work and second because God alone knew what the purpose of this work was. Readying for the worst, I started leaving a large glass of milk out by the wall each morning.
With five-year-old fingers yet to learn how to master the pen Youla drew a broken heart in orange and said I saw you in the dream pointing to something like this but big and in the desert saying, Youla, I’m the one who built this house, for you. It was very far off and we were going to where it was further.
In the dream I was reciting tawasheeh at dawn. While the people heard from me exactly what they wanted I was voicelessly imploring God
– Lord, may my voice not bewitch my fellow creatures
– Do you know what it is you ask?
The train approaches slowly from afar and long before its final station, a woman gets down, train speeding off as she walks through dawn’s half-light over a beaten path though why its damp like this each day she doesn’t know; it’s a little stream I wash in as I enter and drink from coming out.
Every day she tells me, “God make your morning happy, O thee of merciful voice”. All she wants from me is, “And yours, too,” after which she folds her handkerchief with deliberation and tucks it in her bosom while eyes shut I see myself beating a rock with my head. And today, God curbs my voice; today, her lips tremble
– God make your morning happy, O thee so fragrant
Me. And her. And a sky there is no way out for us from under
Many things on earth, Hana, do not exist. I don’t mean the angels, nor the celestial bodies, nor do I know precisely what I have in mind, but our lives seem capable of bearing yet more confusion, and doubtless the absence of some things prevents this. As though there’s somebody who wishes to set this as our quota of confusion, and boredom.
Forget that. What I want to say to you is that when I meet you—and I pray it shall be soon—I shall leave in your hand a piece of paper, not for you to read, but rather: tear it up while you’re lost in your Your-Mohamed-And-His-Hana and in your shared bed, Hana, that does not exist. Then drop the pieces—when you wake—from the window and look at what you were thinking of: how light it is, how lovely, how soon gone.
My dear Ahmed Shafie,
You know that a work of art means more than its parts. Were you to have, say, a naked woman, lips parted to suggest desire, and a naked man leaning from a window to give the impression of one sunk in contemplation, wouldn’t this composition mean more than what the naked woman means and more than the man?
I want to say that an artwork does not merely say what its parts do not mean, but what these parts do not know and therefore what does not concern them
My dear Ahmed Shafie,
Take care that meaning does not concern you
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