Poems by Ibrahim Elsayed and Hermes
Depending on how you’re counting, seven or ten poems by Ibrahim Elsayed and Hermes, from their respective collections أحد عشر كلبا (Merit, 2014) [Eleven Dogs] and كلاشنكوفي الحبيب (Dar Al Sharqiyat, 2014) [My Darling Kalashnikov]. Poems from both these collections and others by these poets appear in The Tahrir of Poems: Seven Contemporary Egyptian Poets edited and translated by Maged Zaher, and much more about Maged’s book, Ibrahim, Hermes and others can be found here.
The Seven Days of Man
As if in a dream I leave the school, the Church of the Virgin Mary at my back, to my left the maker of gold-inlaid coffins. I walk the alleys of the Jewellers’ District alone through ruined wasteland and pillars of leaden black smoke ascend behind the church tower
I forgo an intersection that leads to a blind alley and take the next, ascend as though scaling a small hill till I come upon the tomb of the servant who waited on Al Sayyid Bedawi full forty years and lent the lane his name
On the corner of the street along:
One hundred mourners loft the pale wood casket in August’s humid swelter
I try following the coffin’s progress as they hurry on, bearing the grandmother, dead these many years
the well-bred boy with rosy cheeks
learns a foreign language, speed-reading,
because he’s no good at football;
He’ll take the thieves’ side every time
in Cops and Robbers:
The first to fall into their clutches,
he informs on his friends
and goes home.
My need to catch them fades a few steps in
I take a shortcut home
and halfway there, meet Albert Cossery milking his thin cigarette,
sitting outside a single storey house, a bundle of entrails beside him, swollen and hung, the rank stink of corpses filling the street
A gaunt kid dips drums’ clay shells of all sizes into a filthy wooden pail of coloured slip
The boy, on his face a wound whose reddened edges state it’s lately healed, reaches out and picks a small one,
with his finger traces a ragged line, and gives it to me
I return to my grandmother’s house in the next street, its doors open, the big table at its centre, the glasses gone from their place atop the cupboard and filled with rosewater
I sit, proud of my pretty percussive toy,
awaiting the family’s return
from the funeral.
The Discreet Charm of Fascism
The spring of 2012 feels painful with its small yellow flowers that
fill the hospital garden
Dusty Christmas trees seem smaller
and Made in China
Crimson decorations have
the smell of strawberries
overlain by a sticky white film of mould
This is how my girlfriend fears her body; her non-aligned body:
an entirely unreliable ally in love’s fray
The fascism that flourished in the schools now storms the streets
The lizards roam the lanes
and the state is ghosts that press down on our thin fingers
Military marches summon memories of the Happy Fifties:
Shadia’s pink cheeks, movie melodrama cribbed from
La Dame au Camelias
The new editions are distorted, tanks and other tracked vehicles
occupy the street.
In the background, mahragan music: national anthem to a great horde of lighter sellers, statesmen, others
We shall leave the city behind us
making for the desert
The taxis are full
The railways lines cut
We will not leap into the river.
A continuous swimming within,
and the ugly cement wavebreaks
block the view on either side
The shoreline at our backs
is full of gelatinous bodies
pulsing in the dark:
surprised by a cold wave.
I Hate Energy-Saving Lightbulbs
involvement is inevitable,
and our cries
are caught like the barking of stray dogs,
their echo rebounding between empty buildings
on the desert’s outskirts.
I wake from sleep like a dog
My wife informs me as she mixes one glassful of white flour with a little oil and egg,
a little milk:
You need a holiday. You sweat in your sleep and the few clear words you utter in your dreams have become a mutter, faint and indistinct
She talks, rolling a ball of dough out with the same decorated glass over the cold marble then cutting uniform discs with its round rim
I reflect that dogs are by no means all alike;
That there are bad dogs and others, sweet-tempered
Instead of arguing I mix white cheese with dill
and olive oil, anticipating breakfast.
The Nature of Soldiers
One day, upon a time, stargazing was outlawed.
Suddenly, the crier came onto the city’s streets
and with his drum made from a poet’s hide
proclaimed to the people a royal decree
in which the Sultan did contend that gazing upward fatigued the neck
that stars defiled virgins, prolonged menses,
and robbed men of their minds.
My comrades and I were the last to hear.
We were on the city’s fringes, without the gates, amidst the fields,
on the hills, in the darkest places.
The crier entered our sanctum
with the look of one who has at last brought down his foe
—a mocking smile—
From today, you must return within the walls,
And ever since, the executioners patrol the horizons
beheading those they chance on gazing at the skies by night.
Now, twenty years on, I ascend the East Tower;
I ascend and the guards around me touch their helmets in salute;
I ascend to the roof and order the guards to go down once they have extinguished all the torches
and doused the fire they use for warmth.
I take off my heavy helmet and lie on my back, looking heavenward
and filled with strange secrets,
I, who know what grim prophecy led the Sultan to issue his decree.
One moonless night, like tonight,
an old stargazer came up to the palace, passed through the guards,
I know not how,
came before the Sultan in his chamber and told him
that his Sultanate had brought forth a boy who would kill him and usurp his throne,
possess his women, enslave his children,
and that he was sitting, even now, somewhere, gazing at the stars and hearkening to their secrets.
When an hour has passed I call the guards
and come down from the East Tower, make for the palace,
and in my eyes a thousand stars shine.
Breakdown in Nothingsville
I wave at the truck
to tow our grease-filled government car.
The fields of Shabramant whining at suppertime,
and in the rubbish heaps around the canal
I hear snakes hiss.
I could not be a soldier by night;
my soul left the khaki and brass
and wandered the road alone.
The driver of the truck that towed us
asks me about the army’s sudden breakdown or
just when its ancient vehicles would return
to fill the streets.
I ponder the infrastructure of societies in crisis,
but the poem steals from the stillness
a scream of yellow-lit asphalt.
Between villages void of poets
a distant curlew reprises the voices of sundered souls:
madmen who entered the canal in the cast-off rags of soldiers
and emerged, haloed suicides,
bodies clothed in green weed.
From We are the Water-Carrier’s Dolls
The poem came and the tobacco did not, so I went out for tobacco. In the army. How empty life is in the army. My cares are like sand, hot and fine. My head, a cloud in the June heavens. A mermaid and empty: thus is life. The tobacco came and the poem left, empty and light as an off-duty hour. My comrades sing. We are bare naked, like fighters: nothing left for us but song. And I, in my solitary moment, unburden my soul of friendship that it might stray. And when I sit facing my face, shaving, our eyes don’t meet, so: where did I lose my soul that I might walk the accustomed step—just so—light as a feather, as a golden-haired chance tossed by the waves into the hand of a red-haired boy, scant freckles on his cheeks?
Anger them. Block all deliverance from their wretched lives and anger them. Sow doubt in their hearts and turn the sleep in their eyes to dust and pus. Colour their faces the blue of awakening from delusion, shatter their comforting dream-screens, pluck hope from their hearts. Slap them with your palms, now; lead will lay them in line. Turn the curdled milk that runs in their tired veins to blood. Heat the pot in which they wait to be eaten. Set the steering wheel in their trembling hands and teach them accidents. If you don’t, living death will lay them low: they’ll roam their defunct hell, the lords and masters—with their prior right to serenity—swapping them back and forth. Torment the masses’ minds. Undo their ease. Lie in wait for them in their hour of rest and ruin for them their cheap deaths.
Morning is an elderly worker reading his star sign in a paper while the metro sways back and forth eating away at its passengers lives, spent in journeying. The source of the crisis is not clear to you. That they think they’re settled and secure: is that it? Or that they loathe setting out? In any case, the bird does not come in through window; finds no crumbled bread nor a drop of water on the floor. Gradually the day reddens, August, when hash and cognac do not mix. And when you are guided by a knife in your flank you haven’t many options before you. Just to set the song after the song in your head and the memories you have long avoided crumble away. Nothing remains. Curlews and rabbits and tigers and snakes leave your head in a long line headed for the ark. Noah, in evening dress, a glass of absinthe in his hand, dispenses smiles among the passengers. And now his children are collecting the fare from the wolves.
The night is a gloomy officer who stops by the guard-posts every watch in a microbus wheezing down the sandy track. Eternity can resemble a long inspection of this kind and in any case, the dog doesn’t bark in the desert night: it meets no travellers or lost ones living. And the night grows steadily longer with every day that passes in September, when tea loves tobacco, and when you can think no more and are alone and glum, time dies easy. You see your thoughts depart your soul’s sea and slump spent a few steps off across the sand. Your greatest thought crawls through the sand, its only goal to find the tree the wedded couple long for. And without the walls where the palace lies, a titan grips a flaming torch in one hand and a water-jar in the other hand and readies himself for the biggest fall in history.