Two more poems by Wadih Saadeh
These poems again have already appeared here and here on Youssef Rakha’s site. The first, فرس على الباب , comes from his 1985 collection رجل في هواء مستعمل يقعد ويفكر في الحيوانات and the second لحظات ميتة is from بسبب غيمة على الأرجح.
Horses at the door
Must this go on forever?
and the hand that slips
from me unnoticed.
In the beginning, what
did I want in the beginning
when I was of a sudden taken by a life
whose hooves still pound against my door?
When I saw or thought I saw
sand. In the end
it will be a pearl I said
and slept at last from weariness
on deck, aboard a freighter
that bore about the burden of my bones.
I went mad
and went mad, then
and rolled about
over the cracked and fissured earth, a skull
in an atlas neglected
and magical, ejaculate
with a skull in it.
Did this have to go on forever?
Suddenly the sunbeam disappeared. I believe a cloud is passing over the house. Sunbeams disappear for two reasons alone: clouds hide them or it is night. And being morning, most probably a cloud is passing.
Maybe soon it will rain and I will be able to watch the rain from the window. Life is so beautiful: that circumstances allowing one can watch the rain. Mine is a water sign and I imagine that now and then a planet up in space melts and flows down in front of me. Happy notion. I pick it up and approach the window. I open the pane and look out at the cars, the arid asphalt, the weary labourers. Why do these labourers get tired? I used to get tired myself sometimes and the sweat would flow, but then I turned my back on it and for years I rested. Sweat of the brow is hateful; shameful in fact. Disgusting: rising from sleep to make oneself sweat. A car goes by leaving a light cloud of dust behind it. A cat asleep on the corner opens then shuts its eyes. I close the window and slowly make my way back.
Today, too, I shall rest. I can experience everything in all its glory from the couch or pacing the tiled floor and staring at the walls. Four or five hours of life a day will do. I might go out, wander through the city, run into friends, buy a bottle of arak and return.
Anything might happen without warning. A stranger’s visit, the death of a friend, sudden shudder of a man walking in the street. Purely circumstantial. At which nothing will change. I might go out onto the balcony, glance at the flowers in their box, then back inside. I might smile perhaps; perhaps not a muscle will move in my face. My face is round and motionless, something that has taken its final form, and my nose pointed like a bird’s hooked beak. My eyes are black. When I open my mouth out comes panting and maybe a few words, too. Few and faint, so that sometimes I myself can’t hear them. In truth I never have anything to say.
That said, I find myself frequently forced to speak. Why they must wait for words each time they sit with me, I do not know. And then I fall ill. I picture life as a silent friend; when it speaks someone comes down with cancer. I had a friend who died like this.
Is this the cause of life’s sickness? Because of voices? It falls ill and dies because men speak?
Between the bedroom and the sitting room my hand lifts to pat my hair. A short walk but even so I see it traversed by speeding trucks and strange noises. Do anything to reach a chair. I pass my hand over my hair, the hand that holds nothing, that can easily lift to it. My hair is long and like all those who sleep it banks and gathers in the night. But always I pass my hand over it, that it stays my friend. The world is more beautiful that way, with hair as a friend. With a friendly body the world is close to your heart. When your parts love you the number of your enemies declines. Even your nails, dust-gatherers, come to gather something dear.
I advance two paces and come to the window. Still the labourers, the asphalt, and the cars; the cat sleeping in the corner. Sounds reach me through the pane and I feel them to be beautiful. Even people look delicate at a distance.
What shall I do today? I have no intention of doing a thing nor must I. I could, most likely, make friends, from here behind the pane, with these people in the street. The day still at its start and today a few minutes of friendship will do. Then I must go out onto the balcony and water the flowers, must maybe wander a while through the city. Bring back a bottle of arak.
The window shut and behind it me, a short man, 165 centimetres tall and making friends with the long street. From time to time passing his hand over his hair, slowly retrieving what falls from it and tossing it in the rubbish. A quiet man who, even between bedroom and kitchen, will frequently halt in reverie or rest. Rolls his cigarette slowly, removes excess tobacco from each end; a quick glance at the lighter, then bows his head and lights. The building before me has reached the seventh floor. An Indian labourer overhead seems to me like an angel. The people, too, resemble angels from a distance, the migrants in particular. I do not know why I can’t conceive of an angel-less migration, of labourers in particular. Those who heft their baggage and walk. And sometimes halt paces from the door, roll a cigarette, and turn back to their houses.
I pass my finger through the vapour, from my mouth and clinging to the pane, and take a pace back. I look at the couch to my right. Still the same. The friends who would visit me sat there. Today I am alone and I might be its only patron. Ours is an old friendship, from the moment I first saw it in the corner of the showroom and told the salesman, I can’t pay more, and he gently lifted it and brought it to me. Still there, in place. Shifted a little, perhaps, when friends slumped down, but in more or less the same place still, and this friend with these labourers, with this vague line my hand traced through the vapour on the pane. I approach and draw another. Another line, another friend. I look at it and slump into the chair.
Friends on my windowpane but they soon fade and merge, someone running into fog, then vanish. I raise a foot and place it on the couch in front of me. I examine its crooked toes. A pine, battered by the wind for years until it dried out dead and crook-backed. Its stillness now, its silence, remind me of a lifetime of running and clamouring after an ominous unknown. It was my only companion. I gave it nothing in return other than to lift it late at night and lay it haphazard in bed, and mostly I denied it this scant comfort. So strangely devoted that it never parted company with me. I know of many feet that became bored and abandoned their owners, parted from them pleading illness or suddenly uncoupled on the road. These feet were resting. Only mine stayed loyal and weary. It is more or less dried up now, still with me. This is one of the signs of holiness.
I pass my hand over this foot and tickle its soft pelt. I pat it, caress it, peer at it long and hard. Never once its friend. Always rushing and most careless. It is as though I am aware of it for the first time. What do you do when you suddenly discover a lover has been following you for forty years without your knowledge? I stood, walked softly on my feet and fetched my tobacco.
In that distant village, on the earth floor of the house, I took my first steps and my feet were bare. My father was not one of those who believe that those recently arrived on earth must come to know it through the touch of their bare flesh, but he hadn’t the means to buy shoes. The shoes I wore were my brothers’, newly shined and nailed. I knew this. I would smile but I wasn’t happy. Happiness was conditional, I believed: that the shoes you wear be new. I know no happy people who wear used shoes. How can you be joyful when your shoes are old? There are people, for instance, who age prematurely because of their shoes and people who die because of their shoes. Over the course of history entire peoples have died out or been exterminated due to shoes. And I cannot deny that my brothers’ shoes had a great impact on my life. On my early grief, on my grief today, on my shame and my weakness and my failure to love and live. Beyond doubt they were the reason I left school, lived on the streets, slept in alleys. The reason I am so thin, that I stopped growing, that I now sit alone in this room from which the sunbeams have gone away, most probably because of a cloud, a cloud that might rain, so that I will be able to stand at the window and watch.
Since I first took this room, no sunbeam has entered without me passing my hand over it. All had bodies, soft and slim, but I knew each by touch. Once it was the light of a ship in the port opposite and when it vanished I felt a strange loneliness. Because the ship contained migrants? People departing for distant lands, perched on the rear seats or climbing to the roof to send a last glance over the houses? People who swept the house clean and filled the sink then were plucked up, weeds from a crack by the door, and departed?
I lit a cigarette and distracted myself with the smoke. Everything still. Even the little cat on the corner not looking my way. Everything in this room still for years and I began to believe myself a wall, that if I went out the room would collapse. Sometimes I wonder if the room’s steel joists are my bones, but my bones are delicate and frail and this body is surely borne up by other supports. How have these bones accompanied me for years without a creak, without a sudden collapse in the road? But I am utterly alone, which is why I lose weight.
Why now do I recall my father? I was a child when I delivered him to the grave, but they were watching at me and the appropriate thing was to age under their gaze. Those who I thought loved me did nothing for me. They did not tell me, Go and play with the children. They stared at me until my frame stretched out, lengthened, and I carried the body with them to the grave. It was nailed shut. Would it not be kinder to cover the dead gently, say with the soft blanket they’d known at home?
The tobacco pouch on the table in front of me and it’s enough to move my hand just a little. But it’s as though it has been emptied of blood, that should it shift from time to time that is only the urging of an old movement. The labourers before me in ceaseless movement, with the lightness of those who feel sure the blood of life is theirs alone. I tried convincing myself that these moving limbs were something beautiful and that all of us possess small tube down which clean blood flows. Disgusting, though, to be a pump; a machine with a steady life-long flow. Like someone who has nothing to do.
I look at the furniture in the room without moving from my place. A brief glance might make this furniture my friend. Why today I am obsessed with friends I do not know. They were sitting here on the couch and gazing at the walls. Their gazes still cling to the paint and it’s as though I see their faces, too. As though, when they departed, they left their gazes then sent their faces to examine them, and then these clung to the walls as well.
In my life I have known people who departed while their eyes remained for years, sat quietly the last place they looked. I have known people who treated their limbs as a crowd met by chance at a party, before each one goes its separate way. On the stairs, in the streets and squares, are scattered so many parts which once sat with their owners before they grew and left them behind. I saw parts lost, parts drowsing, parts smiling. Some as though they’d just been born and some dying. I met eyes that stayed awake without their owners, legs that walked the lanes by themselves, lips that spoke with passers-by unchaperoned. I met words and breaths and glances which had departed their owners and become new creatures.
I am sitting with these creatures now. With things that have withdrawn from their past and started their own lives. And I feel as though my parts are on the verge of withdrawing from me to begin their lives, too. In any case I never looked at my body as something inseperable from me, but as always enjoying its independence. Some of its parts would leave me as I slept and sit on the balcony. Some went out to wander the streets. Often, when I wake in the morning, I spend the day searching for some missing part and sometimes I don’t find it.
My hand moves and presses the button on the radio. Outside as always: war. I am surrounded by terrible killing. Years filled with corpses and how I am still here, between the walls, a body whole and hale, I cannot say. Many people are now walking about outside with missing parts, searching, not for their limbs since they have most probably forgotten them, but for a bite to eat. And many people bring back nothing to these limbs because they, like them, have scattered in places neither they nor their loved ones know.
When the war began I was not living here. I was in the north. Working in a fertiliser factory in a village on the coast. In the evening I would walk home through the lemon trees.
The village, set on a small hill: a seagull that, about to land on water, had banked away. Tiled roofs never finding time to talk to their neighbours so taken were they with sea and sky. The stones in the walls and garden trees engrossing every gaze, every trailing finger. The trees there, I believe, grow and give fruit by these glances and the rain falls in answer to the people’s pleas. I would see them staring into the sky and divining the clouds’ intentions. And the wind passes over them fond and frank, as though they were its friends. As though they’d once been fellow travellers, swapping secrets on the road.
The newsreader’s voice gives out the names of dead and wounded. Some gathered in the north, some gathered in the south, some gathered in the mountains, some gathered in the cities. Days ago they were companions. Some visited others, drank coffee, promised one another to meet next Sunday, and suddenly: the encounter came, armed to the teeth. Met as enemies and corpses. The newsreader broadcasts the names of their bodies and concludes with a song.
I am surrounded by walls which shield me from the sight of outside. They told me that people there died dragged through the streets, roped to cars and hauled down the road amid the weeping of women, women ululating. Then they tossed them beneath the bridge, leaving a bloody trail along the asphalt. They told me that there has been much death and weeping in the streets, until the asphalt’s bloomed, human flowers. Every passer-by can see them; only the grieving find in them the scent of flowers.
Occasionally I smell something similar. Those who have left me without asking a tear or a word of farewell. Who have slipped lightly away out of life, a small leaf dropped in water.
I was a small boy when my father talked to me about war. Told me about the victims of gunfire, of hunger, of disease. About the dead who found no loved ones to bury them. About those made homeless by hunger, roaming the villages and towns and finding nothing. He had been one of them, he said, and found himself aged five begging without hope from house to house, searching the woods for a bone he could grind with a rock so that he could swallow it. My father told me about war and all I did was look at him.
Ten-thirty approximately. I switch off the radio and glance outside. The street as ever, the labourers, some clouds. I think they will rain. The rain has been trapped too long and in the village in the north they must be waiting for a deluge. How many, though, remain of those who listened to the secrets of the wind? Who divined the clouds’ intentions? Tens of thousands have migrated since the newsreader began to broadcast the bodies’ names. Without doubt thousands of those whose fingers trailed across the trees have felt for the first time the leather of their bags and borne them, broken-hearted, to heartless lands unknown. Packed in them their pictures, smiling beside the door and by the basil pots, loaded them with the rooms’ breath, gave out a final glance, and went.
They told me that people didn’t have the time to put their shoes on before they went. Barefoot and naked they came to towns and villages, took the open ground as a friend to sleep there. They said that death came suddenly as they slept, and that death came suddenly dressed as friends, and that death came suddenly from a sky that a day before had rained on them and on their fields. They said that many people fell after a single step and many people fell without taking a step and that on many roads moaning could still be heard and that from sheer terror mothers had forgotten their children lying abed and left without them.
I think they will rain. The clouds come from afar. Most probably from the sky of countries in which there are migrants and maybe some of their tears will fall here. Their massing is like the breath of migrants and in their slow gathering above the houses there is something of the migrants’ longing. I think they will rain.
When we were young rain was our favourite game. My father, a poor farmer, couldn’t afford toys and games so we would play with nature’s possessions. Water, snow, butterflies, and boughs were ours. There was no division between us and the earth.
I did not understand why my father would tell us not to count the stars. I now know it was for fear that one of my companions might be absent. He had known that not all my companions would always be there, that many of them would one day not be there, and that time after time I would be sleeping in that high tent open to the open ground without any companion. My father knew my deepest feelings and loved me beyond all imagining.
When we parted ways it was at the coast. The house we had rented was built over arches on a rock by the sea. The sea one of the household. My father stayed behind, up in the village, with his house and trees, his wooden steps on whose lowest stair he sat each evening waiting for the village post from the city. The van might stop at the junction, one of his sons climb down. But for years these steps saw only a waiting man and cigarette smoke.
The last time I said goodbye to him was at the coast. Thick smoke climbed from our house and the smoke smelt of burning flesh and my father became a black skeleton. I climbed up, cast a last glance at his charcoal and came away carrying life’s firewood.
Firewood? No: I believe I was carrying green shoots, too, and I and some of my friends thought that a great tree would spring from these shoots and cast shade across some beautiful place. We had other family: dreams. And even as we walked with our dreams there was, somewhere hidden, someone who hunted these dreams, which fell, like all our families.
The factories were churning out fertiliser that the farmers were supposed to take and spray over the olive groves. And as with every year the trees were waiting to be fed, their boughs bent towards the houses, watching for their owners to come home. But even as seasonal hopes declined grain by grain in the silos the fields were being deserted field by field and trees fell as their owners fell into exile, war and death. Their crowns reached towards homes they had embraced since they were small, they bowed lower and lower and dried and withered.
In these fields another beat ran through the veins of these plants, a human pulse side-by-side with that of sap, sun’s spirit and soil. There was understanding even between man and the weeds and thorns. When someone looked to the sky a plant’s eyes would lift with his. Most probably the trees would sleep when people closed their eyes. And the broom plant’s blooms, lone flower on the grasslands, would take happiness from the touch of hands. The meaning of their lives was a plant’s joy, a sheep sated, and there was no seperating their lives from what they lived from, their births echoed in the birth of livestock and the congress of flowers and the shooting green. Milk and mint were part of their bodies.
The fertiliser factory churned out pellets as though memories from the past. There was a tree there, starving, and a tree withering, and a tree burning, a tree being butchered, and a tree resisting, waiting for people who could not come, for people who had fallen on the way, for people who had left for distant lands.
At the factory gate a weed grew day by day, as though it alone delighted in the fertiliser’s life. And this weed was the last thing that I looked at as I left.
Why, though, do I remember such moments from days that to me rusty as a bullet-stitched road sign? Here I am now, on a couch in this small room, and there is some kind of dreaming, too. The past? Like someone trying to prevent passers-by stepping on their shadows.
The same window. The labourers. Clouds. Nothing changed since morning. Only the clock’s hands advanced a few minutes. I pace around the room a while. I approach the mirror. I comb my hair. I take two hairs from the comb and throw them away.
My nails are long and I should have cut them. I should have done something worthwhile. Where is the sunbeam? Not long ago it was advancing towards me and it almost touched my body. I looked at it with longing, at it crawling, at its first childhood in my house.
I look from the window. In the sky there are clouds. I think they will rain.