I have been following the releases of A Midsummer Night’s Press primarily because they publish queer and trans poetry, Jewish poetry, and the intersections of the two. But they also publish an amount of poetry in translation that falls into neither of those rubrics but is interesting to me nonetheless. This is one such volume, and one I had the opportunity to read just before the publication date. You can now buy the book, and yes, you might want to do so!
A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know, by Golan Haji. Translated by Stephen Watts & Golan Haji. A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2017.
Golan Haji, the author is a Kurdish Syrian poet who writes in Arabic, and who has left his country of origin in 2011 (he currently lives in France). This is his first English-language collection, but previously he has been published in Italian, and he has had an amount of shorter poems appear in English translation – as far as I can tell, these have been mostly included in this book.
These poems are rich in imagery and have that kind of flow that I associate with Arabic (and Hebrew!) poetry in translation. The translation is smooth and does not get in the way; there was maybe one line in the entire lengthy book where I felt the sentence was a bit suboptimal.
Yes, this is a lengthy book – don’t be misled by the fact that it is only 62 pages long: the poems are dense and many prose poems are also included in the collection. I for one could not rush through it: I read it in three different sittings and even that felt a bit fast. I had to go back and savor some of the earlier poems.
One reason why you will probably not want to rush is that one of the most prominent themes of the collection is death. Sometimes capital-D Death. It is a topic that the poems always return to circle around, and it is always there in the background even if it’s not the main focus.
While I thought from the promo material that this would be a tightly migration-focused book, migration-related issues do appear, but often in a very abstract way. There are birds presaging death, all manner of things crumbling, ships bringing death to coasts.
“The rescue boats became coffin lids
and only the coffin lids survived” (The Child’s Regret)
One of the poems tackling these topics relatively directly is the absolutely stunning epic piece “Mr. Nobody Listening to His Own Story at the Cour of King Alcinous”.
“They told us metaphors that we found laughable,
we heard that a wound is a window & a mirror,
in which a white hand waves while we pause to rest in its shade, but photographers hunt us
down like snipers.”
(I would be inclined to draw a distant parallel with a poem of a different modern conflict, the Bosnian war – “Death is a Job” by Semezdin Mehmedinović.)
But often there is the crushing weight of abstraction: “Consciousness is indeed obscene.” (Snow) And this abstraction transposed to landscapes that have a constrictive, ominous sense of surrealism to them, calling Magritte’s paintings to mind.
“At this moment, the man is suspended in mid-air like a diver or a foetus, his body a ball, and nothing is holding him in place; around him small leaves and fruits are dropping from the beak of birds that are flying above him, though we cannot see them.” (A Light in Water)
Family appears, often in the context of loss and pain, but sometimes related to childhood and innocence – or both at the same time:
“I am my happiness and my dereliction.
I open the book and close it and open it again,
freeing in a small victory
the door of a grave
I pull tight on my self
like a child hiding away in a closet.” (The Lock)
All in all this book is poignant and will stay with you, but you will want to know going in that it is by no means a light read. That’s not a weakness; it’s a strength. I think this book achieves exactly what it was meant to achieve. Sometimes the world is like that, and you see it like that. There is grimness and death and also birds and spiders and trees whose names you don’t know.
Disclosures: Source of the book: print reviewer ARC from the publisher. I don’t know the author and the translator at all.
Content notices: Death, destruction, persecution, war, it is all meant to be upsetting. There is some ableist language but not a main focus.
Buy the book: Also directly from the publisher with free shipping (!)