فوزي كريم 

Fawzi Karim



  Fawzi Karim: Six poems



Before you go to bed you insist on switching the lights off
and double checking, by touch, in the darkness, that you locked the door
and that you pulled down the shades.
You jump like a cat climbing the stairs
and creep into your bed,
and dream -

that the book you were reading at your desk
is being opened again in the darkness:
other fingers turn its pages;
another eye keeps an eternal watch
over the roiling emptiness between the lines . . .


Hundreds of masked soldiers pass into our eulogies
like the draught of cold air into a cave.
Disguised, they enter our tributes,
dishevelled, rusted for ages, barefoot.
They have woven a history like a fishnet
that has unravelled in stagnant water.
And the rust has grown over their fingers and elbows.

My house is populated by moments
that have the shapes of books, papers, paintings.
A touch can stir all.
Sometimes a wind approaches,
and sometimes a soldier may cross.


In front of the Gardenia's locked door,
a middle-aged man with the look of a retired man
is waiting.
I also am a middle-aged man, just returned from exile.
I squat a few feet from him,
and without wasting much time, I ask:
"Do you know when it opens?"
"Gardenia Bar was my hangout before the war. I used to have my own corner
with my companions around me.
After the war, oblivion folded it.
But I have been coming here for a long time
waiting each day for its door to open."

He stretched a hand out, holding a rolled cigarette,
and I stretched a hand to take the cigarette.
And smoke spread, hiding two men
waiting at the locked door
on the sidewalk of Abu Nuwas Street*.

*   Abu Nuwas Street was one of the busiest and most important in Baghdad, well-known for its clubs and taverns. It runs parallel to the river Tigris.


Why do I alone write letters every month?
I try to respond to your silence,
pretending that your silence is more eloquent
than my words.
Every month I add to your name 
all that I love of your traits:
Dear lady of longing, dear jasmine, and dear flowers that encircle gardens
until my windowpane gathers dew from a mouth's vapour. 
Sighs of the lady of longing?
But it was night, breaths of cold night wind.
So I finish the letters.

After thirty days, I try to respond to your silence again
pretending that your silence is more eloquent 
than my words.

On one side, my always departing letters;
on the other side, your silence. 
And between them 
the earth and the sun keep rotating.
Even histories are chronicled in the names of these two,
the one in writing and the other in silence,
while empires rise and fall.


I try to paint al-Husairy* with a single oil brush and a few colours: 
The first is the colour of his forehead, which is the most intimate among his colours.
Then the gloominess of his overcoat
where over its horizon a black bird floats 
with two bushy wings. 
I was hoping to seek help from the colours of his wine
in order to light up two windows in his eyes and the tip of the nose.
But his glass of wine has a locked colour that refuses to respond 
to a single oil brush
and a few colours. 
I have been trying for two days
but his overcoat covers the entire horizon.
I left it gloomy
with its two bushy wings, restive forever, 
and I switched the light off.

*  Born into a religious family in the holy city of Najaf, al-Husairy eventually became a prominent poet who chose to live as a homeless iconoclast. He died in 1977. 


Three poems about the river Tigris

1   The Cliff

The waves withdraw from the bank
revealing my father's shadow
in his canoe,
revealing a vein like the veins of a hand
fossilized in the familiar cliff:
In green pottery, seals, and a mud tablet,
Hamlets blurred in the moss,
a muted voice in the conches
telling about the hoof beats of the unknown.
Echoes vibrate in a shell . . .
and the waves return, like a pendulum, to dally with the bank.

2   A Vision

Both of them are concerned
and cautious
("Would you like to drink a toast for those who have vanished, O so-and-so?"
"I have had enough of mendacity . . ."),
and they leave.

I see them like the summer's scent over the water,
raising a throne for the night of the body.
I see the palm leaves like diadems on their foreheads,
and I see mulberry branches around their waists.
I stretch my hands out: This is my youth,
or delusion . . . 
or Memory's clamour.

I see them like shrines around the fireplace,
and I hear their voices like votive candles
on the waves sending their trembling longing
to me . . .
And sleep overcomes:
(what has remained
for the Tigris except for the burning of the roots
and the mouth of the abyss
and a warning voice that roars - -
Water and the drowned
Water and the drowned
Water and the drowned . . . )

3   Or Because I am Far Away

If I were not a desire - like your waves that never settle,
or an apparition, behind the veil, on both of your banks,
what else could I be?
And you, Tigris, as you have always been my father's house
and my vigilance against strangers,
why do I presume that your waterway is a symbol
invented by others
and that your Babylonian alluvium is false evidence
and your voice pure fabrication?
Is it for fear of seeing the path narrower than what I think?

Dust . . . dust
and the glass turns upside down.
Is there a voice behind the wall?
And the poem therefore slips out of my hand?
Or is it because I am so far away,
echoing myself:
a mere resonance of a distant land?


A soldier at the front,
an unknown man in the tavern,
a young woman spinning in a cocoon the sickness of love,
and a woman running after a train in a mirror.

An old man stumbles along a deserted road.
A maelstrom of humanity
never calms down in the forests of the cities.

And I cloister myself in my past,
in an alley at the Karkh* of the dead.
Shall I enter it, 
vanish into it, and dwell there in every house?

* al-Karkh is a part of Baghdad on the western sideof the Tigris, where the poet was born and grew up

Translated by Saadi Simawe with Melissa Brown from poems as yet unpublished in Arabic. They are republished here from Banipal No 19


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