This brief, beautiful love poem captures the sense of expectation with which we greet a new year
This week's poem, and one to welcome in the new year, is "Breathless" by the Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi. It's translated from the Arabic by Sarah Maguire, a fine poet as well as translator, whose original collections include The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto), shortlisted for the 2007 TS Eliot Award. Poems, her translations of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's work, made in collaboration with Sabry Hafez, was published by Enitharmon Press in association with the Poetry Translation Centre in 2008.
The Centre, which Maguire founded and directs, is a wonderful resource for the poetry of significant writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The poems featured appear in triple text - so you can read Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's original poem in Arabic, and turn to a literal English translation by Hafiz Kheir. The website features a substantial number of poems by Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi.
He was born in 1969 in Omdurman, Khartoum. His poetry achieved popularity and critical acclaim while he was still a teenager, and he had already established an international reputation when he was invited to London to represent Sudan in the 2012 Olympic Games-inspired celebration, Poetry Parnassus. The timing couldn't have been luckier. Although declining the title of political activist when interviewed by the Guardian's Richard Lea in 2006, the poet was considered sufficient political threat to be stripped of the post of cultural editor of the newspaper Al-Sudani, which he'd held for many years, during the anti-government uprising in July 2012. Many arrests occurred during the period, and it's highly likely that he would have faced imprisonment.
"Breathless" is a love-poem – tender, direct and almost shy in tone. Like the short lyrics and fragments by Sappho it gains intensity from brevity. Sappho often pairs frank emotional statement with imagery from the natural world: "Love shook my heart,/ Like the wind on the mountain/ Troubling the oak-trees." (Sappho, tr. A S Kline). "Breathless", too, begins with the human response: "Your heart thumps -". Grammatically, the poem could be addressing someone else, but that insider knowledge about the excitedly thumping heart suggests an interior address, a speaker talking to and about himself.
"Thumps" is a dense, almost physically heavy verb, and it's probably the most strongly accented word in the poem – and certainly in the first six lines. The ensuing rhythms are lighter and airier, with three unstressed line-endings ("already", "expecting her," "window.") There's an interesting grammatical shift, from the past subjunctive mood ("as if she were already/ at your door") to an unexpected indicative when the birds "arrive to clamour at your window." The dramatic descent of "all the birds in the midday sky" is magnified by the shift, and the more significant arrival, hers, foreshadowed. Avoiding the cliche of the fluttering heart, the poem clearly means the birds to symbolise heightened excitement and unanimous purpose. Kheir's more literal (but still poetic) translation describes the birds "gathering/ to line up at your window." The birds seem to be "expecting her" and, in Maguire's version, clamouring rather than lining up, they themselves have turned into expectations.
"An age of patience" suggests its opposite, the impatiently waiting lover, for whom time stretches immeasurably. Stony deferral is contrasted with nervous movement and urgency - "A forest of fluttering". The loved one is already imaginatively present, and yet still awaited. The speaker notes the difficulty of the wait with a touch of gracefully comic exaggeration ("An age…").
"Breathless" is not originally a stanzaic poem, but the use of stanzas, as well as dashes, heightens the sense of what it is to be out of breath and lost for words. In a mystery familiar to love poets, there's always something that tries to escape both honest realism and complex metaphor. It may be expressed in a poem's silences – as here. A row of ellipses separates the last "couplet" from the rest of the poem. The reader is free to fill in the dotted line – or not. It literally makes us wait, and helps visualise for us that "age of patience". It also emphasises the antithetical connection of the last two lines,
Without knowing Arabic, it's impossible to discuss the original poem, or, with any authority, the processes which brought it to its final English version. A translation must convince us fully in the new language. If translation is a journey it's also an art of home-making, of settling rather than trapping a poem in a new linguistic space so that, while it brings with it something new and unfamiliar, there's no sense of dislocation. Here, the image of "all the birds in the midday sky" might evoke an African setting: a bluer, hotter sky than England's, a richer medley of birds. At the same time, there's a faint echo of Edward Thomas's "Adlestrop" and the domesticity of "all the birds/ Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire". This is one of the strange miracles of translation. When a poem journeys into a new language, it's reborn contextually. There are losses and gains, but, in a translation which has become a convincing new poem, as here, any loss remains invisible.
Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi's own journey, to date, ends hopefully. He was granted asylum in the UK, and spent a period funded by the Arts Council of England as Writer in Residence at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. The poems he wrote during the residency should be ready for publication in the spring of 2013. You can follow the progress of this new work and its translation by signing up to the PTC's mailing-list.
Meanwhile, join me in wishing Saddiq happiness and fulfilment in his new life in 2013.
Your heart thumps -
as if she were already
at your door.
Or - as if expecting her -
all the birds in the midday sky
arrive to clamour at your window.
An age of patience.
A forest of fluttering.