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Poetry

Remembering the Dead

"Who will speak for the buried, those flayed, those hung, those thrown in mass graves?"

Book Cover North African expatriate writer Tahar Ben Jelloun (The Blinding Absence of Light) is well-regarded in his adopted home of France (awarded a Prix Goncourt in 1987) and around the world, having garnered an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004 (one impressive aspect of this award is that the long list of nominees is assembled by polling those unacknowledged legislators: librarians). He is a novelist, essayist, journalist, and, no small thing, an engaging polemicist. Having his fiction on my bookshelves and thus some passing familiarity, I had not known Ben Jelloun to engage in poetics.

A shameful gap in my cultural literacy or something else? No matter. The estimable publisher City Lights has offered up a bilingual edition of The Rising of the Ashes (translated from the French by Cullen Goldblatt.) It is interesting how the substitution of a preposition (“of” instead of “from”) powerfully shifts the meaning of the title. Appropriately so, as this slender volume contains two long (or as some like to say, epic) poems, one focused on the first (U.S.-engaged, aka Desert Storm) Gulf War, and the second on the horrible events coincident with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983 and the genocidal involvement of the IDF (events effectively recounted in the brave Israeli film and graphic novel Waltz with Bashir).

Cullen Golblatt’s Translator’s note offers this conclusion:
The Rising of the Ashes makes a place for grief, as well as for rage and questions and careful description. The poems follow their own imperative—to speak where there is silence, injustice, death—yet they allow for another silence, one that makes mourning possible. I suspect that silence might be as necessary to us as Ben Jalloun’s words.
In a preface to the two poems, Ben Jalloun declaims:
Tomorrow, men, stripes of braid on their shoulders, medals on their chests, with the berets of generals and marshals, will come to gather before a map. Calmly, coolly, they will decide to advance their troops here, or there, invading a country, massacring civilians, and this will occur with utter impunity since those who have caused the suffering will then come together once again, before the same map, to end what they call the “hostilities.”

And the world will go on breathing as it has done for millions of years.

Who will speak for the buried, those flayed, those hung, those thrown in mass graves?

The armies will make them into a tidy parcel, an abstraction on which they will inscribe the word, “Martyrs.” And then we will forget. Necessarily.

Poetry will content itself with being here, being said as a prayer, in silence, in the contemplation grief provides.

Our need to speak is without measure, even if our words, taken by the wind, bash themselves against mountains until they are senseless, until they open holes in the rock and shift the heavy stones of insomnia.
In a bow to a quote often attributed to Edmund Burke1, Ben Jalloun explains his motives:
I came to poetry through the urgent need to denounce injustice, exploitation, humiliation. I know that’s not enough to change the world. But to remain silent would have been a kind of intolerable complicity.
(Silence.)

1”The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.”
biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum

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