City of fragments

Fawzi Karim – Incomprehensible Lesson (Carcanet, 2019)

I will not pretend in this review to know much of anything about Iraqi poetry or the Arabic language. Karim, who was compelled to leave Iraq due to the dangerous ideological conflicts of the 1960s, and ended up in London via Lebanon, was a well-regarded artist and music critic as well as a poet. I’ll start this review with an excerpt from Fawzi Karim’s obituary, written by his translator Anthony Howell [1]:

Fawzi would often complain that Arabic poetry suffered from a desire to spell out a message, but in his poetry, meaning is what emerges from the language, rather than a preordained attempt at communication.

I’d like to take up Howell on that point. One of the most arresting poems in this book is called ‘The Forgotten City’, and goes like this:

Late afternoon. The houses shaded.

No, it’s pencil strokes of rain.

The birds have flown, their nests abandoned.


Echoes of footfalls … leaves in a whirl …

Once a scorcher burnt the wrist of this metropolis.

Now it has cooled to a bracelet of silver

Worn just once, an age ago, by some forgetful girl.

I notice that this poem avoids entirely the rhetorical invocation of great lost cities as might be expected from the theme. Rather the city is built up from precise, detailed fragments connected by association – the pencil strokes, the burn and the bracelet.

In another poem, ‘The Crack’, a mysterious female figure (‘She appeared to me naked, / Kohl on her eyes, / Lips made red by a pomegranate’s peel, / Palm pollen powdered on her cheeks,’) staggers down the pavement and smashes the poem’s narrator ‘like a pitcher’. The woman herself becomes pieces of a mirror (‘I stared into these, and at my shattered visage, / Trying to grasp the whole from the splinter.’)

And things continue to fall apart. In ‘Black Ink’, ‘Ink from my books, shelf upon shelf of them, / Pours down the curtains. / Every book is an overturned inkwell.’

I found these waves of fragmentation and dissolution compelling. This, I must stress, is very far from a book of misery – many of the broken parts assembled on the page are cheerful and pleasant. There are some amiable wanders around London, and warm childhood memories:

At the hour of sunset, autumn clouds

                  are scattered sheep drifting towards the distance.

The six stalks of our feet dangle over the lip

                  of the clay oven.

We hang around like that, eat warm bread,

                  while counting the sheep of the days we have left:

Happy days that remain before we’re packed off to school.

I found myself wondering about this author’s lived experience of exile, which in his case was very much the real deal, and the resultant fragmentary consciousness related in the poetry, in connection with the fragmentary practice of, well, most of the canonical high modernist poets.

In contemporary debates about poetry there is a faction who maintain that those high modernists represent a dead end, with their heaps of difficult wreckage; that the lineage of T.S. Eliot through C.H. Sisson and Geoffrey Hill are engaged in an exclusive game that shuts out the reader, that it doesn’t really represent lived experience.

Well, here we have an interesting counter. I wouldn’t want to speak for people who have had to undertake such shattering moves, but plainly the condition applies to many lives (ask a taxi driver, ask a dentist, ask a barber, poet, etc), and the poems of Fawzi Karim stand as evidence that there is in fact a real lived experience which fragmentary poetry recognises on paper and in language. Though I don’t think I shall do much more than suggest that – one suspects Iraqi poets can do without being ‘recruited’.

I’d recommend the book.

I’ve also been following up other Iraqi expatriate writers. I found a way in through an old event page for the Poetry Café’s Iraqi Poetry Night [2] – an event which, as the website says, has passed, but nonetheless the page is still there. The Poetry Translation Centre also hosts a selection of Iraqi poems in translation [3].

– Christophe Riesco 





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