Sep 4, 2022

Perdition (trans and intro by Sara ElKamel)

Roses take their own life
above the rim of my bed
as my mother
tries to tuck me into the desert of life


In the courtyard of my soul
is a small devil;
a newborn


Another ship
the ocean’s larynx


The moon spills a cloud
into the sky’s breast


Ideas drown in a spasm
and the poem lays crucified
over the notepad’s knees


The night is strangled
by a choker of stars


A tear
attempts martyrdom
out of my eye’s abyss


Running through Mona Kareem’s three Arabic collections of poetry is an undeniable solitude, captured in portrait after portrait of the poet herself, of nameless cities, and of women protagonists who seem to have been forsaken by the world. Presented in a remarkably lyric voice, Kareem’s work holds up mirrors – of varying degrees of lucidity – to the many selves, as well as the bodies, of her subjects. The images that we see reflected strike a memorable balance between the visible and the conceptual, the tangible and the surreal.

The poems I have translated from What I Sleep For Today (Nova Plus Publishing and Distribution, 2016), namely ‘Souvenirs’ and ‘Perdition’, illustrate the poet’s intentional conflation of the body and the world around it – both material and immaterial. Everything becomes a body – has a body – in her poems, even the poem itself. The ocean has an asphyxiating larynx, the speaker’s eye is an abyss, and ‘the poem lays crucified | over the notepad’s knees’.

Written more and a decade earlier, while Kareem was still a teen, the poem ‘Cities Dying Every Day’, from the collection Absence with Amputated Fingers (Dar Sharqiyat, 2004), is a kind of elegy for cities. Like many of her poems, this one presents us with an individual experience in an indifferent, or perhaps even an unkind, city – one that wishes to excavate even our lungs. The speaker here, and recurrently across her oeuvre, seems to be in a state, at once, of terror, and of extreme loneliness; she is abandoned even by autumn.

* Modern Poetry in Translation - Issue no. 2 of  2022

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