Adonis’s Songs of Mihyar the Damascene is the central book of poems in modern Arabic literature. Published in 1961, its status in Arabic is comparable to The Waste Land in English or Duino Elegies in German. (Adonis collaborated on a translation of Eliot’s long poem while writing Mihyar). Like those works of European high modernism, Adonis’s collection is poetry of large and explicit ambitions. It evokes classical, Koranic, and Biblical sources on almost every page, even when announcing its own originality. It is a work of visionary exultation and powerful melancholy. It imagines a world of blight and barrenness and picks through the ruins for hints of resurrection.
At the heart of Adonis’s book is the grandly inscrutable figure of Mihyar. “He has no ancestors, his roots are in his footsteps,” intones the opening “Psalm.” The myth of a hero who emerges from his own self-conception is central to Mihyar’s persona, but no literary figure can escape precursors. Many critics have noted Mihyar’s resemblance to the eleventh-century poet, Mihyar al-Daylami, a Zoroastrian convert to Shiism whose poems were celebrated and censored for their extravagant metaphors (extravagant even by the standards of classical Arabic). Others have pointed to Nietzsche’s immoralist prophet, Zarathustra, who preached the death of God, the coming of the superman, and the eternal return of the same. Mihyar is certainly a figure of extravagance. “He is the physics of things, he knows them and gives them names he does not divulge.” And Mihyar is clearly a heretical prophet. He rejects the very premise of monotheism and is as likely to spurn his flock as to give it counsel. When he does speak, he doesn’t offer parables or warnings, but rather fragments of apocalyptic lyricism:
Tomorrow, tomorrow in fire and spring
You’ll know I’m the slayer of flocks,
You’ll know I’m the sower of seeds,
Tomorrow, tomorrow you’ll see me with
your own two eyes.
(“Your Eyes Didn’t See Me”)
Mihyar travels through landscapes of dust and desolation. He lives, he says, in “an age that crumbles like sand,” “an age of submission and mirage,” “an age in perpetual decline.” But if the old world and its dispensations are dead or dying, traces of it still survive in Mihyar’s language—in the high pitch of its rhetoric, the measured cadences of its lines, the blunt force of its abstractions. The skillful translations of Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Ivan Eubanks, attuned to majesty as well as the meanings of Adonis’s poems, allow us to hear these strains of modernist liturgy for the first time in English:
He advances beneath a mound of clouds
In a climate of unfamiliar letters,
Bestowing his poetry on downcast winds,
Coarse and enchanting like copper,
A language rippling among the masts,
The knight of strange words.
(“The Knight of Strange Words”)
Lurking in the background of Adonis’s collection is an old and heretical dream, one that periodically springs to life through the history of Arabic literature: the dream of writing poetry that rivals the Koran in beauty and perfection. The eleventh-century skeptic Abu ‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri, whose verse Adonis has helped to translate into French, set himself this task in the homiletic fragments of his Kitab al-fusul wa-l-ghayat (The Book of Middles and Ends). Some forty years after writing Mihyar, Adonis published the three volumes of al-Kitab (The Book), an enormous poem-qua-history (as yet untranslated into English) whose title makes its ambitions clear: with a definite article and no qualification, al-kitab is a synonym for the Koran. So it’s no surprise that Mihyar’s typical accoutrements are pens, ink, and notebooks. From the shipwreck of history, he rescues the remnants of literature.
Not just rescues—transforms. The pages of Mihyar are full of retellings, in which traditional stories are reversed or complicated. In one of the collection’s best-known poems, “The New Noah,” the mythical sailor and seed-bearer—a figure common to all three monotheistic faiths—decides not to renew mankind’s covenant with God. Instead of making land, he steers his ship back to sea and dives beneath the waves, communing with the unbelievers whom God has attempted to exterminate. In “Shaddad,” the city of Iram, named in the Koran as a site of mankind’s impenitence (an analogue of sorts to Sodom an Gomorrah), becomes a locus of heroic dissent. And in the suite of short elegies at the collection’s close, Adonis traces a genealogy of classical poets who were censored and executed by the authorities of their time, inserting himself into their company. This type of revisionary rereading is a trademark of Adonis’s poetry and criticism. Many of his books are exploratory digs into Arab and Islamic history, from which he extracts resources for the present.
Because the language of Mihyar is so often ceremonial and opaque—the poems read at first like sermons delivered in the style of French symbolism—it is easy to miss its playful side. The world of these poems is built from a relatively small number of nouns: clouds, mirrors, stones, lightning bolts, eyelids. These thing-words are repeated so often they acquire a kind of hieroglyphic solidity. We seem to be in the allegorical world of medieval etchings, where each object points toward a conventional meaning we can only dimly understand. But Mihyar’s world is not the fixed and frozen world of allegory. Instead, it is one of continual transformation. Mihyar, “the physics of things,” is a principle of flux; his world is one in which all hierarchies are on the verge of reversal. The thrill of reading these poems doesn’t come from deciphering them, but rather from the discovery of a world whose elements change before our eyes, in which a stone can become an idol, a mirror, or a page of verse:
I worship this tranquil stone;
I saw my face in its lines,
I saw my lost poetry in it.
Many of the poems collected in Mihyar were initially published in the legendary magazine Shi‘r (Poetry), a Beirut-based quarterly founded in 1957, which set the terms of poetic modernism in Arabic. Beirut had recently become the hub of intellectual life in the Arab world, a refuge with weak censorship laws for disaffected thinkers from across the region. During the quarter century before the outbreak of civil conflict in 1975, Beirut was home to every strain of intellectual and political life in the region, from the Communist left to the Fascist right. Shi‘r magazine did its best to eschew these debates. It hewed to a peculiarly midcentury notion of what poetic modernism was—an austere ideal of artistic heroism, aesthetic abstraction, and the avoidance of ideology. Shi‘r didn’t traffic in cultural criticism and went out of its way to avoid political debates, though one might argue this aloofness is itself a characteristic attitude of liberal politics. The Shi‘r poets’ ostensible lack of ideology put them at odds with their peers in Beirut and around the region, where engagé poetry of the nationalist or Marxist sort was de rigeur. The Adamic isolation of Mihyar is a pointed response to the verse of these more militant poets, who tended to heroize collectives rather than individuals, and who imagined that poetry could awaken the masses.
The modernist poets at Shi‘r were hardly political naifs. Many of the magazine’s editors, including Adonis, once belonged to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a grouping that envisaged a “Greater Syria” encompassing Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. Adonis’s earliest poetry, much of it uncollected even in Arabic, delves into Near Eastern myth (“Adonis” is the Hellenic name for the Babylonian deity Tammuz) and heralds the rebirth of this idealized Syria. His militancy resulted in exile in 1956 and left him with a lasting suspicion of nationalist styles of thought. In cosmopolitan Beirut, Adonis and his fellow modernists hoped to escape into the international scene of modernist art. Shi‘r magazine published a striking amount of poetry in translation. The first issue included an Arabic version of Ezra Pound’s first Canto (i.e., the English translation of a Latin translation of Homer), and subsequent numbers included translations of poems by Dickinson, Rilke, Eliot, Valéry, Michaux, Lorca, and Octavio Paz. In his later career, Adonis translated the works of Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy into Arabic. His encounter with Perse, in particular, is felt in the ecstatic solemnity of Mihyar’s“Psalms.”
Songs of Mihyar the Damascene echoes with a dizzying range of voices, classical and contemporary, familiar and foreign. Adonis’s poetry has always rejected any airtight notion of culture or epoch. One might say that Mihyar’s originality ultimately lies in his radical openness to so many historical influences and confluences. Mihyar’s “songs” are at once psalms, new testaments, and Koranic retellings. The landscape he strides through is a compost of faiths and histories, shaped by the Barada and Euphrates rivers, dotted with Sufi tekkes and Christian churches, overlooked by Beirut’s Mount Sannine. Over the whole scene ring out the bells of reckoning. This is, in other words, a recognizably Syrian landscape, though the Syria of our own time is infinitely bleaker and more broken. In the face of today’s violent fractures, sectarian and otherwise, it is worth emphasizing the generous syncretism of Adonis’s early and best verse. These are poems of transitions and translations, ruin and renewal, of things turning ceaselessly into other things. Here they are, reborn into English.
Robyn Creswell teaches comparative literature at Yale University and is the translator of Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell and Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images and The Tongue of Adam.
Introduction from Songs of Mihyar the Damascene, by Adonis, translated by Kareem Abu Zeid and Ivan Eubanks © New Directions.