Remembering a Lover

Stop, and let us weep,
a lover and a campsite
where the sands twist between Dakhoul and Hawmal.
The whipping winds from north and south
have yet to efface Toudih or Mikrat,
and you can see the scat of antelopes
strewn like peppercorns
all across the sands.

When the time comes to set out again,
my friends start loading up their steeds
by the tribe’s acacias, 
but I feel like I’m splitting bitter colocynth.
“Hold firm,” my companions say, 
“don’t give in to sorrow.”

My cure: a river of tears.
But no place brings solace
now that every trace of her 
is gone.

And before her I shed such tears 
for Umm al-Huwayrith
and for Umm al-Huwayrith’s neighbor, 
Umm al-Ribab, in Ma’sal:
whenever those two women 
rose to leave me,
musk filled my nostrils
like an easterly breeze 
that bears the scent of cloves.

The tears run down my neck,
soaking my scabbard
with an ardent love.

The Virgins

I’ve spent so many sacred days 
in women’s sacred company,
especially that one day 
at the spring of Darat Juljul,
and that other day
when I slaughtered my steed
—a she-camel—
for the virgins.
They flung its meat on the flames
as I gave them the marvels it once bore
as burdens on its back.…
Its fat burned
like fringes of twisted silk.

The Litter of Unayza

And then there was the day I climbed into the litter—
the litter of Unayza.
“Shame on you,” she said
as it swayed with the weight of our bodies.
“You’ll make me dismount, Imru al-Qays. 
You’re too much for my camel—get off.”
“Keep on going,” I replied, 
“and give the reins some slack.
Don’t withhold your lavish fruit.
You’re not the first pregnant woman
I’ve visited at night,
and I’ve diverted the attention 
of countless nursing mothers
from their amuleted infants.
I remember one of them:
When the child cried behind her,
she turned her upper half
and gave her breasts to him; 
but her lower half—that
she did not shift away from me.”


And there was the day Fatima, 
on the back of a dune,
drew away from me, 
swearing an oath so strong
no one should ever break it.

Gently, Fatima, stop being so harsh.
If you have resolved to break with me, 
do it with grace.
If some way of mine has irked you
just pull my garments out from yours
and you’ll be rid of me. 
Are you proud
my love is killing me?
Are you proud
that whatever you order, I must obey?
Your angry tears are arrows
in my ravaged heart.

Fatima, I’ve dallied 
with countless women who wore the veil,
enjoyed no end 
of cloistered fair-skinned virgins. 
I’ve slipped past guards
and past whole tribes 
who, in secret,
hoped to have me killed.

When the Seven Sisters appeared in the sky
like a sash adorned with jewels, 
I came to Fatima again, found her 
by the entrance to her tent.
Already undressed for sleep, she wore nothing 
save a single undergarment. 
“By God you’re hopeless,” she scolded.
“You’ll never stop with your sinful ways.”
But still I led her out, and as we walked 
she trailed her robe of embroidered silk, erasing
our traces in the sand.

We left her tribe behind, came
to the heart of a valley: 
it was hidden from sight
by a circle of dunes. 
I held her hair at the temples
and drew her toward me. 
Her waist was slender, 
her ankles graceful.
Nimble and fair, this willowy woman 
with gleaming breasts—a chest like a mirror—
turned away, revealing
a tender cheek; shielded herself
with a cervine eye that seemed to come 
from the fertile lands of Wajara. 
She craned and looked skyward, betrayed
a neck adorned, gazelle-like in its grace. 
Her hair: blackened coals against her back,
as dark and dense as dates
clustered on the frond;
some strands strained toward the heavens, 
the knots hidden, each lock lost
between curling up and falling free.
Again her waist: a thin and graceful girdle.
Her legs: stems seeking sources in the desert sun.
In the morning, grains of musk
are always scattered on her bed:
and always she sleeps till noon,
next to naked,
not clothed for labor. 
And when she stretches her smooth and supple fingers,
they seem like sandworms from Dhabi, 
or tooth-sticks from the Is’hal tree. 
She lights up the dark with her beauty
like the lamp of an eremite
withdrawn from the world.
Even the most reserved of men
gaze on her with passions blazing: 
her proportions flawless, she’s not too young,
not too old;
and like the egg of an ostrich
nourished on sweet unsullied water,
white and yellow mix
to dye her skin.

The blind passions of men are fleeting things 
but my heart
is no molting feather: 
it will never fall 
from its love for you. 
I fought off countless rivals: 
though they came relentlessly
still I held my ground.


Night casts its veils on me
time and again
like waves of the sea—
a host of cares 
to try me. 
As it stretches its spine,
as it straightens its hind legs
to rise like a camel, 
I cry out:
“Endless night, 
won’t you clear off 
with the coming dawn?”
But dawn brings no respite. 
What a night you are—relentless,
as if the stars were pegged to Mount Yathbul 
with the strongest of ropes. 
As if cords of flax bound the Seven Sisters
to lofty stables of solid stone.

The Wolf

How many times have I set forth
with a bent back
and a waterskin slung on my shoulder? 
How many valleys have I crossed—
lands barren as an ass’s belly
where the wolf howls
in its dire need?
Once when I heard that howl
I offered a reply: 
“We’re hard up, you and I,
brothers in destitution.
Whatever we lay hold of
we soon let slip away:
Times are always lean
for those who sow like us.”

The Horse

Often I’ve risen at first light
—the birds still in their nests—
with my horse, his hair trim, 
his massive body ready
to hunt the wild game. 
How quickly he moves, 
charging forward and drawing back
as in a single motion, poised
to rush down from on high
like a torrent of stones.
His hue: the dark of wine.
His back: so slick
the saddle-felt slips from it
like raindrops off rock.
He’s fierce, though lean, 
and the sound he makes
when he sets off
is like a seething cauldron.
Quick and smooth
as flowing water, his hooves
barely touch the earth
while the other steeds stumble
and kick up dust. 
The light young rider slips from his back;
the robes of the heavyset rider who hangs on hard
are flung to the wind—
he’s that quick,
like the spinning top
that children whirl with sturdy thread.
He’s got the lithesome flanks of a gazelle,
the forceful legs of an ostrich,
the wolf’s potent stride,
the sudden spring of a fleet-footed fox.
And when he leaves you in his wake,
you’ll see his flawless tail, so thick
it fills the space between his legs,
so long
it almost touches earth.
And when he stands by the tent, his back
is as smooth as the pounding stone
for a bride’s perfume, as strong
as the stone for pungent colocynth. 
On his mane, the blood of the swiftest game
—the foremost of the herd—
looks like henna’s dark juice
on a head of clean white hair.

A herd appears. 
Like those virgin women with trailing robes 
who circle the idol of Dawar, 
the cows drag their tails behind them.
Turning to flee, they look
like the white shells and dark jewels
strung together
on the neck of a boy with noble kinsmen—
respected by the tribe.
My steed brings us swiftly to the leaders,
while far behind him
the straggling cattle, not scattering, 
huddle together. 
Bringing down both bull and cow
in a single movement,
he never breaks a sweat.
Soon the busy cooks will tend the meat:
they’ll roast some slowly, over open flames;
they’ll quickly boil the rest.

When we come back to the grateful tribe,
the people stare, awestruck by his beauty.
He spends the night with bit and saddle
still firmly on.
No willful roaming here: 
loyal, disciplined, he never strays
too far from me.

The Storm

Friend, do you see the lightning there,
forking, forming
ten glistening fingers
against the vast dark clouds?
It lights up the sky
like the lamp of a monk
pouring oil over twisted wicks. 
My companions beside me, I sit
between Darij and Uthayb
and watch it unfold from afar:
to the right, the storm 
floods the hills of Katan;
to the left,
it rains down on Mount Sitar 
and Mount Yathbul. 
It unleashes its torrents
all around Kutayfa,
flipping the massive palm trees on their beards,
then passes over Kanan, 
hurtling herds of wild goats
off every flank of the mountain. 
It leaves nothing standing on all of Mount Taima—
not a single tree,
no structures either,
save those built with solid stone. 
And Mount Thabeer stands there 
in the middle of the onslaught: 
a venerable leader
wrapped in gray-streaked robes.

When it’s over, 
rubble covers Mujaymir’s highest peak—
tattered wool on a spindle’s tip. 
And like some Yemeni merchant
alighting with a wealth of goods,
the storm left its load
all across the desert of al-Ghabeet.

In the morning, the birds of the valley
sing with such spirit 
you’d think they’d drunk a draft
of the strongest peppered wine. 
And in the evening, the drowned beasts
float far and wide, uprooted
like wild onions.

Translated from Classical Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

The translator would like to dedicate this translation to the late Egyptian poet Farouk Shousha (1936-2016), who encouraged him to translate all of the Hanging Poems into English. 

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Autumn 2023

Issue 106

The Autumn 2023 issue includes four new poems by featured author Michael Hofmann, as well as new work by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Monica Youn, Luke Kennard, Glyn Maxwell, Cindy Juyoung Ok, Jesse Nathan, and leena aboutaleb. Also in the issue are poems originally written in Arabic, Czech, Greek, Nüshu, and Spanish, among which a long-awaited fresh take on ‘The Hanging Poem of Imru al-Qays’ by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and five new poems by Homero Aridjis as translated by Forrest Gander. This bumper issue also introduces an expanded offering of prose with Dan O’Brien on the defiant and redemptive power of confessional writing and Rachel Hadas on translating Ovid and finding comfort in a world plagued by apathy and disaster. Our interviews section sees Kostya Tsolakis in conversation with Harris Otabasis and Nikolas Koutsodontis, the editors of the Anthology of Greek Queer Poetry, while Sohini Basak interviews Meena Kandasamy. The reviews section sports criticism by Tarn MacArthur, Aliyah Begum, Lily McDermott, and Tristram Fane Saunders.
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